A Science Fictional Year: Back to The Future, Un, Deux, Trois!

This ended up being the first set of movies I am writing about, though through virtually no purposiveness of my own. My wife simply asked about a week ago, “Have you ever watched Back To The Future?” to which I replied, “Do Emmett Brown’s opinions toward changing the space-time continuum constantly fluctuate?” to which she answered: “WHAT?”

I’m pretty sure anyone born after 1980 has seen these movies. And there might not be a “before” date to attach to that. Every infant I know (currently that number is 1) has seen them, and if that trend continues, then everyone’s first exposure to the Back to The Future Chillogy is around nine months of age.

I hadn’t seen these movies in more than a decade, but my impressions from when I was a kid are still crystalline in my memory: time travel is rad, but why go backward? You have to go backward about 64 million years before anything gets interesting. To that end, I remember feeling bored by the first and third, and liking the second best. Plus, the third one was all about trains, and unless that train was going to turn into a robot (then combine with two other trains into an even bigger robot or a pterodactyl) my honest opinion about trains was that they were for people with a “case of the dumbs.” The second one definitely held my interest the most as a kid.

Things change.

With more than twenty years of development since first seeing the first one, it is without a doubt the best: the story’s the tightest, the motivations the clearest, Crispin Glover is the calmest he’s ever been, and Marty McFly’s mom is the weirdest and most eager to bone anyone hit by her father’s car.

For some girls, it’s all about the car… hitting someone.

It’s hard to even say too much more about this movie. It’s pretty fantastic. The only head scratching moment comes when McFly is playing guitar, his dad’s already secured Loraine’s sweet Florence Nighten-begaled heart, but that upsetting ginger guy steps in. Crispin becomes so dejected that he wanders away briefly during which time Marty’s hand starts to fade away. Then his dad comes back and punches the guy right in the mouth and everything’s cool. This moment isn’t that problematic, but it makes you think too hard about the mechanics of something that should be background motivation: if a single moment of doubt caused Marty to waver, shouldn’t he be totally incapacitated by immateriality the second he, and not his father, gets hit by the car? Moreover, since he’s changed the Space Cat Tacobar (or space time continuum), wouldn’t everything continue to be surrounded by an aura of indecision? The members of the photograph winking in and out, features morphing and arranging? If a moment of indecision nearly murders Marty, then he could never actually have a moment’s assurance of his own security in time until he got back. Which then makes you think really hard about whether or not he and his siblings would exist, or in what configuration. His dad has been made way more confident, and they’re obviously wealthier AND he’s a published author. Maybe his newly en-virulent-ened loins decided they couldn’t wait the decade before generating his first child. Maybe they decide to have five children, or maybe they all come out girls. Maybe they decided to move to New York to be closer to his publisher and Marty never met his girlfriend. Then he’d be forced to walk the Earth with the knowledge of a love he could never have. She’d probably be married to Biff Junior, or something equally horrible (though altered-1985 Biff looks pretty prospectless).

And it can go on and on. It’s a minor quibble that I refuse to let ruin an otherwise engaging and contained time travel story (part 2 will obliterate the idea of contained) that simply calls to much attention to something that’s meant to simply be a visual guide of his progress.

I guess the seeds of Doc Brown’s time immutability opinions were sown in the first one when he decides to read the letter anyway and, thankfully, not get shot to hell. Which explains why the last two minutes of the first movie (and first two minutes of the second movie) have him annihilating any sense of time preservation he ever had. Despite the fact that, in one movie, the writers and directors have accomplished more professionally than I might ever in my entire life, I feel like there’d have to be a better reason to travel from the future than Marty’s loser son going to jail.

This makes so much sense now.

Doc Brown’s mind really starts flying off the rails in the first few minutes of the second Back to the Future. Really, the rest of the movie is just a series of complaints: I can think of at least 38 different ways to prevent Marty’s future loser son from breaking the law than going back thirty years earlier to get Marty so he can impersonate his son. The plots in these movies never become incomprehensible, but the second one flirts with that line; namely it opens up with Emmett Brown committing a universe breaking action to solve a pretty small problem. And then things progressively get bananas-er.

“No one calls me chicken” rhymes with “shoehorned.”

Marty wants that almanac so he can gamble his way to riches. I remember as a kid watching this plot line about the almanac and developing the mistaken notion that an almanac was a book that predicted the future. Something about the subtlety of a book written in the past that predicted the future of the past eluded me. Doc Brown forbids it, and Biff (for the only time in three movies) manages to construct a coherent thought with a beginning, middle, and end. And if anyone’s going to be rich, it’s going to be him.

I’m getting too bogged down in story details, but I find it unlikely that Biff could figure out the time machine.

Trashed out 1985 is where my interest starts to wane. I think the problem is that the bone is thrown so far ahead for the audience, that it’s painful waiting for Marty to catch up. It’s also weird how Doc Brown is never around, ever, in the first and second movies. He’s almost like God. But Marty finally figures it out, and it’s off to 1955. Again. This is where the phrase “Back to The Future” is uttered about once per minute. It’s an amusing gag (like in that Family Guy episode) a time or two, but H Montgomery, we get it: it’s the title of the movie.

This part of the movie is also a little insufferable. It suffers from an excess of hijinxism in which the situations get progressively more complex and you simply want Marty to get the book and get out of there. I would have thought a simpler resolution would have been more satisfying since this was simply a CHAIN LINK TO THE THIRD ONE. I didn’t see this in the theaters, but if I had, I imagine that seven year old me would have stood up after seeing that non resolution of an ending (complete with a, “Next time, on Power Rangers” style montage) and shouted, “God dammit!”

But what’s funny, is (apart from the tedium of the third act), it’s pretty enjoyable. It remains optimistic and upbeat and a little wry about itself (though even at six I knew that a holographic Jaws in 2015 – if it existed – would look approximately infinity % better).

And the third one was not that bad. I had it in my head that it was just a trainwreck, but it only ended in one. But I was thoroughly engaged.

But we need to talk about the alternate-alternate-alternate 1985. Why does Marty’s girlfriend remember anything about what happened? For her, none of that ever happened. I found myself very frustrated at that. “Marty, that dream I had was so real.” No it wasn’t. “It was about the future.” “What future?” “About us.” Us what? “You got fired.” In a future that never existed because you’ve lived in this town your whole life and never been in a time machine because you were left on a shitty porch in 19shitty5, which never existed.

It is fascinating to me that, at its worst, the Back to the Future trilogy is still 30 times more coherent and intelligent than the most intelligible Transformers movie, and those movies are a full ten times more expensive. As I continue this project, you’ll find that the 80s and 90s were my favorite time periods for science fiction (and movies, generally). I feel like there’s a ten or fifteen year sweet spot in American film making where filmmakers had really figured out story arc and there was a lot of wild experimentation happening. And the fact that the worst parts of a trilogy can be better than the best parts of some of the most commercially successful contemporary movies really says something about the craft as-was. Apart from time-quibbles (my new band name), these movies are fully engaging. And time-quibbling (first album) is actually part of the fun, and the filmmakers knew it. That’s why he invents/hijacks skateboards in the same way two movies in a row, and Biff and his ancestor both develop close relationships with manure, and my favorite gag of all the films is when Brown starts peeling his face off while telling Marty how he had to wear a face mask so that Marty wouldn’t be shocked by how young he looks compared to his 1985 self. This is a kind of creativity I lament may be lost.

Surviving a Science Fictional Year

Hush Comics would like to introduce new writer J.H. Montgomery to the team.  He comes to us with a new writing series analyzing and reviewing science fiction movies from all eras.  This post is used with permission from the original posting found here.


 

What is science fiction? Anyone with any familiarity with the world of literature will find definitions elusive and fluid: it’s difficult to pin anything, definitively, into any category, and the categories swish over content like wine in the bottom of a glass. Unlike something more definitive like biology or physics herself (though, if you pay attention, physics gets a routine swish-around), the definitions aren’t grounded in something hard and objective. It’s not like classifying a rose in which we can go into nature and pluck a science fiction from a bush and contemplate the boundaries of it like we can with that rose. Instead, it’s much more like a software program being run on the cloud of our shared perceptions, and in that way, not only do our considerations of what make it that thing change, but the thing itself changes. Which means that there isn’t a set definition of the thing I seek to write about. This is also excluding the numerous definitions of constantly spawning subgenres (space opera, cyperpunk, biopunk, steampunk, psychedelic, military, paranoid, and so on).

There are many definitions, the most forgiving of which is, “A story or narrative containing science fictional elements,” which I think is called begging the question in logic classes. Or there’s Robert Heinlein’s five part definition. I think it was Einstein that said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Which is problematic: if Heinlein, one of the most prolific and respected sci-fi authors, can’t simply articulate it, then who can? Which seems to align with the fact that there isn’t a simple or succinct definition anywhere, which must mean that no one really understands it. John Campbell Jr. described science fiction as, “… an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made,” which is pretty good, but a little mechanical. Theodore Sturgeon (Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite, and perhaps one of the unsung heroes of sci-fi as literature) said, “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content,” which is less mechanical and includes the ingredients of the emotional heft required of any story that wishes to leave its mark. But then instantaneously the problem then becomes, “What about sci-fi stories that take place on alien worlds divorced of any ‘human’ element?” Or if the human is so unrecognizable as human that it’s more easily described as alien. Image’s Prophet series comes to mind as one of the most recent examples.

I can’t remember who said this, or where I read it (I want to say Ray Bradbury, but I cannot verify that), but when writing a paper for my capstone writing class, I encountered a definition that science fiction is the form of literature that extrapolates humanity to inhumane proportions in order to be able to better understand humanity. In order to study a small problem, you sometimes need a large lens.

I like these definitions and where they point. Triangulating, the definitions point to something transcendent or transhuman, which seems to be the ultimate goal of science anyway: overcoming those limitations that make us specifically human. And more recently, within the last two hundred years, our understanding of the human animal (and all animals except those that be dead) is that he’s a transitional form. As a species, we haven’t arrived at our ultimate shape, but we are simply the proto-form of the as-yet formed. Perhaps science fiction is the first science of literature to recognize this idea; it then takes it upon itself to probe both the tops and bottoms, comforts and fears, potential goods and potential evils of transcendence. So, for a more inclusive and exhaustive definition – one that doesn’t require me to add caveats nor invalidates the subgenres yet includes all that interests me – I propose the following:

“Science fiction is a genre which uses current knowledge to speculate about unknown knowledge in an inherently transcendent fashion that seeks to either better define or overcome humanness.”

This definition matches what I feel when I watch the best science fiction: the giddy thrill of new ideas, or the taut anxiety of fresh horror. It also helps to explain why some things that Blockbuster or Barnes and Noble might qualify as science fiction will be suspiciously absent from my list.

What list? Well, for the next year, I plan to watch one science fiction movie a day. Originally the plan was to watch and write about each, but the fear then became that each entry would simply become a summary of the movie with a thumbs up or thumbs down, and that’s something you can get from Rotten Tomatoes. Instead, I want to write about movies in batches: batches of series (for example, The Matrix) or themes (far future, or coexisting with the alien). This will better allow for comparisons and contextualization, which I think is more worthwhile than simple review.

But I do have weaknesses. First up is that I only have roughly 230 movies on my list. To that end, as you read, feel free to make suggestions which I will add (if I don’t have them already) or explain why it can’t be added as the definition mandates.

Another weakness is the cold war and the roughly 18 septillion B movies it spawned. I know that if I wanted to do sci-fi of the 40s and 50s, I would instantly have 365 movies. The problem is that you can only handle the, “Oh no! Aliens! Quick, shoot them in the face! I’m so glad we shot them in the face! Let’s be glad we’re nothing like them/be careful of our similarities with them/be perpetually afraid they might return!” story so much before it becomes white noise. It’s an infantile theme from an infantile time. Yet, I recognize I will have to include at least some if I’m to reach my 365(ish) goal.

The last weakness is the letter of the law versus the intent. The letter of the law is, “A movie a day, write about them in groups,” but the intent is, “sustained and thoughtful writing over the course of an entire year about a specific topic.” To that end, there are several days I plan on taking off (my anniversary, my daughter’s first birthday), but I fear laziness, especially in the face of such a daunting task. I might need some of you to egg my house from time to time.

This should be fun, and I invite participation. It’s why the Good Lord Kabbalah Monster saw fit that blogs have comment sections. I might not always respond or interact, but I will do my best to do both and will, at the very least, read. So please: tell me why I’m wrong or what I overlooked, or what movie I’m forgetting. I’ll post at the end of each batch what’s coming next so that you can tell me what should be included.

This project is, itself, a project of transcendence: through it I will be learning as much about the limits of my own conceptions of what constitutes humanity as well as the boundaries of story.

Stay tuned.

cover art by William Blake (yeah, that William Blake)