Back to the Future is a 1985 science fiction comedy film directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg. The film stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, as well as Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas F. Wilson. Back to the Future tells the story of McFly, a teenager who is accidentally sent back in time from 1985 to 1955. He meets his parents in high school, accidentally making his mother fall in love with him. Marty must repair the damage to history by making his parents fall in love, while finding a way to return to 1985.
That night, Marty meets Doc as planned in the parking lot of Twin Pines Mall. Doc presents a DeLorean DMC-12 which he has modified into a time machine. As Marty videotapes, Doc then explains that the car travels to a programmed date and time upon reaching 88 miles per hour using plutonium in a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of power it requires. Demonstrating how to program the machine, Doc enters in November 5, 1955 as the target date, explaining that it was the day he conceived the idea of the flux capacitor; the device which "makes time travel possible." Before Doc can depart for his planned trip into the future, a pair of Libyan terrorists, from whom he stole the plutonium, arrive in a Volkswagen bus and kill him. Marty jumps into the DeLorean and is pursued by the Libyans until he drives at 88 miles per hour and is instantaneously transported back to the year 1955.
The car stalls shortly thereafter; therefore Marty hides it and makes his way into town on foot, finding that the town square now reflects the popular culture of the 1950s and that the clock tower once again operates. He runs into his own father, then a teenager, being tyrannized just as he was in 1985 by Biff, who was then the school bully. Marty follows George; as he is about to be hit by a car, Marty pushes his father out of the way and takes the impact, resulting in Lorraine becoming infatuated with Marty instead of George. Marty is disturbed by her flirtations, which contrast sharply with the prudish woman he remembers. He flees from her home to track down Doc Brown. The scientist at first believes that Marty is a lunatic, and considers it hilarious that the then-actor Ronald Reagan will be President in 1985. Marty convinces Doc by describing the inspiration for the flux capacitor and then by showing Doc his videotape. However, Doc is horrified to hear his older self describe the power requirements for time travel. He tells Marty that aside from plutonium, which is "a little hard to come by," the only possible source of that much power is a bolt of lightning, which cannot be predicted. Marty remembers that the lightning strike at the clock tower will occur the following Saturday. As a result, Doc begins planning a way to harness the bolt's power.
Doc deduces that, by saving his father from the car, Marty has prevented his parents from meeting. After several failed attempts at playing matchmaker, Marty eventually works out a plan to have George appear to rescue Lorraine from Marty's overt sexual advances on the night of a school dance. However, Biff shows up unexpectedly and orders his friends to lock Marty in a car trunk. Heavily intoxicated, Biff jumps into the car and attempts to force himself on the horrified Lorraine. George arrives as he and Marty have planned and is shocked and terrified to find Biff instead of Marty. Biff orders him to turn around and walk away, but George cannot bring himself to ignore Lorraine's pleas for help. When Biff attacks him, George finally snaps and knocks out his tormentor with a single punch. A smitten Lorraine follows George to the dance floor, but another man cuts in and Marty begins to be erased from existence. Suddenly, George cuts in and kisses Lorraine for the first time, ensuring Marty's existence.
Doc, meanwhile, has used cables to connect the clock tower's antenna to two lampposts, which he plans to have Marty drive under in the DeLorean, now sporting a lightning rod, at eighty-eight miles per hour the moment the lightning strikes. Before Marty can leave, Doc finds a letter in his coat pocket that Marty has written, warning him about his future murder. Doc indignantly tears up the letter without reading it, describing the dangers of altering the future. Marty adjusts the time machine to take him back to 1985 ten minutes earlier than he left, giving him parallel time to prevent the shooting. Upon his arrival, however, the car stalls and Marty arrives at the mall too late to save Doc. As Marty begins crying over his friend's body, Doc revives and opens his radiation suit to reveal a bulletproof vest. He shows Marty the letter he had written, taped back together. When asked about his belief in not altering the future, Doc replies, "I figured, what the hell?"
The next morning, Marty finds his family has been changed for the better. Most notably, Lorraine is physically fit and is no longer prudish, and George has become a self-confident novelist. Biff has become a weak-willed and servile auto detailer. Just as Jennifer and Marty reunite, Doc arrives from the year 2015, insisting frantically that they come to the future with him to work out a problem concerning their future children. Marty and Jennifer climb aboard the DeLorean; when Marty points out there is not enough road wherein to reach 88 miles per hour, Doc quietly smiles. He responds, "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." The car lifts off into the sky and disappears.
Zemeckis and Gale set the story in 1955 because mathematically, a 17-year old traveling to meet his parents at the same age meant traveling to that decade. Coincidentally, the era marked the birth of rock n' roll, which would flavor the story. Originally, Marty was a video pirate, the time machine was a fridge, and he needed to use the power of an atomic explosion at the Nevada Test Site to return home. Zemeckis was "concerned that kids would accidentally lock themselves in refrigerators", and the original climax was deemed too expensive. The DeLorean time machine was chosen because its design made the gag about the family of farmers mistaking it for a flying saucer believable. The writers found making Marty's friendship with Doc Brown believable difficult before they created the giant guitar amplifier, and only resolved his Oedipal relationship with his mother when they wrote the line "It's like I'm kissing my brother." Biff Tannen was named after Universal executive Ned Tanen, who behaved aggressively towards Zemeckis and Gale during a script meeting for I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
Steven Spielberg produced Zemeckis and Gale's Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which both flopped. Spielberg was initially absent from the project because Zemeckis felt if he produced another flop under him, he would never be able to make another film. But every major film studio rejected the script for the next four years, as Zemeckis and Gale wrote two drafts of the script. During the early 1980s, popular teen comedies (such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High) were risqué and adult-aimed, so producers found Back to the Future too light for a teen comedy. Walt Disney Pictures was an exception, as they found Marty's relationship with his mother too daring. Ironically, one producer loved the concept, but was uninterested when he learned Spielberg was not involved. Zemeckis chose to direct Romancing the Stone instead, which was a box office success. Now a high-profile director, Zemeckis approached Spielberg with the concept, and the project was set up at Universal Pictures.
Executive Sid Sheinberg made some suggestions to the script, changing Marty's mother's name from Meg to Lorraine (the name of his wife, actress Lorraine Gary) and to replace Brown's pet chimpanzee with a dog. Sheinberg wanted the title changed to Spaceman from Pluto, convinced no successful film ever had "future" in the title. He suggested Marty introduce himself as "Darth Vader from the planet Pluto" while dressed as an alien forcing his dad to ask out his mom (rather than "the planet Vulcan"), and that the farmers' comic be Spaceman from Pluto rather than Space Zombies from Pluto. Spielberg dictated a memo back to Sheinberg, where he convinced him they thought his title was just a joke, thus embarrassing him into dropping the idea.
Michael J. Fox was the first choice to play Marty McFly, but he was committed to the show Family Ties. Gary David Goldberg, the show's creator, felt Fox was essential to the show's success and refused to have him take time off to make a film when its star, Meredith Baxter, was on maternity leave. The film was scheduled for May 1985 and it was late 1984 when it was learned Fox would be unable to star in the film. Zemeckis' next two choices were C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stoltz, the latter of whom impressed the producers with his portrayal of Roy L. Dennis in the unreleased Mask.
Four weeks into filming, Zemeckis decided Stoltz was miscast. Although he and Spielberg realized reshooting the film would add $3 million to the $14 million budget, they decided to recast. Spielberg explained Zemeckis felt Stoltz was too humorless and gave a "terrifically dramatic performance". Gale further explained they felt Stoltz was simply acting out the role, whereas Fox himself had a personality like Marty McFly. He felt Stoltz was uncomfortable riding a skateboard, whereas Fox would not. Stoltz confessed to director Peter Bogdanovich during a phonecall, two weeks into the shoot, that he was unsure of Zemeckis and Gale's direction, and concurred that he was wrong for the role.
Fox's schedule was opened up in January 1985 when Meredith Baxter returned to Family Ties following her pregnancy. The Back to the Future crew met with Goldberg again, who made a deal that Fox's main priority would be Family Ties, and if a scheduling conflict arose, "we win". Fox loved the script and was impressed by Zemeckis and Gale's sensitivity in sacking Stoltz, because they nevertheless "spoke very highly of him". Per Welinder and Tony Hawk assisted on the skateboarding scenes, though Hawk had to leave the film because he was taller than Fox, having doubled for Stoltz in various scenes.
Christopher Lloyd was cast as Doc Brown after the first choice, John Lithgow, became unavailable. Lloyd based his performance on Albert Einstein and composer Leopold Stokowski. Brown pronounces gigawatts as "jigwatts", which was the manner a physicist said the word when he met with Zemeckis and Gale as they researched the script.
Thomas F. Wilson was cast as Biff Tannen because original choice J. J. Cohen was considered too unconvincing to bully Stoltz. Cohen was cast as one of Biff's cohorts. Had Fox been cast from the beginning, Cohen would have probably won the part because he was much taller than Fox.
Crispin Glover played George McFly. Zemeckis said Glover improvised much of George's nerdy mannerisms, such as his shakey hands. The director joked he was "endless[ly] throwing a net over Crispin because he was completely off about fifty percent of the time in his interpretation of the character".
Filming wrapped after a hundred days on April 20, 1985, and the film was delayed from May to August. But after a highly positive test screening ("I'd never seen a preview like that," said Frank Marshall, "the audience went up to the ceiling"), Sheinberg chose to move the release date to July 3. To make sure the film met this new date, two editors were assigned to the picture, while many sound editors worked twenty-four shifts on the film. Eight minutes were cut, including Marty watching his mom cheat during an exam, George getting stuck in a telephone poll while "saving" Lorraine, as well as much of Marty pretending to be Darth Vader. Zemeckis almost cut out the Johnny B. Goode sequence as he felt it did not advance the story, but the preview audience loved it, so it was kept. Industrial Light & Magic created the film's thirty-two effects shots, which never impressed Zemeckis and Gale until a week before the film's completion date, especially the shot of Marty's hand disappearing.
Alan Silvestri collaborated with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone, but Spielberg disliked that film's score. Zemeckis advised Silvestri to make his compositions grand and epic, despite the film's small scale, to impress his producer. Silvestri began recording the score two weeks before the first preview. He also suggested Huey Lewis and the News create the theme song. Their first attempt was rejected by Universal, before they recorded "The Power of Love". The studio loved the final song, but were disappointed it did not feature the film's title, so they had to send memos to radio stations to always mention its association with Back to the Future.
Roger Ebert felt Back to the Future had similar themes to the films of Frank Capra, especially It's a Wonderful Life. Ebert commented producer "Steven Spielberg is emulating the great authentic past of Classical Hollywood cinema, who specialized in matching the right director (Robert Zemeckis) with the right project. Janet Maslin of The New York Times believed the film had a balanced storyline. "It's a cinematic inventing of humor and whimsical tall tales for a long time to come. Christopher Null, who first saw the film as a teenager, called it "a quintessential 1980s flick that combines science fiction, action, comedy, and romance all into a perfect little package that kids and adults will both devour. Dave Kehr of Chicago Reader felt Gale and Zemeckis wrote a script that perfectly balanced science fiction seriousness and humor. Variety applauded the performances, arguing Fox and Lloyd imbued Marty and Doc Brown's friendship with a quality reminiscent of King Arthur and Merlin. The BBC applauded the intricacies of the "outstandingly executed" script, remarking that "nobody says anything that doesn't become important to the plot later. Based on 44 reviews collected Rotten Tomatoes, 95% of the critics enjoyed the film.
Back to the Future won the Academy Award for Visual Effects, while "The Power of Love", the sound designers and Zemeckis and Gale (Original Screenplay), were nominated. The film won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and won the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Michael J. Fox and the visual effects designers won categories at the Saturn Awards. Zemeckis, composer Alan Silvestri, the costume design and supporting actors Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas F. Wilson were also nominated. The film was successful at the 39th British Academy Film Awards, where it was nominated for Best Film, original screenplay, visual effects, production design and editing. At the 43rd Golden Globe Awards, Back to the Future was nominated for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), original song (for "The Power of Love"), Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (Fox) and Best Screenplay for Zemeckis and Gale.
This movie ranked number 28 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies. In 2006, Back to the Future was voted the 20th greatest film ever made by readers of Empire. On December 27, 2007, Back to the Future was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed the AFI's 10 Top 10 – the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres – after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Back to the Future was acknowledged as the 10th best film in the science fiction genre.
When the film was released on VHS, Universal added a "To be continued..." caption at the end to increase awareness of production on Back to the Future Part II and Part III. It was removed when the film was first released on DVD in 2002.