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On July 3, 1985, Marty McFly skated into American theaters. Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis, then became a summer box-office win that spawned multiple sequels and propelled Michael J. Fox’s career. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
It’s easy to see why Universal executives were so excited by Back to the Future. The movie isn’t just fun. It’s fun at the speed of light, a whiz-bang time-travel adventure likely to result in some decidedly high-octane box-office dollars. The most modest of Steven Spielberg’s recent forays into production (the second this summer alone, after Goonies), Back to the Future is also one of the best, due in no small measure to the dandy direction of Robert Zemeckis, whose gift for off-center comic characterizations injects a welcome note of human comedy into the customary high-tech surroundings.
The script, by Zemeckis and longtime partner Bob Gale, concerns a Northern California teenager (Family Ties‘ Michael J. Fox, who replaced original lead Eric Stoltz midway through production) who takes refuge from his oddball domestic world — a sort of suburban Addams Family — in the company of a certifiably nutty professor (Christopher Lloyd at his scene-stealing best). When the good doctor soups up a DeLorean into a plutonium-powered time-mobile, the kid embarks on the ride of his life — back into 1955, where he unexpectedly encounters his own now-adolescent parents.
It’s every kid’s fantasy come true, and Zemeckis exploits its possibilities with delicious abandon, deriving considerable humor from the situation’s unseen generation gap. There’s even shades of an Oedipal It’s a Wonderful Life as the hero gamely fends off advances from his own future mother (delicately played by Lea Thompson) in a frantic attempt to ensure that his tamperings with the past have little bearing on his immediate future.
The confusion makes for plenty of action (notably one dizzying sequence where Fox “invents” a skateboard and uses it to flee from a gang of ’50s toughs), but this is at heart a gentler, less noisy endeavor than most Spielberg enterprises, brimming with fond nostalgia and people with the same sort of goofy supporting characters as past, more underrated Zemeckis efforts like Used Cars. Spielberg gets executive producer credit, but it’s Zemeckis’ movie all the way.
There are occasional lapses in the general lightheartedness — the Libyan terrorists who set the main plot in motion are hardly a laughing matter these days. But there’s simply too much fun on hand to be particularly spoiled.
Adding to the pleasure is an attractive, energetic young cast, led by the appealing Fox, easily one of the more intelligent-looking young actors to cross a screen recently. As his soon-to-be mom, Thompson walks a hilarious line between diffidence and lust, and Crispin Glover is nerdism personified as her reluctant beau, with Thomas F. Wilson suitably menacing as a town bully who gets a gratifying comeuppance. But it’s Christopher Lloyd who walks away with the movie in a gloriously uncontrolled, fright-wigged performance that redefines the mad scientist for modern movie audiences.
The film’s period trappings are rendered with Life-magazine authenticity by production designer Lawrence G. Paull and crisply captured by cinematographer Dean Cundey, both of whom collaborated with Zemeckis on last year’s Romancing the Stone. Editors Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas maintain a lightning pace throughout that rarely sacrifices plot and character for speed. From its uproarious, Rube Goldberg-esque opening sight gag to its race-against-time finale, Back to the Future remains a trip worth returning to. — Kirk Ellis
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