A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1985: Things Have Turned Out Just Fine

BACK TO THE FUTURE (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Let’s start by acknowledging something: I don’t know that there’s a ton I can say about Back to the Future as a standalone movie that hasn’t already been said. The discourse is pretty well-developed: it’s a beloved classic for a reason; it’s a great use of the talents of Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, and Tom Wilson; the bit about Marty teaching Chuck Berry about rock and roll is pretty problematic; one joke does lean a little too hard on the idea of Huey Lewis being a super loud rock and roller; and the timing of the climactic power-the-car-with-a-lightning-bolt scene makes no damn sense, no matter how exciting the scene is.

Oh, and the collected Freudians of the world must have collectively shit their pants when this movie came out and was a hit.

Anyway, rather than focus on the specifics of Back to the Future, I wanted to use the movie to pull back and talk more widely about a commonality I’ve noticed in a whole bunch of time travel movies. This, after all, is one of the most famous of the genre, and it’s probably the one that I’ve spent the most time thinking about.

TFW you’re about to see some serious shit

There’s a truism that science fiction isn’t really about the future, but instead about the present. Along the same lines, after years of thinking about Back to the Future and other stories like it, I’ve come to realize that time travel stories where someone goes back in time from the present* almost always wind up being narrative arguments that the present, however flawed it might seem to be, actually is exactly the way it has to be (or at least pretty close) and that it’s disastrous to entertain the possibility of it turning out some other way.

*the other dominant flavor of time travel movie, typified by the Terminator franchise, the famous X-Men comics Days of Future Past arc, and even I guess Back to the Future II,** is the travel-forward-in-time-to-learn-that-some-seemingly-innocuous-mistake-in-the-present-leads-to-disastrous-consequences story.

**I don’t actually know which type of story Back to the Future III is; I was going to see it on a date when it came out, but the date went badly and we didn’t get to the theater. So all I know is that there are cowboys and, somehow, ZZ Top.

Because that’s the entire point of Back to the Future: it’s disastrous to mess with the past, because the present needs to be pretty much the way it is (I do think BttF is a little bit of an outlier in that Marty just *mostly* preserves the timeline, but does notch a few small improvements for his parents and himself). This idea drives the entire plot. The same logic is present in The Final Countdown, a 1980 science fiction movie/Navy recruiting film about a modern aircraft carrier getting sent back in time to 1945 (which I wouldn’t really call a good movie, but is one that I always have fun watching). It’s present in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (in silly form: it’s a disaster that our historical figures all got arrested in San Dimas! We need to get them back where they came from!). Hopping media, it’s the entire point of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, arguably his last great book (so far, at least).

My master’s is in art history, but I always leaned pretty hard into the history side of that construction. And in that process, I interacted a lot with the idea of historical teleology, the belief that history moves inexorably towards a determined point, usually improving as it goes (I guess Martin Luther King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a hopeful teleological statement, although, as with anything King said, it tends to show up without the broader context in which it was initially said). Teleology is a seductive drug, because it says, explicitly or implicitly, that hey, the time you live in is the time that had to exist now, and isn’t that comforting? And by the way, things are inexorably getting better! There’s a comfort to hearing this, a sort of close relative to being told by Dr. Pangloss that you live in the best of all possible worlds because a perfect God couldn’t create anything else. People, or at least some people, really love to hear that they’re #1 in any way you can tell them.

Y’know, it’s a bummer that such a fun movie eventually led to the goddamned Cybertruck.

So anyway, it’s not hard to see how all of these time travel movies where someone has to save the timeline are making a teleological argument. Stephen King’s version is the most explicit: in 11/22/63, the universe itself fights and claws in rebellion when the hero works to stop the Kennedy assassination, and after he succeeds and returns to the present, he finds it a disaster-wracked wasteland because by god those horrible events had to happen, and avoiding them led to much worse things. Back to the Future doesn’t raise things to quite that level, but does manage to make things pretty existential, with Marty’s pocket snapshot showing him slowly being erased from existence as the past gets fucked with.*

*this also rears its head in alternate history stories; For All Mankind makes its own weird teleological case that certain broad outlines of history have to happen, so that show’s timeline often has echo versions of things that happened in the real world. A NASA bombing instead of 9/11, for instance, or the 1991 Soviet coup happening later, albeit with a different outcome. And I could go on forever about the weird narrative pressures I felt as I wrote season 2 of The Kraken Busters.

I’ve said elsewhere that every narrative work makes some kind of argument. I don’t think that, in most of those cases, the people writing the stories consciously set out to make an argument (for the people we’ve talked about here, Stephen King might be the exception there; it feels to me like he might have been more intentional). But every narrative presents things as good or bad within the story, and things getting coded as good or bad means that there are implicit values attached to them. Which in turn adds up to an argument that X set of assumptions is good or bad.

The second part of this, then, is that if you can’t see what that argument is after some thought, then it’s probably some form of “the status quo is OK and must be protected.” This isn’t an argument that gets consciously made very often; it’s what gets coded into the story’s baseline values by default if the creator isn’t really thinking about what kind of argument they want to make. So it ends up being a very common argument, and a big part of how and why stories reinforce cultural trends.

So to that end, by putting up an argument in favor of the status quo, Back to the Future and other time travel stories in its mold are pretty typical in their arguments; they just go to greater lengths to make them. And as far as I know, Back to the Future‘s the only one to acknowledge the teleological risk of needing to fend off the advances of your extremely horny teenage mother.

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