What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Back to the Future

You already know the “things you never knew about” Back to the Future, but here are the things we don’t say.

Thirty years after Back to the Future hit American movie screens, today is finally “Back to the Future Day”, an Internet-invented one-day-only holiday marking the until-now future date to which Marty McFly travels with Doc Brown to save his family. Hooray, why not!

Before going any further, I should probably say: Back to the Future is by far the movie I have seen the most times, literally my favorite movie of all time, and has been ever since one night in 1986 when my parents allowed me to watch this PG movie (whoa) on VHS so I wouldn’t bother them during a dinner party. The rest is history — but not just mine.

In the years since, Back to the Future has become one of the most beloved movies of its era, and perhaps of any era. What’s more, I’d argue the popularity of the franchise’s first film — which is specifically the focus of this post, as opposed to its likewise popular, but far inferior trilogy-mates—owes less to time travel or its cool car and much more to its clever story, identifiable characters, and indelible themes.

That Back to the Future has become surefire Internet clickbait — hence the accidental-ish invention of “Back to the Future Day” ahead of its time — I find both affirming of my own personal tastes and also a persistent annoyance. The Internet is lousy with speculation about the promise of hoverboardery and “things you never noticed” listicles, of which this post is about to become yet another entry in the genre.

The Twin Pines Mall / Lone Pine Mall “Easter egg” is so ubiquitous that Buzzfeed parodied the genre last summer by devoting an entire deadpan post about it, called “The One Thing You Never Noticed In ‘Back To The Future’”, which to this day is still receiving hilariously angry comments.

With all that said, as a lifelong devotee of the film and the veteran of hundreds of viewings, including as recently as last month, I present a list of questions and conundrums drawn not from freeze-frames or directors’ commentaries, but three-plus decades of enjoying and over-analyzing this classic film, presented more or less in the order which they appear:

  • Marty McFly isn’t quite as virtuous as you might remember: yes, he has a healthy and meaningful relationship with his high school girlfriend, whom he will go on to marry, and his family-first bona fides are established initially by the adventure ensuring his parents unite in the first place and later to pull his own children out of trouble. Well, it turns out the All-American golden boy of cinema is a little problematic. In the screen shot below, about 10 minutes into the film, we discover he is just as lecherous as anyone — and then we promptly forget it.
  • If Doc’s calculations are incorrect, there’s going to be some “serious shit” because he and Marty are both going to be splattered against the Puente Hills Mall parking lot when a DeLorean DMC-12 plows into their fragile human bodies at 88mph. Can you imagine the cleanup scene the next morning? Or what the Libyans might find only a few minutes later? Hell, Doc would have done their job for them.
  • Doc Brown, scientist, apparently believes the birth of Christ occurred on December 25, 0000, and programs his time machine accordingly.
  • When Biff and his goons find George McFly in the 1950s diner (in the 1950s) they take a moment out from tormenting George to make fun of Marty’s “life preserver” vest. George, granted a brief reprieve, does what? He cruelly laughs along with them. A defense mechanism? Perhaps. But we’ve already learned that the McFly men aren’t quite the put-upon stand-up guys we’ve been led to believe.
  • “Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?” In 1955, Sam Baines, Lorraine’s father, would have to be a real lunkhead not to know who John F. Kennedy was. JFK wouldn’t be president until 1960, sure, but by this time he’d served in the U.S. Senate for two years, not to mention six years in the House before that. He wasn’t as famous as he was going to be, but he was already a national figure. Then again, I guess Sam Baines is supposed to be kind of a lunkhead.
  • Ever notice this movie’s fixation on underwear? Consider: Doc Brown makes sure to pack cotton underwear for his trip to the future (he’s “allergic to all synthetics”), Marty famously wears purple Calvin Klein briefs, George McFly is a peeping tom whose unwitting victim we momentarily espy as well (it’s never totally clear if that is Lorraine, but it sure might be), George later wields a brassiere at Marty while speaking of that particular region of a woman’s anatomy, and Lorraine’s almost comically frilly petticoat gets kind of a lot of screen time. I don’t have a theory, I’m just pointing it out.
  • As long as we’re on the subject… how messed up is it that this fun-for-all-ages family film includes forcible rape at the climax of the story? This is touched on (sorry) by Cracked, briefly, in a 2010 video on other overlooked elements of this film, but it’s never properly dealt with. Hell, I don’t know what to do with it. But if you don’t like this line of discussion, we probably shouldn’t be talking about Back to the Future.
  • “Red, you look great”. In case you never noticed, the bum on the park bench in the new-and-improved 1985 is once-and-maybe-never mayor Red Thomas. Marty didn’t just elevate Goldie Wilson to the mayorship, he destroyed the life of the man who would have been mayor otherwise. What is the movie telling us here — that the downfall of the white moneyed class is necessary to advance the civil rights movement?
  • If you think about it, Marty’s brother is almost certainly working in drudgery in both 1980s storylines. Yes, in the “improved” 1985 he is wearing “a suit to the office”, but there’s no telling whether his personality has changed, as his sister’s seems to have not. How do we know he’s actually a rising businessman and not still the same slacker who laughs at Honeymooners reruns, just because he now also reads Forbes? He may not be a fry cook, but he’s certainly a corporate drone. And one more thing we can’t overlook: he’s still living at home.
  • Let us consider the curious case of Calvin Klein, who jumped ship, inspired the career of the town’s first African-American mayor, invented skateboarding and rock n’ roll and then disappeared forever. Forget that his parents don’t remember him — despite that huge clue about setting fire to the living room rug — how come Marty McFly isn’t a national, nay, international urban legend?

For all of the “problematic” elements that have become apparent as Back to the Future has endured for three decades of enjoyment, it’s fair to observe that everything is a product of its time, and this particular Hollywood product has aged far better than most other films. The movie is not just weird because of its Oedipal themes but, I would argue, the central conceit — of being able to fix the problems in your own family by mentoring your own parents — is the principal reason it appeals to generation after generation. Long after the Huey Lewis posters and Sony camcorders went out of style, the film was wise beyond its time period.

That said, for one final “thing you never noticed”, how about let’s recognize Back to the Future for predicting the rise of China? Take a closer look at Doc Brown’s future shirt. Yep, we should probably talk about that, too.