Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: Back to the Future (1985)

Robert Zemeckis is one of those film makers whose idiosyncrasies can either lift a film up to greatness, or send it to the fiery pits of hell. His best work was done in the eighties (with the exception of his first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, from 1978, which was also quite good), when he was a young guy with boundless energy and a love for making his audience laugh. The fun if slightly derivative Romancing the Stone kicked his career into high gear, and then he went on to make the triple whammy of Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Back to the Future Part 2. Then the nineties hit, the tedious junk that is Back to the Future Part 3 was released, and he's just never been the same. I mean, alright, he probably could have recovered from one crummy movie, but he followed that up with Death Becomes Her. He has never been the same.

There are people that would argue that Forrest Gump is Zemeckis's best film, but those people are wrong. Gump is overlong sentimental drivel with one of the most insane morals ever put to film - the mentally retarded should be treated with respect, because they can be geniuses too. I have nothing against the idea of treating the mentally retarded with respect, but it shouldn't be because they inadvertantly helped launch Apple, or because they invented the smiley face. It should be because they are people, goddamnit. It isn't more complicated than that.

And Gump is really were Zemeckis started to loose his way. No longer content with just getting laughs from his audience (maybe since they had dried up during his last two films) he decided that he would try to get his audience to feel every goddamn emotion he could think of. And he did it in the most contrived, manipulative, mechanical ways possible.

And all this was fine, when he was making comedies, or action-comedies. It's fine for a comedy's plot to be mechanical, for the film to work like an automaton specifically built to get you to laugh. It's fine for the character development in a comedy to seem so prefabricated and contrived that it is actually sometimes mistaken for genius. That's all alright if all the film wants to do is to make us happy. Well, it's fine if the film achieves it, which Zemeckis's eighties films did, consistently. But if you are actually trying to make me care about your characters as people, then you can't treat them like they're pawns to be moved around at the director's will. You have to actually make them feel like real people - they need to do and say things that real people would do and say. They can't all just be symbols for ideas, or plot conveniences. Or, actually, they can, given the fact that Gump was the most successful film of 1994. But that doesn't stop it from being shitty.

His treatment of his characters as automatons reached its illogical conclusion this decade with his terrible motion-capture idea. I mean, Jesus Christ, dude, your characters are depersonalised enough already. You don't need to actually remove their ability to do proper facial expressions as well.

All these things are what go through my head whenever I watch one of Zemeckis's good films. I can't stop myself from noticing the mechanical contruction, the plot contrivances, the fact that every single thing that happens during the climax of the film is so "perfectly" set up throughout the rest of the film that it actually becomes annoying. But I don't really mind all of those things, because he is managing to actually entertain me.

Back to the Future is really entertaining because of the manic energy of Christopher Lloyd, the fully utilised charm of Michael J. Fox, the weirdness of Crispin Glover, and the fact that I enjoy the central point of the film - the fact that your parents were once hormonally driven morons, just like you.

But the fact that I like the film does not remove my main problem with it, and with Zemeckis in general - why is the script so irritatingly planned? I mean, I know that a lot of screenwriting classes use the script of Back to the Future as a template of the 'perfect pop-movie script', because of how constructed it is, but when you're actually watching the film the construction becomes annoying. I mean, take the openning scene, for example. We see hundreds of clocks - someone is obsessed with time. We see some Rube Goldberg breakfast machines that are making uneaten food - an eccentric scientist is currently to distracted to eat (we also see that one of the machines is for feeding a dog. Yeah, Zemeckis couldn't just show you that Christopher Lloyd has a dog, he had to forshadow it for no reason). We then see Marty McFly skateboard in to the room - he's young and cool. He's wearing jeans and sneakers, and so doesn't really fit in to the world of the scientist, but he's wondering where 'Doc' is, so that means they're buddies. Marty then decides to plug his guitar into some giant speakers - establishing that he plays guitar. He then realises he's going to be late for school (establishing that he doesn't always play by the rules), and so skateboards to school by grabbing on to the backs of people's cars - establishing that he is a good skateboarder, and that he is able to best cars, using his skateboarding abilities. It's just so much setup. And it's not just that one scene, it's every goddamn scene in the film.

Like the scene where Marty is trying to kiss his girlfriend, but he is interrupted by a woman talking about how they should save the old broken clock, and she hands them a flyer about it. The girlfriend then writes "I love you" on the flyer. All this is setup for the climax of the film - they use the lightning that struck the clock tower to send the Delorean back to the present. Marty is reminded about the impending lightning strike when Doc starts talking about Marty's girlfriend, and Marty gets out the leaflet because she wrote "I love you" on it. It's all setup, and none of it makes any sense.

First if all, why the hell wouldn't the town have replaced the broken clock? If your town clock breaks, wouldn't you just, you know, fix it immediately? And, okay, so, let's say that it takes them thirty years to get around to fixing this clock. Why then are there people who don't want the clock fixed? I mean, the only signifcance the lightning strike had other than the fact that it stopped the clock, was the fact that it sent Marty back to 1985, but the protestors don't know that. Why are they protesting? "Grumble grumble grumble we hate to know what time it is grumble grumble grumble." It doesn't make any sense. And why did Marty's girlfriend write "I Love You" on the bit of paper anyway? Why didn't she just say it? Also, just the fact that he was sent back in time just a couple of days before the only lightning strike he had any information about struck this one specific spot. What if he had been sent back the week after the lightning strike? "Oh, wait! I know when and where lightning is going to strike! I got this piece of paper oh damn it was last week I guess I'm stuck here forever the end." It's just all so contrived.

I say again: I don't really mind the contrived nature of Back to the Future, or Used Cars, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Romancing the Stone. I mean, it does annoy me that Zemeckis never even bothers to try and hide the plot contrivances, but other than that I don't care. I just wish that, when he moved in to more dramatic films, he left all the obvious and mechanical plotting behind him, rather than making it all he really cares about.

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