October 20, 2015, by Guest Blogger

Which one’s your Pop culture?

In honour of Back to the Future Day, Dr Nathan Waddell from our School of English has re-watched all three films in the trilogy and needs to talk to you about temporal shifts.

Great Scott! You’ve got to come back with me. BACK TO THE FUTURE!

Back to the 2015 of Back to the Future Part II (1989), to be precise. A time when lawyers are history and you can travel on hoverboards and in flying cars; when you can play Nintendo’s Wild Gunman arcade game in a retro, 80s-themed café waitered by Max Headroom lookalikes. It’s a curiously anachronistic future in which suspended animation kennels and rejuvenation clinics exist alongside fax machines and traditionally printed newspapers, and where auto-fitting, auto-drying bomber jackets are all the rage in a yesterday’s future version of the first film’s 1985 Hill Valley community.

This imagined 2015 is a possible destiny of an already-altered present, the ‘new’ now of 1985 we see at the start of Back to the Future Part II and at the end of Back to the Future (1985), whose ‘old’ 1985 – the one we see at the first film’s beginning – is changed by the actions of those irrepressible chronic argonauts, Doc Brown and Marty McFly. This new 1985 is itself transformed during Back to the Future Part II into a dystopian wildland, into a newer, new 1985 by a villainous, elderly version of the McFly family’s nemesis, Biff, who travels back in time to give to the young Biff from 1955 – the ‘real’ past depicted in the first film – a sports almanac from the future. With this document in hand, the young Biff gambles successfully on events that for him haven’t happened yet, but which, from the perspective of his older, 2015 self, are all in the past, eventually becoming in the alternative, dystopian 1985 the wealthy ruler of a crime-ridden Hill Valley; the murderer of George McFly; and Marty’s corrupted, violent stepfather.

Confused? Far better than being turned into radioactive gloop, a prospect raised by the 1955 version of Doc Brown when he alludes to ‘the fallout from the atomic wars’ of a future that hasn’t happened. At least the Biff-controlled dystopian version of Hill Valley – ‘like hell, or something’, Marty notes – doesn’t glow in the dark. Well, actually, it does, what with all those neon signs and industrial mega-chimneys. Moreover, what about the Libyan terrorists running amok on American soil with weapons-grade plutonium in the original and transformed 1985 of Back to the Future? Does the fact that these terrorists attack Doc Brown at night in a shopping mall car park disclose the film’s unconscious capitalist anxiety, or a scrambled critique of mid-1980s American hubris?

By the end of Back to the Future Part II, the new 2015 ‘utopia’ seen at the beginning of the film has been side-lined. And so has the problematic utopia it supersedes: the improved 1985 Marty makes for himself by travelling back in time in Back to the Future, when the rest of the McFlys have become ideal examples of 1980s ‘success’. Should we welcome a more comfortable life by changing our past, as Marty does, de-authenticating that life in the process? It’s the American dream taken to a surreally technocratic, utopian conclusion. These films are fun, nostalgic paeans to a gleaming future offset by the threat of atomic war (still with us) and dystopian material greed (ditto). After all, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a film, why not do it with some style?

Image: Mooshuu on Flickr

Posted in Back to the FutureEnglish studiesFandomFilm