17 May 2009

56. Back to the Future

Another one from the 80's Spielberg camp, which I am warming up to as I get older. This one takes a high-concept idea -- what would it be like to go back in time and meet your parents? -- and pushes it to the limit by mixing comedy, action/adventure, science fiction and period tropes. Most highly successful/classic movies either mix several different genres together (think "Jerry Maguire") to give us something fresh and new, take a genre and embody it so thoroughly that it becomes the epitome of that genre (think "The Maltese Falcon" with film noir), or deconstruct a genre (think "The Searcher" with westerns). Zemekis is a proponent of the former stategy, to great effect.

The thing that's most remarkable about this movie is how wrong it all could have gone. If the tone wasn't just so, if it weren't so good-natured like a modern, twisted version of a Capra fable, it would have gone off the rails from the get-go. We're supposed to empathize with a whiny, skateboarding "slacker" from a barely functioning Valley family whose only friend is a corrupt, bizarre 50-something scientist and whose mother falls in love with him. It's a testament to how well the tone is controlled -- and how likeable the public finds Michael J. Fox (can't imagine Eric Stolz in the role at all) -- that the thing works at all, and that the tone changes and boundry-pushing even works.

It's also a good example of visual storytelling -- the opening tracking shot (shot in close-ups!) gives us so much: starts with a clock, gives exposition on Doc Brown, shows burnt toast from a Rube Goldberg foreshadowing the lightning and things going awry, and finally that case of plutonium.

Another visual storytelling example is the whole Doc Brown/Harold Lloyd reference. He hangs from the clock and we understand exactly what is at stake, what goes wrong and how it is fixed. And no words are used throughout the whole side of his sequence.

Sometimes less dialogue is more.