Back to the Future (1985)
|Genre||Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi|
|Content Rating||PG (PG)|
|Awards||Top Rated Movies #37 | Won 1 Oscar. Another 21 wins & 25 nominations.|
|Company||Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, U-Drive Productions|
Back to the Future
Back to the Future is a 1985 American science fiction film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, it stars Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson. Set in 1985, the story follows Marty McFly (Fox), a teenager accidentally sent back to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean automobile built by his eccentric scientist friend Doctor Emmett "Doc" Brown (Lloyd). Trapped in the past, Marty inadvertently prevents his future parents' meeting—threatening his existence—and is forced to reconcile the pair and somehow get back to the future.
Back to the Future was conceived of in 1980, by Gale and Zemeckis. They were desperate for a successful film after numerous collaborative failures, but their idea was rejected over 40 times by studios because it was not considered raunchy enough to compete with the successful comedies of the era. A development deal was secured following Zemeckis' success directing Romancing the Stone (1984). Fox was the first choice to portray Marty, but he was unavailable; Eric Stoltz was cast instead. Shortly after principal photography began in November 1984, Zemeckis determined Stoltz was not right for the part and made the concessions necessary to hire Fox. This included re-filming scenes already shot with Stoltz and adding $4 million to the budget. Back to the Future was filmed in and around California and on sets at Universal Studios. Filming concluded the following April.
Replacing Stoltz delayed production and the film's release date but, following highly successful test screenings, the date was brought forward to July 3, 1985, to give Back to the Future more time in theaters. This resulted in a rushed post-production schedule, and some incomplete special effects. Back to the Future was a critical and commercial success, earning $381.1 million to become the highest-grossing film of 1985 worldwide. Critics praised the story, comedy, and the cast—particularly Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, and Glover. It received multiple award nominations and won an Academy Award, Saturn Awards, and a Hugo Award. Its theme song, "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News was a significant success globally.
In the years since its release, Back to the Future has grown in esteem and is now considered to be among the greatest films of the 1980s, one of the best science-fiction films ever made, and one of the greatest films of all time. In 2007, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film was followed by two sequels, Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990). With its effect on popular culture and a dedicated fan following, Back to the Future launched a multimedia franchise. This includes an animated television series, video games, comic books, board games, clothing, music, books, food, toys, collectibles, and theme park rides. Its enduring popularity has led to numerous books about its production, documentaries, and commercials. Back to the Future has been adapted into a 2020 stage musical.
In 1985, Marty McFly is a typical teenager living in Hill Valley, California. At home, Marty's meek father George is bullied by his supervisor, Biff Tannen. His mother Lorraine is a depressed alcoholic, and his older siblings are professional and social failures. Marty's band is rejected for a music contest. He confides in his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, about fears of becoming like his parents despite his ambitions.
That night, Marty meets his eccentric scientist friend Emmett "Doc" Brown in the Twin Pines mall parking lot. Doc unveils a time machine built from a modified DeLorean, powered by plutonium he swindled from Libyan terrorists. Doc inputs a destination time of November 5, 1955—the day he first conceived his time travel invention. The terrorists arrive unexpectedly, opening fire and shooting Doc. Marty flees in the DeLorean, inadvertently activating time travel when he reaches 88 miles per hour (142 km/h).
Arriving in 1955, Marty discovers he has no plutonium to return. While exploring a burgeoning Hill Valley, Marty encounters his teenage father and discovers Biff has been bullying him since high school. George falls into the path of an oncoming car while spying on the teenage Lorraine, and Marty is knocked unconscious while saving him. He wakes to find himself tended to by Lorraine, who becomes infatuated with him. Marty tracks down a younger Doc and convinces him he is from the future, but Doc explains the only source available in 1955 capable of generating the power required for time travel is a lightning bolt. Marty shows Doc a flyer from the future that documents an upcoming lightning strike at the town's courthouse. As Marty's siblings begin to fade from a photo he is carrying with him, Doc realizes Marty's actions are altering the future and jeopardizing his existence; Lorraine was supposed to meet George instead of Marty after the car accident. Early attempts to get his parents acquainted fail, and Lorraine's infatuation with Marty deepens.
Lorraine asks Marty to the school dance. He plots to feign inappropriate advances on Lorraine, allowing George to intervene and "rescue" her, but the plan goes awry when Biff's gang locks Marty in the trunk of the performing band's car, while Biff forces himself onto Lorraine. George arrives expecting to find Marty but is assaulted by Biff. After Biff hurts Lorraine, an enraged George knocks him unconscious and escorts the grateful Lorraine to the dance. The band frees Marty from their car, but the lead guitarist injures his hand in the process. Marty takes his place and performs while George and Lorraine share their first kiss. With his future no longer in jeopardy, Marty heads to the courthouse to meet Doc.
Doc discovers a note from Marty warning him about his future and destroys it, worried about the consequences. To save Doc, Marty re-calibrates the DeLorean to return ten minutes before he left the future. The lightning strikes, sending Marty back to 1985, but the DeLorean breaks down, forcing Marty to run back to the mall. He arrives as Doc is being shot. While Marty grieves at his side, Doc sits up, revealing he pieced Marty's note back together and wore a bulletproof vest. He takes Marty home and departs to 2015 in the DeLorean.
Marty wakes the next morning to discover his father is now a confident and successful science fiction author, his mother is fit and happy, his siblings are successful, and Biff is a servile valet in George's employ. As Marty reunites with Jennifer, Doc suddenly reappears in the DeLorean, insisting they return with him to the future to save their children from terrible fates.
- Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly:A high school student and aspiring musician
- Christopher Lloyd as Emmett "Doc" Brown:An eccentric scientist experimenting with time travel
- Lea Thompson as Lorraine Baines-McFly:A 1955 teenager who grows into Marty's unhappy, alcoholic mother
- Crispin Glover as George McFly:A nerdy 1955 high schooler who grows into Marty's cowardly, submissive father
- Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen:A 1955 high school bully turned George's 1985 boss
James Tolkan portrays Hill Valley high school principal Strickland in both 1955 and 1985. Back to the Future features a 1985-era cast that includes Claudia Wells as Marty's girlfriend Jennifer Parker, and Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber as Marty's siblings Dave McFly and Linda McFly respectively. Elsa Raven portrays the Clocktower Lady. Singer Huey Lewis cameos as a judge for the Battle of the Bands contest. Richard L. Duran and Jeff O'Haco portray the Libyan terrorists.
The 1955-era cast includes George DiCenzo and Frances Lee McCain as, respectively, Lorraine's parents Sam and Stella Baines, and Jason Hervey as Lorraine's younger brother Milton. Biff's gang includes Jeffrey Jay Cohen as Skinhead, Casey Siemaszko as 3-D, and Billy Zane as Match. Norman Alden plays the cafe owner Lou and Donald Fullilove appears as his employee (and future mayor) Goldie Wilson. Harry Waters Jr. portrays Chuck Berry's cousin Marvin Berry, Will Hare appears as Pa Peabody, and Courtney Gains portrays Dixon, the youth who interrupts George's and Lorraine's dance.
Conception and writing
Long-time collaborators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis conceived of Back to the Future in 1980. They wanted to develop a film about time travel but were struggling for a satisfying narrative and they were desperate for a successful project following the critical or commercial failures of their recent efforts. These projects had been collaborations with Zemeckis' mentor Steven Spielberg.
Following the release of their comedy Used Cars (1980), Gale visited his parents and came across his father's high school yearbook. Gale questioned whether he and his father would have been friends had they attended school together. He did not think so, but realized he could test his theory if he could travel back to a time when he and his parents were a similar age. He shared the idea with Zemeckis, who recalled his mother's childhood stories were often contradictory.
Gale and Zemeckis began a draft in late 1980. They sketched and acted out each scene to help develop the dialogue and actions. They believed many time travel films focused on the past being immutable, and wanted to show the past being changed and the impact those changes would have on the future. In the draft, video pirate Professor Brown builds a time machine that sends his young friend Marty back to the 1950s where he interrupts his parents' first meeting. In September 1980, Gale and Zemeckis pitched their idea to Columbia Pictures president Frank Price. Price had liked Used Cars and was keen to work with the pair. Gale recalled having to rein in Zemeckis' enthusiastic pitch before Price had time to change his mind. Gale and Zemeckis completed the first draft for Price on February 21, 1981. Price believed it needed significant refinement.
Some early concepts were abandoned. Originally, the changes to 1955 had a more significant impact on 1985, making it more futuristic, but every person who read the script hated the idea. Marty's father also became a boxer, a result of his knockout punch on Biff. The time machine was a stationary object moved around on the back of a truck. Inspired by the documentary The Atomic Cafe, the drained time machine was written to be powered by Marty driving it into a nuclear explosion, combined with an additional ingredient—Coca-Cola. Gale and Zemeckis took inspiration from tales of legendary scientists, opting to make the time machine's creator an individual instead of a faceless corporation or government. The pair knew the time travel had to be an accident because they did not want the hero to be seeking personal gain.
The pair drew humor from the contrasts between 1955 and 1985, such as Marty entering a 1955 soda shop while wearing 1985 clothing. The shop owner asks Marty if he is a sailor because his down vest resembles a life preserver. They also identified conveniences of 1985 that Marty would take for granted but be denied in 1955. The pair struggled as they were in their 30s and did not particularly identify with either era. The All-American aesthetic of films by Frank Capra featuring white picket fences and exaggerated characters like Biff, The Twilight Zone, science-fiction films, and books by Robert Silverberg and Robert A. Heinlein inspired them. The romantic relationship between 1955 Lorraine and her future son was one of the more difficult writing challenges. Gale and Zemeckis attempted to take the concept as far as possible to keep the audience feeling on edge. They knew it had to be Lorraine who stopped the relationship; she remarks that kissing Marty feels like kissing her brother. Gale jokingly said no-one asked how she could make that comparison, but audiences would accept it because they did not want the relationship to happen. The second draft was completed by April 7, 1981.
Price opted not to green-light the second draft. He liked it, but he did not think it would impress others. The most successful comedies at the time like Animal House (1978), Porky's (1981), and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), featured sexual and bawdy elements; Back to the Future was considered too tame in comparison. The project went into turnaround—a process allowing other studios to purchase the idea. The script was rejected approximately 40 times, sometimes multiple times by the same studios. Reasons given included the concept being unappealing to contemporary rebellious youth, and the failures of other time travel films like The Final Countdown (1980) and Time Bandits (1981). Walt Disney Productions turned it down because they considered Marty having to fight off his future mother's advances too risqué for their brand. The only person supportive of the project was Spielberg. However, with their previous collaborations considered relative failures, Gale and Zemeckis feared another misstep would give them a reputation of only getting work because they were friends with Spielberg.
Zemeckis opted to accept the next project offered to him, Romancing the Stone (1984). Against pre-release expectations, the film was a significant success, and gave Zemeckis enough credibility to return to Back to the Future. Zemeckis held a grudge against the studios that had failed to support the project and turned to Spielberg, who had set up his own production company, Amblin Entertainment, at Universal Studios, where Price now worked. Spielberg disliked Price because he rejected E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and demanded his involvement in Back to the Future be minimal. Sidney Sheinberg installed himself as chief executive to oversee the studio's investment in the project. Amblin executives Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall joined Spielberg as the film's executive producers.
However, rights to Back to the Future remained tied to Columbia Pictures. Guy McElwaine—Price's successor at Columbia Pictures—was developing a satire of the Universal-owned noir film Double Indemnity (1944) called Big Trouble (1986). Its similarities to Double Indemnity meant the studio would violate Universal Pictures' copyright. With production imminent, McElwaine asked for the rights from Price; in exchange, Price obtained the rights to Back to the Future.
Sheinberg suggested modifications to the film including changing the title to Space Man from Pluto because he believed Back to the Future would not resonate with audiences. Gale and Zemeckis did not know how to reject Sheinberg's suggestions without risking his ire. Spielberg intervened, sending Sheinberg a memo reading: "Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep 'em coming." Spielberg knew Sheinberg would be too embarrassed to admit his memo was to be taken seriously. Sheinberg later claimed the story was "bullshit". He also wanted to change the name of Marty's mother from Meg to Lorraine (a tribute to his wife Lorraine Gary), and rename Professor Brown to Doc Brown because he considered it more accessible. A third draft was completed by July 1984. The lengthy development allowed Gale and Zemeckis to refine the script's jokes, especially ones that had become dated since 1980. The joke about former actor Ronald Reagan becoming President of the United States remained following his re-election in 1984.
Michael J. Fox was the first choice to portray Marty McFly. Gale and Zemeckis believed his acting timing in the sitcom Family Ties (1982–1989) as the sophisticated Alex P. Keaton could be translated to Marty's clumsiness. Spielberg asked the show's producer Gary David Goldberg to have Fox read the script. Concerned Fox's absence would damage Family Ties' success—especially with fellow star Meredith Baxter absent for maternity leave—Goldberg did not give Fox the script. Other young stars were considered including: John Cusack, C. Thomas Howell, Johnny Depp, Ralph Macchio, Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer, Ben Stiller, Peter DeLuise, Billy Zane, George Newbern, Robert Downey Jr., Christopher Collet, Corey Hart (who declined to audition) and Matthew Modine. Howell was the frontrunner, but Sheinberg wanted Eric Stoltz, who had impressed with his portrayal of Rocky Dennis in an early screening of the drama film Mask (1985). With the filming date approaching, Zemeckis opted to go with Stoltz. Sheinberg promised that if Stoltz did not work out they could reshoot the film. The character's name was derived from Used Cars production assistant Marty Casella. Zemeckis suggested McFly because it sounded "All-American".
Among others, Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, Dudley Moore, Ron Silver, Robin Williams, John Cleese, Mandy Patinkin, Gene Hackman, and James Woods were considered for the role of Doc Brown. Producer Neil Canton suggested Lithgow, having worked with him and Christopher Lloyd on Buckaroo Banzai (1984). Lithgow was unavailable, and the role was offered to Lloyd. He was reluctant to join the production until a friend encouraged him to take the part. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and conductor Leopold Stokowski inspired Lloyd's wild, white hair. Lloyd affected a hunched posture to lower his 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 m) height closer to the 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 m) tall Fox.
The filmmakers became aware of Lea Thompson while researching Stoltz in the comedy-drama The Wild Life (1984). Crispin Glover used many of his own mannerisms in portraying George McFly. Gale described his performance as "nuts", and Zemeckis was reportedly unhappy with Glover's performance choices and instructed him to be more restrained as the older George. Glover lost his voice during filming and later dubbed in some of his lines. Deluise, Zane, Tim Robbins, and J. J. Cohen were considered to play Biff Tannen. Cohen was not considered intimidating enough against Stoltz, and the role went to Thomas F. Wilson; his first feature starring role. Zane and Cohen were cast as Biff's minions Match and Skinhead instead. Tannen's name was taken from Universal Studios executive Ned Tanen, who had been unpleasant with Gale and Zemeckis.
Melora Hardin was cast as Jennifer Parker on a two-film contract. After Stoltz was replaced, the crew were polled about Hardin being taller than Fox; the female crew overwhelmingly voted Marty should not be shorter than his girlfriend. Hardin was replaced by Claudia Wells, who had been earlier offered the role but turned it down because of her commitment to the short-lived television series Off the Rack (1984). Actresses Kyra Sedgwick and Jill Schoelen were also considered; Schoelen was told she looked too "exotic" and not All-American enough. Doc Brown's pet dog Einstein was scripted as a chimpanzee named Shemp. Sheinberg insisted films featuring chimps never did well. James Tolkan was the first choice for Principal Strickland after Zemeckis saw him in the crime drama Prince of the City (1981). Singer and soundtrack contributor Huey Lewis cameos as a Battle of the Bands judge. Lewis agreed to appear as long as he was uncredited and could wear a disguise. Gale cameos as the hand in the radiation suit tapping the DeLorean time display.
Filming with Stoltz
Principal photography began November 26, 1984, on a 14-week schedule set to conclude on February 28, 1985, with an estimated $14 million budget. Filming took place mainly at the Universal Studios lot and on location in California. Dean Cundey served as the cinematographer; he and Zemeckis collaborated on Romancing the Stone. Editor Arthur Schmidt was hired after Zemeckis saw his work on Firstborn (1984); Schmidt recommended hiring Harry Keramidas as co-editor. Frank Marshall also served as a second unit director.
Owing to the tight schedule, editing occurred alongside the filming process. On December 30, 1984, Zemeckis reviewed the existing scenes with Schmidt and Keramidas. Zemeckis was reluctant to review the footage because he would be self-critical, but he believed Stoltz was not working out and had already listed several scenes he wanted to reshoot. Zemeckis called in Gale and the producers to show them the footage; they agreed Stoltz was not right for the part. Stoltz was performing the role with an intense and serious tone and not providing the "screwball" energy they wanted from the character. Gale said Stoltz was a good actor in the wrong role.
Stoltz utilized method acting and stayed in character as Marty when not filming, refusing to answer to his own name. This resulted in feuding with some of the cast and crew, including Wilson. Stoltz put his full strength into pushing Wilson rather than imitating doing so, despite Wilson's protests. Spielberg said Zemeckis needed a replacement in place before firing Stoltz, or he risked the production being canceled. Zemeckis and the producers asked Sheinberg for permission to do whatever was necessary to accommodate Fox's participation; Spielberg made another call to Goldberg. On January 3, 1985, Goldberg told Fox about withholding the Back to the Future script from him, and the filmmakers wanted to know if he was interested. Baxter had returned to the show, and they could be more flexible with Fox as long as Family Ties took priority. Fox agreed to join without reading the script. The transition could not take place immediately and filming continued with Stoltz in the lead role, unaware he was to be replaced.
On January 10, 1985, Zemeckis informed Stoltz that he was no longer a part of the film. Zemeckis described it as "the hardest meeting I've ever had in my life and it was all my fault. I broke heart." Stoltz was reported to have told his make-up artist he was not a comedian and did not understand why he was cast. The producers informed the principal cast and the rest of the crew much of the film would be re-shot. Cundey said most of the crew saw Stoltz's removal as "good news". Crew members later said there were obvious signs Stoltz would be replaced; the set designers were told not to change the 1955 set, and a scene involving a discussion between Marty and Doc was filmed only showing Doc. Stoltz had shot numerous key scenes including Marty traveling to 1955 in the DeLorean, it breaking down as he prepares to return to 1985, and his final scene was Marty's return to 1985. Filming fell behind schedule, with 34 days of filming lost and an additional cost of $3.5–$4 million, including Stoltz receiving his salary in full. Universal Pictures' marketing team was tasked with mitigating the negative public implications of a project replacing its main star.
Filming with Fox
Fox's first day on set was January 15, 1985. He filmed Family Ties during the day before traveling to the Back to the Future filming location. Often, he would not return home until early the following morning, and on weekends, the schedule was pushed back further as Family Ties was filmed in front of a live audience. The teamsters dropping Fox at home regularly had to carry the actor to bed. This continued until April when Family Ties finished filming. Gale said Fox's youth meant he could cope with less sleep than usual. Fox described it as exhausting, but worth the effort. Further into the filming schedule, Fox was energetic during his scenes but struggled to stay awake off set. He ad-libbed some lines when he forgot the intended dialog, and recalled looking for a camcorder on the Family Ties set, before realizing it was a prop on Back to the Future. He also had to learn to mimic playing the guitar and choreographed skateboarding routines taught by Per Welinder and Bob Schmelzer.
To compensate for his conflicting schedules and keep the production costs low, some scenes involving Marty were shot without Fox, who filmed his part separately. Re-shooting scenes gave the filmmakers the opportunity to see what had not worked and implement new ideas. To avoid building an additional classroom set, the opening pan across the array of clocks in Doc Brown's laboratory replaced an opening scene where Marty sets off a fire alarm to get out of detention. The height differences between Stoltz and Fox necessitated other changes, such as a scene of Fox teaching George how to punch, because Fox could not reach the necessary prop. According to Gale, once Fox replaced Stoltz, the atmosphere on set improved. Thompson anecdotally said while Stoltz ate alone in his trailer, Fox ate with the cast and crew.
The production used many locations in and around Los Angeles. The clock tower is a structure on the Universal Studios Lot in Universal City, California. When filmed from below, Lloyd was positioned on a recreation of the clock tower, but when filmed from above, Lloyd stood atop the tower itself. Production designer Lawrence G. Paull insisted on using the Universal backlot sets because of the difficulties and costs involved in making an on-location area look 1955 appropriate. Whittier High School in the city of Whittier is the Hill Valley high school. Marty's home and the surrounding Lyon estates are in Arleta, Los Angeles. Several of the residential locations were filmed in Pasadena: Lorraine's and George's 1955 homes, and Doc Brown's 1955 home—its exterior is the Gamble House—and interiors were shot at the Blacker House. The Walt Disney Studios-owned Golden Oak Ranch in Newhall, Santa Clarita, California, serves as the Twin Pines ranch where Marty lands in 1955 and Puente Hills Mall in Rowland Heights is the Twin Pines mall that replaces the ranch in 1985. Other locations include the basement of the Hollywood United Methodist Church where the school dance was filmed, and Griffith Park, where Marty begins his drive to the courthouse to return to 1985, crossing by a lamp post, situated outside of the Greek Theatre.
Filming concluded after 107 days on April 26, 1985. The final day of filming included pick-up shots of Marty and Einstein the dog in the DeLorean.
Arthur F. Repola served as the post-production supervisor, but he became responsible for many aspects outside of his role, including budgets, storyboarding, and general problem-solving. Those roles belonged to Kennedy and Marshall but both were occupied on other films. Schmidt found editing the film difficult, because he had to imagine where the special effects would later be added; there was no time or budget to re-edit afterward.
A rough version of the movie was cut together for a test screening at Century 22 theater in San Jose, California, in mid-May 1985, just three weeks after filming concluded. The audience was seemingly uninterested at the exposition-heavy opening but became engaged after the DeLorean appeared. 94% of the audience at a test screening in Long Beach, California, responded they would definitely recommend the film; 99% rated it very good or excellent. Gale said there was some concern when Doc's dog Einstein was sent through time, as the audience believed he had been killed. The film was re-cut and screened again at the Alfred Hitchcock theater at Universal Studios for executives, including Sheinberg. He was so impressed he moved the scheduled release date forward to July 3, 1985, to give it more time in theaters. This reduced the post-production schedule to just nine weeks for special effects and editing. Zemeckis spent much of June 1985 rushing to finish the film.
Several scenes were filmed but did not make it into the finished film: a scene of Doc looking at an issue of Playboy, remarking the future looks better; a scene of 1985 George being coerced into buying a large amount of peanut brittle from a young girl; a scene of George being trapped in a phone booth by the man who interrupts his dance with Lorraine; and the scene of Marty pretending to be "Darth Vader" was shortened. Zemeckis considered cutting the "Johnny B. Goode" performance because it did not advance the story, but test-audiences reacted well to it. There is a dispute if a scene of Stoltz's hand is in the finished film in the scene where Marty punches Biff. Gale noted it is impossible to tell without checking the original film negative, which would risk damaging it. The final cut was completed on June 23, 1985. It had a runtime of 116 minutes. Universal Studios took out a full-page advertisement in Variety magazine, thanking the post-production crew for completing their work on time. The final budget was $19 million.
Alan Silvestri composed the score for Back to the Future; he had worked with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone. The only direction Zemeckis gave him was "it's got to be big". Silvestri used an orchestral score to create a sound that contrasted with the small-town setting and the significant time-changing events occurring within it. He wanted a heroic theme that would be instantly recognizable in just a few notes.
Huey Lewis was approached to write a theme song for the film; he was coming off the success of his recent album Sports. He met with Gale, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, who intended that Huey Lewis and the News be Marty's favorite band. Though flattered, Lewis did not want to participate because he did not know how to write film songs and did not want to write one called "Back to the Future". Zemeckis assured Lewis he could write any song he wanted. Lewis agreed to submit the next song he wrote, which was "The Power of Love". Lewis maintains "Power of Love" was his first submission, but Zemeckis recalled a different first song that was rejected. Lewis later acquiesced to Zemeckis' request for a second song, "Back in Time".
Musician Eddie Van Halen performed the guitar riff Marty (dressed as "Darth Vader") uses to wake George. The filmmakers wanted to use Van Halen's music, but the band refused to take part, so Eddie took part on his own. Mark Campbell provided Marty's singing voice. Campbell did not receive credit as the filmmakers wanted to create the illusion Fox was singing. When music supervisor Bones Howe learned of this, he secured Campbell a small percentage of the soundtrack revenue as compensation. Paul Hanson taught Fox how to use a guitar to play "Johnny B. Goode", and choreographer Brad Jeffries spent four weeks teaching Fox to replicate various rock star moves popularized by artists like Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, and Chuck Berry. Berry withheld permission to use "Johnny B. Goode" until the day before filming. He was paid $50,000 for the rights. Harry Waters Jr. provided the vocals on "Earth Angel".
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) developed the film's special effects under the supervision of Ken Ralston and Kevin Pike. It contains approximately 27–32 special effects shots, compared to the 300 effects typical in higher-budget films of its time. Despite also working simultaneously on The Goonies and Cocoon, Ralston took on the additional project because it required relatively few effects, and he wanted to realize the planned ending of Marty driving the time machine into a nuclear explosion. The team had a nine-and-a-half week schedule, but this was reduced to eight once Universal Pictures moved up the release date. ILM was working on Back to the Future up to the moment it had to be handed over to print the theatrical film reels.
The tight schedule affected the special effects' quality. Ralston was disappointed by the scene where Marty's hand fades away as his future is altered. Fox was filmed separately from his hand and the two were composited together; the hand was filmed with a wide-angle lens, making it appear too large and it had to be scaled down. Zemeckis wanted a subtle fade, but it resulted in a small circle of the hand fading away and there was no time to fix it. In the same scene, Marty and his siblings fade away from a photo. ILM found it difficult to fade the photo's individual aspects, especially as it is moving on the neck of a guitar. A replica of the guitar neck was constructed at four times the normal size; the guitar strings were made of cable up to a quarter-inch thick. An 11x14 inch aluminum plate was attached to hold the enlarged photograph. ILM used a version of the photo without Marty or his siblings and individually pasted each character into the photo. When this failed, four different photos were used: one containing the background, and one for each McFly sibling. A mechanical camera cycled through each photo and printed it to the film. The enlarged guitar was moved around to add to the realism.
The original nuclear explosion ending was considered too complicated and expensive, with an estimated cost of $1 million. Art director Andrew Probert storyboarded the scene which would have been created using sets and miniatures. With the ending moved to the clock tower, ILM researched storms to achieve the right look. Clouds were constructed from polyester fiberfill, suspended in a net and filmed from above while Ralston shone a powerful light from below. He used a rheostat to rapidly change the lights' intensity to imitate lightning.
Developed by Wes Takahashi's animation department, the lightning bolt that strikes the clock tower was described as "the largest bolt of lightning in cinematic history". It was intended to originate far in the distance and move towards the camera, but the footage was filmed too close to the clock tower and there was insufficient space between it and the top of the frame for the effect. There was also an issue of showing the bolt onscreen for too long as it made it more obviously animated. The frame count was reduced but the effect did not look erratic enough. Zemeckis picked out a single frame of the bolt in an "S" formation and asked that the effect focus on that shape and be reduced to 20 frames. The bolt was drawn in black ink on white paper; a glow and diffusion effects were added by the Optical department.
The DeLorean time machine
The DeLorean was developed under the supervision of Lawrence Paull, who designed it with artist Ron Cobb and illustrator Andrew Probert. They intended for the vehicle to look fixed together from common parts. The time machine was conceived as a stationary device; at one point it was a refrigerator. Spielberg vetoed the idea, concerned children might attempt to climb into one. Zemeckis suggested the DeLorean because it offered mobility, a unique design, and the gull-wing doors would appear like an alien UFO to a 1950s family. The Ford Motor Company offered $75,000 to use a Ford Mustang instead; Gale responded "Doc Brown doesn't drive a fucking Mustang". Michael Fink was hired as the art department liaison and tasked with realizing Cobb's sketches and overseeing the car's construction. Paull and Canton, who had worked with him on Blade Runner (1982) and Buckaroo Bonzai, respectively, recruited him. Fink had a project lined up but agreed to help in the free weeks he had remaining. Three DeLoreans used were purchased from a collector—one for stunts, one for special effects, and one for normal shots. They were unreliable and often broke down. 88 mph (142 km/h) was chosen as the time travel speed because it was easy to remember and looked "cool" on the speedometer.
The flying DeLorean used a combination of live-action footage, animation, and a 1:5 scale (approximately 33 inches (840 mm) long) model built by Steve Gawley and the model shop crew. The act of the DeLorean traveling through time is referred to as the "time slice" effect. Zemeckis knew only that he wanted it to be a violent transition. He described it like a "Neanderthal sitting on the hood of the DeLorean and chipping away the fabric of time in front of him". The effect is so quick as to be imperceptible. Zemeckis preferred this as he did not want the audience to think too much about how everything worked.
Art direction and makeup
The film uses a stylized adaptation of 1950s aesthetics closer to television show interpretations than an exact recreation. They used modern technologies—such as contemporary fabrics—because they felt the fashions of the time were less interesting. Using actual brand names like Texaco made the sets more realistic. Paull said the producers mandated the inclusion of certain brands who had paid to appear in the film. An unnamed gas company offered a large sum to be included, but Paull used Texaco because it reminded him of a joke from The Milton Berle Show. This led to some disputes. Pepsi's makers, PepsiCo, did not want a joke about Tab in the film as its rival Coca-Cola made it. Twenty clock wranglers were needed for the opening scene to synch up the many clocks. They used pulleys to start the clocks in sync with the scene recording. Drew Struzan produced the film's poster. The producers hoped his in-demand poster artwork would help generate public interest in the film.
To represent characters across three decades, the filmmakers did not want to have older actors stand-in for the younger ones, believing the change would be obvious and distracting. Special effects artist Ken Chase was hired for his experience with prosthetics. He performed make-up tests on the young actors to age them; initially, the results were discouraging. Chase created a prosthetic neck and a bald cap with a receding hairline for Glover, but they were considered excessive. Chase found it difficult to balance aging the actors while retaining enough of their natural appearance so they remained recognizable.
Casts were made of the actors' faces, from which plaster molds were made. Chase sculpted more subtle effects over the plaster molds using latex. For Lorraine, he crafted jowls and eye bags, plus body padding to reflect her increased weight and alcohol abuse. Instead of a receding hairline, Chase just changed the style of George's hair and used prosthetics to give him a less defined jawline. Biff's character changed more significantly; he was made to look fatter, given sideburns, and a comb over hairstyle to hide a growing bald-spot. Chase wanted him to look "obnoxious". The prosthetics were combined with makeup and lighting to further age the characters.
Chase found the work frustrating compared to his experiences with more fantastical prostheses that made it easier to hide defects. The rubber latex did not reflect light the same way as natural skin. Chase used a stippling process—creating a pattern with small dots—to add varied colors to the actors' faces to better conceal where the skin and prosthetics met; close-up shots were avoided. Doc's appearance was not altered significantly. Chase used a technique where he painted latex on Lloyd which, when removed, caused crinkles in the skin; other elements like liver spots and shadows were painted on.
By June 1985, the theatrical industry had seen a 14% decline in ticket sales over the previous year's $4 billion record sales. The summer period (beginning the final week of May) had 45 films scheduled for release, including action film Rambo: First Blood Part II, adventure film The Goonies, the comedies Brewster's Millions and Fletch and the latest James Bond film A View to a Kill. This represented a 25% increase over the previous year's releases, leading to concerns among industry professionals the competition would divide audiences and limit financial returns at a time when the average cost of making and marketing a film had increased to $14.5 million and $7 million respectively. A higher budget to secure a popular cast was considered a suitable risk, as the resulting box office returns were typically higher. Most films scheduled for release were aimed at younger audiences, focusing on fantasy and the supernatural. Reflecting the times, these fantasy elements often employed a technological source instead of a magical one. Only a few films, like Cocoon and Prizzi's Honor, were targeted at adults.
Initially, Back to the Future was scheduled to be released in May 1985, but was pushed back to June 21, the earliest Zemeckis could have the film ready. The delay caused by Stoltz's replacement pushed the release back to July 19, and later to August. Sheinberg moved the release date forward to July 3, giving it an extra 16 days of theatrical screen time during the industry's most profitable period of the year. The move offered about 100,000 extra screenings worth an estimated $40 million. Sheinberg said he also wanted to avoid the negative perception of films released later in the summer period, instead of early like other blockbuster films. The change required renegotiations with theater owners to secure screens in an already crowded marketplace. In some cities, it was legally required exhibitors be shown a film prior to purchase; an unfinished cut of the film was shown to theater owners and young test audiences. They described it as not at the same level as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or Ghostbusters, but a guaranteed box office hit. Fox was unavailable for promotional work because he was filming Family Ties Vacation (1985) in London.
In North America, Back to the Future received a wide release on July 3, 1985, ahead of Independence Day holiday weekend. The film earned $3.6 million during the opening Wednesday and Thursday. During its inaugural weekend, it earned a further $11.3 million from 1,420 theaters—an average of $7,853 per theater. Back to the Future finished as the number one film of the weekend ahead of the western Pale Rider ($7 million) in its second weekend, and Rambo: First Blood Part II ($6.4 million) in its seventh. It retained the number one position in its second weekend with a further gross of $10.6 million, ahead of the debuting action film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ($7.8 million) and Cocoon ($5 million). It remained number one in its third weekend, ahead of the re-release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ($8.8 million) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ($5.4 million). In its fourth weekend it fell briefly to number two behind the comedy National Lampoon's European Vacation ($12.3 million). It returned to number one in its fifth weekend with $8.4 million, and remained there for the following eight weeks. Recalling the opening weeks, Gale said, "our second weekend was higher than our first weekend, which is indicative of great word of mouth."
The film remained a steady success through to September. By October, it had surpassed Rambo: First Blood Part II's $149 million box office earnings to become the year's highest-grossing film with $155 million. In total, Back to the Future was the number one film for 11 of its 12 first weeks of release. It remained in the top ten highest-grossing films for its first 24 weeks of release. By the end of its theatrical run, Back to the Future earned an approximate box office gross of $210.6 million. This figure made it the highest-grossing film of 1985, ahead of Rambo: First Blood Part II ($150.4 million), the sports drama Rocky IV ($127.9 million), and the drama The Color Purple ($94.2 million). According to estimates by Box Office Mojo, this indicates over 59 million tickets were bought to see the film. Industry experts suggest as of 1997, the box office returns to the studio—minus the theaters' share—was $105.5 million.
The year was considered an unsuccessful one for film. Despite a record number of film releases ticket sales were down 17% compared with 1984. Industry executives blamed the problem, in part, on a lack of original concepts, and a glut of youth-oriented films targeted at those under 18. Only Back to the Future and Rambo: First Blood Part II were considered blockbusters, earning more than double the box office of Cocoon. Films offering escapism and pro-America themes also fared well. After years of poor performances, Back to the Future, alongside Fletch, Brewster's Millions, and Mask, reversed Universal Picture's fortunes.
Outside North America, the film earned a further estimated $170.5 million. This made it the third-highest-grossing film behind the romantic drama Out of Africa ($179.1 million) and Rocky IV ($172.6 million). Cumulatively, Back to the Future earned a worldwide gross of $381.1 million, making it the highest-grossing film of 1985 worldwide, ahead of Rocky IV ($300.5 million) and Rambo: First Blood Part II ($300.4 million).
Back to the Future has received several theatrical re-releases to celebrate anniversaries, including a remastered version screened in 2010. These releases have raised the film's worldwide total to $388.8 million.
Back to the Future received generally positive reviews from critics. Janet Maslin called it the "most sustained and entertaining" of the summer's films. Richard Corliss said the audiences' kids would love the film over the next 30 years. For Paul Attanasio the film offered a return to a focus on storytelling. He added that even though every facet seemed mechanically designed to create a broadly appealing film, it never felt too safe. Attanasio concluded Back to the Future was a "wildly pleasurable" and sweet science-fiction comedy. Several reviewers compared it favorably to the 1946 fantasy drama It's a Wonderful Life. Roger Ebert said Zemeckis had delivered a "fine comic touch" and humanity, offering charm, humor, and a lot of surprises that offered the film's "greatest pleasures". Kirk Ellis (writing for The Hollywood Reporter) offered a similar sentiment, saying Zemeckis' direction added a comic humanity to the science-fiction setting. Ellis called it the Oedipal version of It's a Wonderful Life. He said that despite Spielberg's role as a producer, Back to the Future was clearly Zemeckis' film, being more subtle, gentler, and less noisy.
Gene Siskel said initially Back to the Future seems to be everything wrong with youth-targeted movies of its era; however, it subverted his expectations by avoiding traveling to an unidentifiable future or historical event to focus on the unique perspective through a relatable tale. It offered something for both children and adults. Sheila Benson was more critical; she called the film "big, cartoonish and empty". She said Back to the Future had an interesting premise but was overproduced and underdeveloped. Benson believed the film lacked tension because there was never any doubt Marty would succeed, and the ending was left feeling hollow with materialistic rewards. Siskel countered the tension came by defying the expectations of a typical time travel film in making the past mutable and the future uncertain.
Dave Kehr remarked Gale and Zemeckis were among the first wave of filmmakers openly influenced by growing up on televised entertainment, and their inspirations are evident throughout Back to the Future. He described it as "zestfully tasteless" with a uniquely American vulgarity, crassness and manic energy. Attansio appreciated the film had irreverent humor that was not mean-spirited. He felt the film succeeds by having an emotional core that keeps the audiences' interest among the laughter.
Reviewers agreed the exposition-heavy opening leads into a better half. Ray Loynd, writing for Variety, described the opening as "shaky", but noted the rest of the film is filled with wit, wonder, and fresh ideas. He appreciated the comparisons between 1955 and 1985, and the "delicious" premise of Marty returning to the past only for his mother to fall for him romantically. Corliss agreed the opening was akin to a "long fuse that explodes into comic epiphany mid way". Leonard Maltin said it took a while to get to the action, but in describing the ending, he said it was a "wow".
All the cast performances were generally well received, particularly those of Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, and Glover. Reviewers were consistent in their praise for Fox's "appealing" performance. Several reviewers believed Lloyd's performance stole the show. Ellis said Lloyd was at his "scene-stealing best", offering an uncontrolled performance that would redefine movie scientists for the modern audience. Attanasio agreed; he said Lloyd demonstrated his unique "intensity" could carry a film. Kehr called Lloyd's character a tribute to every great mad scientist portrayed by the likes of Sid Caesar and John Belushi. Vincent Canby and Loynd said both Fox and Lloyd were good, but it was Glover and Thompson who were the standout performers. Loynd said Glover's bumbling-to-confident George McFly was the highlight, supported by Thompson's "deceptively passionate" performance. Some reviewers considered the use of Libyan terrorists, an actual fear at the time, to be in poor taste.
At the 1986 Academy Awards, Back to the Future received one award for Best Sound Effects Editing. It received a further three nominations: Best Original Screenplay for Gale and Zemeckis (losing to Earl W. Wallace, Pamela Wallace, and William Kelley for the crime-drama Witness); Best Sound for Bill Varney, B. Tennyson Sebastian II, Robert Thirlwell, William B. Kaplan (losing to Chris Jenkins, Gary Alexander, Larry Stensvold, and Peter Handford for Out of Africa); and Best Original Song for "The Power of Love" by Chris Hayes, Johnny Colla, and Huey Lewis (losing to "Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie for the drama film White Nights). It received four nominations at the 43rd Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) (losing to Prizzi's Honor), Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) for Fox (losing to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor), Best Original Song (again losing to "Say You, Say Me"), Best Screenplay for Gale (losing to Woody Allen for The Purple Rose of Cairo).
At 39th British Academy Film Awards, Back to the Future received five nominations including: Best Film and Best Original Screenplay (losing both to The Purple Rose of Cairo), Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design (losing both to Brazil), and Best Editing (losing to Nena Danevic and Michael Chandler for Amadeus). At the 13th Saturn Awards, the film won three awards: Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actor for Fox, and Best Special Effects for Kevin Pike. Back to the Future also named Favorite Motion Picture at the 12th People's Choice Awards and won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The film performed well internationally: it won Best Foreign Producer (Spielberg) and Best Foreign Screenplay at the David di Donatello awards (Italy), Outstanding Foreign Film from the Japan Academy, and the Goldene Leinwand (Germany) for selling more than 3 million tickets in its first 18 months.
Back to the Future was released on VHS on May 22, 1986, priced at $79.95. It was the first film to sell 450,000 units at that price point and was also the most rented cassette of the year. A sequel was not planned until after Back to the Future's theatrical release, and a "To Be Continued..." graphic was added to the end of the film on VHS to promote awareness of future sequels. When the film was released on DVD in 2002, the graphic was removed because Gale and Zemeckis wanted it to be as experienced in theaters. It has not appeared in releases since.
It debuted on Blu-ray in 2010 for the film's 25th anniversary. The release included a six-part documentary including interviews with the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, and associated music videos from all three films. The release was notable for including the first released footage of Stoltz as Marty McFly. For its 35th anniversary in 2020, a remastered 4K Ultra HD version was released on Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray. Along with extras included in previous releases, this edition included audition footage and an exploration of the film's props hosted by Gale. Limited edition steelbook cases and a display replicate of the levitating hoverboard from Back to the Future Part II were also available.
The Back to the Future soundtrack was released in July 1985, on cassette tape, LP record, and Compact disc (CD). The soundtrack's lead single, "The Power of Love", peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. Sales were initially slow, but it eventually peaked at number 12 on the Billboard 200, in part because of the success of "The Power of Love". Silvestri's score received a limited release in 2009 on CD, containing the film score and unreleased variations. The score was reissued on and LP in 2016 respectively, for the film's 30th anniversary.
Merchandising for a film was a relatively new concept popularized by the Star Wars film series. As Back to the Future was not specifically aimed at children, there was no significant merchandising at the time of its release. One of the earliest items, a rideable DeLorean for children, was released in 1986. The film and its sequels have since been represented across a wide variety of merchandise including: Playmobil, playing cards, clothing, pottery, posters, board games, sculpted figures, plush toys, Funko POP! figures, action figures, Hot Wheels and die-cast vehicles, books, music albums, and Christmas ornaments.
There have been several video game adaptations. Back to the Future was released alongside the film for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum. An arcade-adventure game, Back to the Future, was released in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Gale called it one of the worst games ever made and advised people against purchasing it. Back to the Future: The Pinball was released in 1990. Fox refused permission for the game to use his likeness. An episodic graphic adventure game, Back to the Future: The Game, was released in 2010. Gale contributed to the game's narrative, which takes place after the events of the third film in the series. An area in Lego Dimensions is based on Back to the Future and features voice work by Lloyd.
Back to the Future: The Ride, a simulator ride, ran from 1991 to 2007 at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida. The ride's development was supervised by Spielberg and featured Doc Brown (Lloyd) chasing down Biff (Wilson) who has stolen the DeLorean. A version of the ride at Universal Studios Japan ran from 2001 to 2016. A Back to the Future-themed Monopoly board-game was released in 2015. A Funko board game was released in 2020. It casts players as one of the main characters from the films to battle different Tannens across history.
There have been several books about the making of the film series. We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy is an oral history by those involved in the production. Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History—a book chronicling the development of the entire Back to the Future franchise—was released in 2015. The British Film Institute released BFI Film Classics: Back to the Future about the film's background. A novelization by George Gipe was released in 1985. There has also been a crossover between the Back to the Future and Transformers franchises. This included featuring a transforming DeLorean toy and associated comic books.
The main theme of Back to the Future concerns taking control and personal responsibility over one's own destiny. A situation can be changed even if it seems otherwise impossible to overcome. Thompson said the film represents how one moment can have a significant and lasting impact on a person's life. Gale believed Doc provided the perfect summary of the series' running theme, when in Back to the Future Part III he said: "Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one."
Even so, Marty's future is enriched at the expense of others. At the start of the film, Marty is rejected at Battle of the Bands and admits he fears his ambitions will remain unrealized. He worries he will end up like his parents and sees direct evidence in 1955 of George, also afraid of rejection, being unable to approach Lorraine; his fears risk Marty's future. Marty sets about manipulating the past to ensure his own survival without concern for what impact his presence in 1955 is having on others. On his return to 1985, he is rewarded with wealthier parents and a nicer car, but he has simultaneously damaged Biff's future, reducing him to a valet for the McFlys. Glover was critical of the film's ending. He believed Marty's reward should be happy parents in love with each other. He considered the ending a result of the film serving a corporate interest, promoting the accumulation of wealth and purchasing material objects. In 2015, Zemeckis said the ending was perfect for its time but would be different if he made it now. Gale disagreed and said he did not apologize for the scene. American audiences largely had no issue with this ending, but some international audiences criticized it.
Despite rejection by film studios for not being raunchy enough, Back to the Future alludes to sexual assault, racism, and the Oedipus complex—a psychiatric theory suggesting a child holds an unconscious sexual desire for their opposite-sexed parent. This refers to the relationship between Marty and his future mother Lorraine in 1955. The relationships between parents and children are the basis of many elements of the film. Where most people can only know their parents, Marty is given the opportunity to see his parents as his peers, when they were his age and shared the same ambitions and dreams as him.
Justin Chang and Mark Olsen, suggest the film can be seen as promoting Reaganism—the political positions of president Ronald Reagan—promoting the older values of the American dream, self-reliance, initiative, and technological advancement. 1985 is presented as run down and in decay, while 1955 is presented as a more simplistic and seemingly safer time seen through the lens of nostalgia. Marty's future is bettered because he goes back to 1955 and teaches George to be more assertive and self-reliant. This leads to a more prosperous future for Marty with materialistic rewards. The film uses many brand names of the time, ostensibly to make the setting more realistic—like Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and Texaco—but the filmmakers received financial compensation for their inclusion, making them symbols of commercialism and thus materialistic.
Sorcha Ní Fhlainn argues many 1980s films resulted from the American public's desire for escapism from cultural anxieties and fears, including nuclear proliferation, unemployment, crime, growing inequality, and the AIDS crisis. Films like those in the Star Wars series and Back to the Future are designed to offer a childlike reassurance of safety and comfort. They emphasize idealized American values and the positive effects of instilling power in a patriarchal figure like George McFly or Darth Vader. Susan Jeffords notes Doc Brown is an analog for Reagan, a man who embraces technological advancement, who is in conflict with Libyan terrorists, and provides the means for a failing family to better themselves.
The song "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry is used during the film's final act. Berry initially resisted allowing the song to be used in the film. NPR argued that while this may have been a matter of money for Berry, there are underlying racial issues involved in Marty, a Caucasian male, rewriting history to invent the rock and roll music genre, which was heavily influenced by African American music styles. The 1955 segment also presents a distorted view of America, showing an African American band playing at the high school dance at a time when this would not have been allowed. Similarly, the African American character Goldie Wilson is seemingly inspired to work towards becoming mayor by Marty's intervention, inspiring a Reagan-style initiative and self-reliance.
As film fans, Gale's and Zemeckis' influences are seen throughout Back to the Future. There are references to The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the Star Wars film series, and television shows including Mister Peabody, Star Trek: The Original Series, The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone. There are also allusions to The Time Machine (1960)—based on the 1895 novella of the same name by H. G. Wells—and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, in which the central character seemingly moves through time. The DeLorean dashboard chronometer uses the same color scheme as the time device of The Time Machine. Ray Loynd opined Doc can be seen as a King Arthur-type, with Marty serving as his knight.
Back to the Future is now considered a landmark of American cinema and an enduring popular culture touchstone. It elevated Fox from financially struggling actor to one of the most in-demand and globally recognized stars in Hollywood. Gale received fan mail for decades after its release. Gale said he understood the continuing appreciation for the film as it was the "purest" and "most complete" film in the series. Fox compared it to The Wizard of Oz (1939), saying it still appeals to children because they do not think of it as an old film. In 2012, Thompson said her role as Lorraine was the greatest of her career. She suggested Back to the Future had remained relevant to new generations because of its core idea that the viewer's parents were once kids and had the same dreams they do. Dean Cundey believed it resonated with fans because it offers the fantasy of going back in time to change things and make the present better. Glover said he had watched it once and liked parts of it, but disliked the moral message of its ending. As of 2020, Wilson carries around cards containing answers to fan questions he has been asked over the preceding years, to avoid constantly repeating himself. Lloyd described being approached by fans from around the world, who have said the film inspired them to become a scientist.
Many of the principal cast have reunited in the years since the film's release. Often these reunions are for charitable purposes, including The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's disease (Fox was diagnosed with the disease at age 29), and Project HOPE. A 2019 reunion for the TCM Classic Film Festival featured the premiere of the film's 4K restored version. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Josh Gad hosted a Back to the Future retrospective featuring many cast and crew. The cast has also appeared in advertisements only loosely related to Back to the Future, trading on their associated popularity.
The DeLorean is considered one of the most iconic vehicles in film history. DeLorean's creator John DeLorean was a fan of the film and sent personal letters to Gale and Zemeckis, thanking them for using his vehicle. The DeLorean was not a popular vehicle before the film's release. However, in the years since it has become a popular collectors item, and the DeLorean Motor Company issued kits enabling fans to make their vehicle look more like the DeLorean time machine. $78,500 was crowdfunded to restore one of the original cars used in the film and an associated documentary about the restoration, Out of Time: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine.
Back to the Future is considered one of the greatest films ever made. Rotten Tomatoes assesses a 96% approval rating from the aggregated reviews of 83 critics, with an average rating of 8.80/10. The consensus reads, "Inventive, funny, and breathlessly constructed, Back to the Future is a rousing time-travel adventure with an unforgettable spirit." The film has a score of 87 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 15 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
In 2004, The New York Times listed it as one of the 1,000 Best Movies Ever. In 2005, the film's screenplay was listed as the fifty-sixth greatest screenplay of the preceding 75 years on the Writer's Guild of America's (WGA) 101 Greatest Screenplays list. In 2006, it was listed at number 10 on Film4's 50 Films to See Before You Die. In 2008, Empire listed the film at number 23 on its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, behind the 1977 space opera Star Wars. They said, "Weird science and teenage dreams combine in a wish-fulfilment sci-fi lent heart by the fantastic Mr. Michael J. Fox." That same year, the American Film Institute listed Back to the Future as the number 10 best science-fiction film, based on a poll of 1,500 people from the creative community. In 2010, Total Film named it one of the 100 greatest movies ever made. It is listed in the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. In 2014, a poll of 2,120 entertainment-industry members by The Hollywood Reporter it ranked as the twelfth best film of all time, again behind Star Wars. In 2015, the screenplay was listed as the sixty-seventh funniest on the WGA's 101 Funniest Screenplays list. That same year, Entertainment Weekly named it the twenty-eighth best high school movie. Rotten Tomatoes also listed the film at number 84 on its list of 200 essential movies to watch.
Several publications have listed it as one of the best science-fiction films ever made, including: number two by Rotten Tomatoes; number seven by Syfy; number eight by Empire; number 14 by GamesRadar+, and Paste; number 17 by IGN; number 20 by Business Insider; number 27 by Thrillist; and unranked by Esquire, The Guardian, Time Out, and Wired. Similarly, it has been listed as one of the best films of the 1980s by publications including: number one by Consequence of Sound, and Rotten Tomatoes, number three by ShortList, number four by Elle, number five by Empire, number 12 by Parade, number 20 by Time Out, number 25 by GamesRadar+, and unranked by Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Highsnobiety, Marie Claire, Town & Country.
Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone listed it as the number one and number four best time travel film ever made. Entertainment Weekly named it the fortieth most essential film to be watched by pre-teens. Based on average review score, Rotten Tomatoes lists it as the eighty-seventh best Action and Adventure film. USA Today listed it as the number two comedy of the 1980s. Marty McFly appeared at number 39 on Empire's 2006 list of its '100 Greatest Movie Characters'; Doc Brown followed at number 76. In the United Kingdom, readers of Empire voted the film as eleventh on their 2017 list of "The 100 Greatest Movies". In March 2011, the film was voted by BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 1Xtra listeners as their fourth favorite film of all time.
The film has global popular appeal, particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Japan. It has continued to find fans decades after its release. In October 2015—the day Doc and Marty travel to at the end of Back to the Future, as depicted in Back to the Future II—an estimated 27 million social media users discussed the films; the most active users were in the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Brazil.
In 2007, the United States Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Ronald Reagan was a fan. When he first saw the joke about Doc Brown's incredulous response to Reagan becoming president, he ordered the theater's projectionist to stop the film, roll it back, and run it again. At his 1986 State of the Union Address, he referenced the film to appeal to America's young voters. He said, "Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, 'Where we're going, we don't need roads'." Back to the Future is also seen as being responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of skateboarding in the 1980s. It made skateboarding a mainstream pastime acceptable for all, not just rebellious teens.
It has been referred to in a variety of media, including television, films, and video games. Doc and Marty, respectively, inspired the eponymous characters of the 2013 animated television show Rick and Morty. The British pop rock band McFly are named for Marty McFly. The 2011 novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and the 2018 film adaptation (directed by Spielberg) both heavily reference the film, including the central character using a DeLorean for transport. Filmmaker J. J. Abrams has also cited it as an inspiration.
The 2015 crowdfunded documentary Back in Time follows various fans of the series and details the impact it has had on their lives, interspersed with interviews from the crew including Fox and Lloyd.
Sequels and adaptations
The film's success spawned the Back to the Future franchise comprising film sequels, animated television shows, comics, and video games. It is considered one of the most successful film franchises. A sequel was not initially planned; the teaser ending of Doc, Marty, and Jennifer flying off in the DeLorean was suggesting their adventures would continue off-screen. Written by Gale and Zemeckis, the sequel script was so long it was split into two films, Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III; both films were shot back to back.
Part II was released in 1989. In its story, Marty and Doc travel to 2015, inadvertently enabling the now-elderly Biff Tannen to steal the DeLorean and return to 1955, rewriting history in his favor. Wells and Glover did not return for the sequels. Part II was a financial success but was criticized for its complex, convoluted narrative. Zemeckis has said Part II is his least favorite film in the series. The final film in the trilogy, Part III, was released in 1990. Its plot follows Marty as he travels to 1885 to rescue a time-stranded Doc. While the film fared less well financially than the two earlier films, it was more critically well-received than Part II. A 2018 poll by The Hollywood Reporter of 2,200 people found 71% of those asked wanted a Back to the Future sequel, ahead of another Toy Story or Indiana Jones film. Gale has said there will never be a fourth film. He likened it to "selling your kids into prostitution". He added a Back to the Future film could never happen without Marty McFly, and Fox could not participate because of the effects of his Parkinson's disease.
An animated television series, Back to the Future, aired on CBS in 1991–1992. It followed Doc's and Marty's adventures through various historical periods, intercut with live-action segments featuring Doc (Lloyd), performing science experiments alongside Bill Nye. The film series' narrative has been expanded in comics and video games detailing Doc's and Marty's adventures before and after the events depicted in the films. A short film, Doc Brown Saves the World, was released in 2015 to celebrate the film's 35th anniversary. Lloyd reprised his role as Doc, who must travel to the future to prevent a nuclear holocaust in 2045.
A musical theater production, Back to the Future, was announced in 2014. The musical was written by Gale and Zemeckis, with music written by Silvestri and Glen Ballard. It debuted at the Manchester Opera House, England, in February 2020, to positive critical reviews. Gale said the musical was the best way to give fans more Back to the Future without adding to the film series.