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Back to the Future, Universal Pictures, 1985
Stories & Ideas

Tue 08 Dec 2020

Edit Line: Back to the Future – A time machine

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Matt Millikan

Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

Like the typical American teenager in the 1980s, cars are essential to Robert Zemeckis’ 'Back to the Future'.

Before the famous DeLorean is even glimpsed in Back to the Future, cars – and their associated ideas of status and freedom – feature heavily. Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) lustily watches a tricked-out 4x4 towed by in the street, which he imagines 'someday' taking to the lake with his girlfriend Jennifer (in the meantime, he has to settle for borrowing his parents' car), and he hitches himself to car bumpers to tail surf home on his skateboard. His parents Lorraine and George even met when Lorraine’s father hit George with his car back in the 1950s.

So, it seems like automobiles and romance are intrinsically linked in the McFly family. Unfortunately for Marty, when he gets home he sees the family car being towed into the driveway, totaled. There goes his lake date with Jennifer. To make matters worse, when he gets inside he hears his father's supervisor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) complaining that George shouldn't have lent him the car knowing it had a blind spot. Instead of standing up for himself, McFly senior rolls over and lets Biff off for ruining the car, which leaves Marty cringing at his father's cowardice. The state of the car literally symbolises Marty's dad and his want for a stronger masculine role model.

Lucky he's got another father figure in Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who shows up for the first time in the film with his trusty canine companion Einstein and an out-of-this-world DeLorean.

Perhaps mimicking the Soviets during the space race, who launched dogs into the stratosphere while testing rockets, Doc straps Einstein into the DeLorean and uses a remote control to shuttle it 88 mph across a parking lot and into the future. When the DeLorean disappears in a burst of energy (with special effects provided by Industrial Light and Magic), Marty, flabbergasted, asks: “Are you telling me you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?”

That’s exactly what Doc’s telling him, and the time-travelling DeLorean isn’t just the main conceit of the entire film, and its reveal one of its most iconic moments, but the car’s design reflects the Doc’s ramshackle approach to science and inventing. Original designs for the DeLorean time machine were reportedly too slick, and filmmakers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis wanted it to look like it was cobbled together in a garage from easily sourced electrical parts. This jigsaw approach is evident in the designs once legendary concept artist Ron Cobb (who had worked on Alien, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark to name a few), came aboard and helped craft one of cinema’s most iconic vehicles.

And if cars represent freedom to teenagers (mostly from their parents), one that travels back in time has to be one of the greatest examples of... well, all time. Also worth considering is that one of Marty’s main quests in his journey into the past is to build his father's confidence – he literally deals with George’s emasculation at the hands of Biff – and thereby changes his parents’ future fates.

This is all thanks to the DeLorean.

In an article in Paste magazine, it’s noted that DeLoreans were never a popular car during the period, despite the awesome suicide doors and retrospective love. According to the article, “without being Doc’s vehicle of choice in the series, the DeLorean Motor Company’s only creation would have been just another failed car design”. This is reflected in how Fox delivers this immortal line; his incredulousness representing the common opinion of the vehicle at the time. Now, even Jay Leno is driving one and co-writer Bob Gale crowdfunded the restoration of one of the movie’s original cars (there were three made), which had a documentary made about it.

And when Marty does return to 1985 at the end of the film, cars again take centre stage. Biff is no longer tormenting George, he's waxing a shiny new Mercedes, which Marty doesn't even have to borrow for his date with Jennifer to the lake: waiting inside the garage is the coveted, tricked-out 4x4.

Too bad Doc turns up to take him back to the future.

The popularity and notability of the scene make it perfect for remixing, with users across the internet adopting the dialogue to create new meaning and unexpected humour.

– Matt Millikan

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