Back to the Future Shows That You Can Make Friends With Exposition
Regardless of how many times you’ve seen Back to the Future, it’s a film that relies on imagination over special effects. Now, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have special effects in it. It does. It utilizes them very well. They’re in-camera effects. The film was made before CGI animation was a thing, so it pays off as a result. Its limitations are a strong point. Its impact stems from the music, which was performed by the great Alan Silvestri, and most people, if you whistled it to them, they know exactly what you’re on about.
The scene I want to talk about is when Doc Brown’s dog Einstein is shown to be the world’s first time-traveler and exits the DeLorean time machine after its first initial go at traveling through time.
This is when Doc goes up to Marty, who is relieved that the dog hadn’t been incinerated, and shows him the watches being exactly one minute apart and still ticking. Marty is in this instance the audience. Doc explains to us, through Marty, exactly how time travel in this fictional universe is going to operate.
“What I have done is I have sent the dog back into the future, one minute ahead.” — Doc Brown.
What that has done is utilized our imagination to believe that time travel is, A, possible within the confines of this fictional universe, and, B, exactly what the rules of time travel in the Back to the Future universe is.
In 1985, these were very high-level concepts. So if you could narrow down that basic understanding of the theories of time travel so that you’re not losing an audience, it is a massive achievement. You are relying on the audience’s imagination to understand the nuances of time-travel, so that you can send them on exotic adventures through 2015 with flying cars, or back to 1885 with horses and carts.
In filmmaking, you’re always cutting your babies, and exposition should really be the first line to go. But in this instance, it really draws out the imagination of the audience and helps them fill in the blanks for when the time travel scenes actually do occur.
Essentially, the film didn’t use any visual cues to showcase Time Travel. It just told us it happened and we accepted.
Let’s juxtapose this with a film that was made in 2005 by Shane Carruth, Primer. An indie film darling, Primer uses extensive time travel hypothesis to draw out its own narrative. What it proves is that you can rely on an audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks of your limited budget, especially when it comes to science fiction.
So Back to the Future utilized this, even though it probably had the budget to show time circuits and time travel within its confined universe, yet it chose to explain away time travel as a plot device through its exposition. This is something that Primer relies on heavily as it had a budget, famously, of $5,000 - $7,000. Something ridiculously low, and it is a fantastic film in itself.
When you’re on a budget, exposition, when done creatively and effectively, can enhance an audience’s imagination to your story and the universe that you’re trying to build within that story.
If you’d like to hear more on this — you can watch my video analysis: