August 19, 2012

Slice of PIE: Back To The Past -- Watching A Few Old Movies and Thoughts About It

Watching my favorite of all time MOVIES -- Back To The Future and thought I'd share an essay I wrote in 2009 and was published on October 21 at THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE. Below, you'll find it!

Back To The Future: Why These Films Must Become The Archetype

Everything about these movies (released in 1985, 1989, and 1990) points to the necessity of making the THE archetypical time travel story.

First of all, a TRUE time travel story must use a mechanism. Psychic travel, dream travel, fairy dust, or other, non-mechanical means of moving from one point in time to another cannot be substituted for the machine. This eliminates such movies as PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and AUSTIN POWERS. HG Wells’ time traveler used a machine, of course, though he was not the first to do so – only the best remembered. Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown use a time machine that has been built into a DeLorean car. This deserves to become the archetype of all time machines because it was done with such class! No phone booths or weird special effects or tunnels for them! This is as all time machines should be.

Second, not only do Marty and Doc meddle with the “past” and the “future” but they manage both to change the “present” and the “past” (twice!) The movies cover all possible bases in the time travel genre as well as discussing alternate time lines (riffing off of the quantum mechanics PhD dissertation of Hugh Everett, “The Theory of Universal Wave Function” ( )) This same riff introduces as well, the necessity that every time travel movie must have at least an attempt at showing its root in real physics.

Third, Marty meets not only one of his own “present” selves, but his parents as well – more than once. (I know, it’s getting confusing!) He nearly causes himself to disappear from the time line by becoming the object of his adolescent mother’s hormone-mad and alcohol inflamed lust as well as watching himself help with the defeat of his father’s arch-nemesis, Biff Tannen – who is teenager, elderly man and scion of an industrial complex that would EXXON look like a tree-hugging, save-the-whales, environmentally friendly lobby group; and an automobile detailing blue-collar service employee. Biff also meets a younger version of himself as well to warn him of Marty or Dr. Brown’s possible appearance.

Fourth, the movies are confusing! This should be a prerequisite of all time travel stories. Certainly, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT has this element, though there’s no apparent machine that causes the flipping back and forth through time. Star Trek’s FIRST CONTACT and THE VOYAGE HOME, while classics, do not meet this criteria either (as much as I’d love it if they did) – they are entirely too linear and are action adventure rather than “true” time travel. There needs to be a hint of mystery and confusion. USS Voyager’s Captain Janeway said it well: "Time travel. Ever since my first day in the job as a Starfleet Captain I swore I'd never let myself get caught in one of these god-forsaken paradoxes. The future is the past, the past is the future. It all gives me a headache." Janeway to Chakotay at Starling’s computer (“Future’s End”, part II)

Fifth, time travelers need to meet themselves or somehow threaten themselves in either the future or the past. BTTF does this in spades and all other movies are weaker for not doing it. It creates a sense of delicious “naughtiness”, so to speak, because which one of us hasn’t wanted at some time to alter some event in our past to give ourselves some future advantage. Marty McFly does this deliberately once – and is royally burned (the 1950-2000 SPORTS ALMANAC); accidentally once – (giving his dad self-confidence and the wherewithal to become a SF writer) and is royally rewarded (with a Toyota pickup, for starters); and again deliberately (saving Doc Brown in the Old West, then saving himself in the Old West as the (can you say “archetypical”?) Clint Eastwood good-guy gunslinger.

Sixth and last, the final stern resolution to never mess with time travel again. Of course, it’s clear that Dr. Brown does in fact mess with both the past and the future, but he doesn’t wreck anything. At least as far as we know, except marrying a woman who was supposed to have died in a wagon wreck and fathering two children who go on to…who knows? There is certainly room for another trilogy here. Which is of course, another thing that a good time travel movie should do – create the possibility of infinite futures.

I’m sure you’ll all agree with me, but if you don’t – TELL ME WHY!

(For another list of the Ten Best Time Travel Movies of all time, go to:

No comments: