Monday, December 13, 2010

Today, I’d like to discuss something near and dear to my heart: Back to the Future.

As writers, we can learn a lot from movies. Some movies are pretty lame, sure, some are only awesome because of good cinematography and bug-budget special effects(things we cannot copy in writing). But many movies have exceptionally good writing, and that is something we can learn from.

The Back to the Future trilogy(from here on referred to as BTF) gets a lot of criticism for plot holes and various problems that are perceived as mistakes. And while a few of these arguments are somewhat valid, it is by and large a travesty that people overlook the fantastic writing and storytelling of the series.

Probably one of the biggest complaints(or at least the one first and foremost in my mind) centers around the third movie. Now, probably the first argument that springs to mind if the fact that it was a steam-punk western. This, I point out, is absolutely freaking awesome! How can you possibly complain about something that cool?

Ok, so the basic core problem people seem to have is with the technology. The setup to this movie is that the car is out of gas, so they can’t get it up to the required 88 miles per hour required to achieve time travel. Now, those of you who, like me, watch entirely to much Modern Marvels might be aware that gasoline was actually already available back then, though at the time it was regarded as a waste product, a leftover remnant from the refinement of kerosene. But, let’s not forget that our story takes place in a very remote western town, so there probably isn’t a whole lot of kerosene being refined.

One could argue that Doc Brown just doesn’t know how to make gasoline, which is a perfectly valid point. He’s not a chemist; most of his inventions seem to revolve around electronics or mechanics. Most engineers do not know how to make gasoline, neither does the average physicist. So it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that Doc Brown simply doesn’t have necessary expertise to produce petrol in the old west.

So that brings us to the second point of contention: why was the delorean even running on gasoline at all? Doesn’t it have that fancy “Mr. Fusion” thing to produce the necessary energy for time travel?

This, I think is the result of people just not paying freaking attention. Overworked humorists, desperate for something to rib, half-remember that the whole conflict of BTF 3 was that the delorean didn’t have any gas. But if its got a fusion reactor capable of turning garbage into 1.21 gigawatts, why does it need it?

Well, careful observers should not that the writers did in fact answer that question at the very beginning of the film. Mr. Fusion runs the flux capacitor and the hover drive, Doc Brown saw no reason to replace the car’s gas burning engine with an electric motor when it could FREAKING FLY without involving the gas engine at all.

By the second movie in the series, the gas engine was considered ancillary. In another few movies, Doc Brown would probably have just ripped it out entirely to make more room for Excalibur, the Holy Grail, and lots and lots of gold. At the time he was converting the car with Mr. Fusion, he was not planning on needing the gas engine ever again.

Until, as anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention at the end of the second movie will note, the car was struck by lightning. The third movie begins with Marty standing alone, in the rain, in the 1950s, only to receive a letter from Doc Brown explaining what’s happened. The car was struck by lightning, the hover system is shot, but the time-travel part of it could be repaired.

So they’ve already set up the plot-point for #3 at the beginning of #2: the car can now fly, so less attention was paid to making it able to drive. Seriously, this is actually a very well thought-out story arc. For time travel you need 2 things: 1.21 gigawatts of power, and 88 miles per hour. The first movie revolved around getting the 1.21 gigawatts, the third about getting the 88 miles per hour.

The decision to make the movie set in the old west was just pure fun. Back to the Future was an American movie, written for an American audience, and there are few things America loves more than the old west. It’s American! In America! Ok, patriotism aside, it also stands to reason: the first two movies mostly jumped back and fourth between the 80s and the 50s, so you either need to go further forward or further back. They could have gone basically anywhere, but if you look at the characters, it makes sense.

Doc Brown was born sometime in the 20s(various sources disagree on the exact year), so he would have been a boy pretty much when cowboys were the most popular thing ever. It stands to reason that, given his background, the old west should have held a very special place in his heart. The decision to set the movie in that time frame was an excellent example of good writing: they let the character fulfill his boyhood wish.

However, there is one plot hole that needs to be addressed: the end of the first movie. A lot of people point to this problem. Basically, you have the movie ending with Marty returning to a world which has changed completely. This, some people argue, is problematic.

Movies, books, TV, even music, is, at its core, about escapism. We go to movies to escape reality. So why do we complain so much when they are unrealistic?

Suspension of disbelief aside, the storyteller here is trying to offer us a fantastic escape. We see Marty’s life at the beginning, which is pretty lame by 80s movie standards. He has a girlfriend, but he can’t really treat her as well as he’d like. He doesn’t have his own car, his band is going nowhere, his father is a wuss, his mom’s a drunk, his sister can’t get a date so save her own life, and he is in severe danger of turning into his brother: in his mid thirties and still doing a job that involves wearing a name tag and copious use of the phrase “you want fries with that?” unironically.

Then Marty goes on a fantastic adventure, a wondrous journey through the looking glass. When he returns home, the reward for all his hard work is that he’s made everything better. The bully is now an OK guy, his father is a confident executive and successful author, his sister is popular, and his brother, despite still living at home, now where’s a suit to work, which refers to as “the office”. And to top it all off, now he’s got a sweet truck!

The problem here is that he’s basically altered 30 years of history. Being significantly less than 30 years old, that means his entire is basically different from the way he remembers it. While this may present a few problems in reality, its meant to be a storybook happy-ending, and really it is.

Think about what really happened, here. Marty went back in time, taught his father not to be a looser, and saved the day with rock and roll. He did all of this by being himself, the skills he needed to complete the task were the things he was good at(skateboarding, not being a looser, and rocking out).

This is something all of his secretly, or maybe not so secretly, wish for. We all want to believe that by being ourselves, we can have an awesome adventure and wake up the next morning to find that our crappy lives have magically been made better. This is the sort of escapism that people go to movie theaters to get.

So don’t fault the movie for giving you exactly what you ask for, and throwing in a flying car and some kickin’ guitar licks while they’re at it.

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