Through the miracle of interlibrary loan, I acquired a copy of THE WORLDS OF BACK TO THE FUTURE: Critical Essays on the Films, edited by Sorcha Ni Fhlainn (and out from my film-book publisher, McFarland) to see if it had some insights I could use. While some essays fell outside my interest (the analysis of the trilogy’s musical elements) and some I disagreed with, I found an number of interesting points that may make their way into the book.
A running theme in the essays is that the films are a reflection of the Reaganite 1980s: they share a sunny optimism that with grit and pluck we can transform our whole lives and our community. And the 1950s were a happy utopia, without the corruption of the present (so the 1985 adult cinema is showing wholesome Westerns 30 years earlier). A couple of the essays go overboard (I don’t think the first film opens in the morning to capture Reagan’s “morning in America” slogan) but overall I think the argument makes sense.
A slightly more relevant point is that although the trilogy ends with Doc assuring Marty he and Jennifer can now write their own future, that’s not actually true for the rest of the town. The futures of everyone else around have been transformed repeatedly without their consent, first by Marty at the end of BTF, then briefly by Biff in BTF2. And while Marty undoes Biff’s dystopian future, he leaves the changes from the first film intact, treating that as the “real” timeline (as one essay points out, Marty enjoys the ultimate kid fantasy, turning his parents into cooler versions).
Related to that point is the sexism. Marty’s mom Lorraine is literally destined to become a wife and mother and whether that role is happy or not is apparently 100 percent out of her hands. When George is a wimpy nerd she falls for out of nurturing instinct, Lorraine ends up an alcoholic and a prude. After George becomes a Real Man in BTF, saving Lorraine from rape and beating up Biff, Lorraine is still a suburban mom but a happy one.
As for Jennifer, Marty’s girlfriend, her agency is limited to being a supportive girlfriend when Marty feels insecure. While she goes into the future with him and Doc at the end of the first film, when the creators follow it up with a sequel, they write her out of the action (according to the book, they’d never have sent her into the future if they’d planned a sequel from the first). She spends the rest of the next two films sleeping off Doc’s gas.
There’s lots more interesting stuff, such as an analysis of how Marty fits in the classic eighties teen movie. This prompted me to realize the first film also fits the mode of time-travel teen films: insecure hero, hurled back in time, gains life lessons and grows up, returns with new confidence. Another essay discusses how the first film plays the oedipal scene for laughs, which had me reflecting on how other films have someone boffing an ancestor or descendant (Time Rider, Kate & Leopold, Trancers).
While it’s a little too BTF-centric to add to my film-reference collection, it was definitely worth reading.
(All rights to cover image with current holders)