“Back to the Future”: Celebrating and analysing a timeless masterpiece

Future is defined by prediction.

Back in the 1990s, my youth was littered with popculture obsessions: from “Star Wars” to “Ghostbusters”, from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to “Jurassic Park”. What seperated the bunch of blockbusters at that time from the “Back to the Future”-trilogy was how those three films bypassed their tangible form and filled up my imagination by 88 mph. Practical elements such as characters, story and science became a full-on religion and Marty McFly aka Michael J. Fox my childhood hero. The way he dressed, the music he played, there was nothing I didn’t connect to one way or the other. Appearently, I wasn’t the only one: the trilogy became a popculture phenomenon, touching hearts all over the world. Fans are celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015.


October 21, 2015, at exactly 4.29 pm. It’s the day Doc Brown and Marty McFly travel from 1985 to a far-away future, the year 2015. The future is an utopia by definition, filling unknown gaps with hopes and dreams. Marty hopes to become a rock star (who doesn’t?) and dreams of getting rich and famous. Writer/producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis imagined time travel in flying cars, household waste as fuel (instead of plutonium!), hovering skateboards, powerlaces on shoes, holograms, automated dog-walkers and the success of never-ending franchises (Jaws, Pt. 19!). Together the three films sparkle from a connection of magic and science that never felt out of touch, not even today in 2015, when we should (?) know better. The present is only half as fun as the future. Analyzing this timeless masterpiece would take the size of a dissertation (and I’m encouraging everyone to write it), because the three movies are connected by a love for details presented in sequences, dialogues and nearly perfect storytelling. But there are a couple of things we should mention here:

1. Time is a cultural construction.

In his “Condition of Postmodernity”, David Harvey describes a time-space-compression, which defines the terms postmodernity and post Fordism. Because we overcome the limits of time and space we are reaching a new cultural self-image through the acceleration of new technologies in transport and media. Time itself is (as special terms are) a cultural construction: Monday-Sunday, summer-winter, Friday the 13th, time is never stable but a carrier of sense and meaning instead. Now time travel is the utopian wish to make the transition of time visible and tangible, and that’s why “Back to the Future” chooses its four “time zones” not by coincidence: 1885, 1955, 1985 and 2015.


While 1985 represents the present time of the story (and of its viewers at the time the films were released), 1885 and 1955 represent important marks in the history of the American culture. They prove that living in a nostalgic past can be as much fun as dreaming of the future. 1885 is the wild, Wild West, the time of the founding fathers of the United States. New technologies were developed and travel and production had risen by the use of locomotives and trains (of course a train becomes the vehicle for our heroes when it comes to time travel in 1885!). 1955 is the post-world war-era, the age of economic growth, car manufacture and the rise of pop and celebrity culture (Elvis Presley, the Three Stooges, etc.). That Marty uses fake names such as Clint Eastwood or Calvin Klein makes it even more clearly for the audience. And of course, the 1950s are pure nostalgia (not exclusively but especially in US-American culture): girls were easy, jobs were everywhere, the coffee was cheap, a dishwasher could become a millionaire. Finally, 2015 represents the future. And even if most of the imagined gadgets would easily fit as well in the year 2050, it worked in the context of the story. Back in the 1980s it was possible to predict the future as you can see it in those three films.

All time zones are connected by the time machine, an old-fashioned car brand called DeLorean. A car type, which wasn’t even modern in the 1980s. It was neither regarded as practical nor as a cool sports car. Therefore, the DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt in 1982, its popularity was indeed very low. But such a timeless car was the perfect choice for a time machine and that way became an instant classic. Although rumors tell us that during script production the time machine was originally – yes, a fridge.


2. Identity is a cultural construction.

“Back to the Future” was the first movie of my childhood which understood that identity is defined by what we buy and what we wish we could afford. Hill Valley, our little town next door, seemed so real and believable, because it was full of products and brands we recognized and which all told us a story, and continue to do so. Of course, much of the business going on is pure media management and simply there for re-financing the production, but brands such as Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Toyota and of course Nike were all over the place. Especially Nike was a pretty heavy player in those films: Marty’s shoes were Nike products and the famous pair with power laces was a prototype Nike was producing exclusively for the 2nd part (and has recently sold it online for 30.000 $ to hardcore fans).

The most beloved product placement though was the DeLorean. Such a pity the company went bankrupt long before the first film was produced, but maybe apart from the Bat Mobile or James Bond’s Aston Martin the DeLorean is the ultimate car for film lovers. The original from the movies belongs to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and is driving around the U.S. to collect money for Parkinson research.

3. Future is a construction (and what you’ll make of it).

30 years after the first movie we are already playing with some of the gadgets mentioned in the trilogy. Inventing new technologies is a powerful tool for bringing a story forward (have a look at “Star Trek” and gadgets like mobile phones and self-opening doors!) and another example for the everlasting love for details. The icemaker, the Frisbee, the wake up juice or the bulletproof vest – obviously they’ve all existed before the films, but the story wants us to believe they were all invented by our heroes in 1885. The skateboard was invented by Marty in 1955, if you believe they’ve put a man on the moon. More important though are the inventions that constructed the future of 2015. Some of those we’ve already mentioned: the flux capacitor which makes time travel possible, the hover board, flying cars, alpha-rhythm generators, power laces, anti-aging facelift, self-service robots or self-drying jackets. The “self” is an important term for the future and proves how “Back to the Future” long before Facebook, Big Data and the “Internet of Things” was ahead of its time. And Doc Brown invented household waste as energy source long before anyone cared to save the environment or knew what the Kyoto protocol was.

Those fictional ideas were a powerful drive for new technologies. Smart technology and the “Internet of Things” are part of an economic sector, which will define upcoming years: our fridges, cars and homes will all be connected online, so we can use and control them by Apps. In “Back to the Future 2,” Marty’s son even wears a virtual reality headset, those will hit our market in 2015 as well. Lexus unveiled their own design for a hover board (in the movie made by Mattel, famous for the Barbie dolls), a skateboard hovering on special metallic surfaces with magnets. Well, that’s not really hovering, but for the moment still better than nothing.


“Back to the Future” means so many things to so many different people. But what makes it so great is how its sum is bigger than its parts. Everything just clicks and creates something, which is always faithful to a fantastic story full of heart and soul. It’s a true contender for the “favorite movie of all time”.

Time will tell, as always.

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