Back to the Future; the gorgeous exemplar of summer time cinema. Lately, I have been reviewing the films I grew up with with a much more critical stance. Examining it from a historical/social perspective of 1984/85 has made me raise questions such as: Why were time travel movies so popular during this time (Back to the Future, The Terminator, The Blue Yonder)? In what way does the year 1955 correspond to the current state of affairs during its production in 1984? Why were cold war movies suddenly popping up (Rocky IV, Red Dawn, 2010)? In what way did Ronald Reagan's popularity affect film content and narrative? I’m not sure how this (or hopefully these) essays will be constructed, so bear with me as I try to make sense of this picture.
I’ll begin with the clock tower, its relation towards time travel and the interesting conundrum it presents.
Come the end of the film, it’s clear that the predictive clock tower lightning is what rescues Marty’s doom of being trapped indefinitely in 1955, all while saving the entire “space/time continuum." Because it was a human's ability to control nature via the development of the time machine, it could then be said that the lightning reflects man’s inevitable return towards relying upon nature itself. This seems to be presenting the dichotomy towards that of controlling nature vs. letting nature control us. At what point does our dependence upon certain aspects of the natural world get replaced with technology and vice versa? Does this type of advancement demand an infinite progression?
Although Doc successfully demonstrates his ability to manipulate space and time, it is the natural occurrence of weather that allows this control to be acquired within a productive capacity. I say productive because if the individual time traveler cannot touch or interact with any sentient being due to the threat of destroying the entire universe, what is the POINT of achieving time travel? (I will come back to this question in a different essay). Thus, time travel in BttF contained no productive capacity, and lightning was the ONLY conducive element in regards to the storyline. The movie is NOT about time traveling; the film is about Marty getting stuck in the past and relying upon nature to get him out. That is, the movie is about a return to inferior technologies.
In other words, Doc may have been able to create a time machine, but it was his limited control upon insufficient fuel technologies (viz. plutonium) that caused his subsequent reliance on nature itself. This presents an interesting issue of prematureness; are we as humans developing technology too fast? Think about how this question is presented in The Terminator; we designed a machine with such speed that it surpassed our capabilities of technical production to the point of destroying us. Considering Reagan was heavy on military spending, along with the growing threat of cold war nuclear technologies this seems to be illuminating the underlying anxiety throughout the world.
This is similar to Doc’s mind reading machine upon Marty arriving at his house in 1955; what is the purpose of this machine? If a polygraph test is inadmissible in court, I’m sure this type of device would be too. These type of absurd inventions serve no other purpose than to flaunt the capabilities of human intellect to overcome and dominate nature. If we were meant to read minds, we would have been designed that way, and same goes for time travel. Because of arrogance and malignant desire, there is an inevitable reliance upon the natural world to help direct us - as creatures OF NATURE - back to our proper place. In fact, the title Back to the Future does not just mean a RETURN to the future, but could also be indicating the expression, "I turn my back to the future." As in the denial of any and all consideration for long-term effects based through advanced technologies.
The plutonium plot device presents an interesting paradox by Zemeckis; firstly, regardless of Doc's intellect, he for some reason is foolish enough to believe that the Libyan's would never find him and kill him. Secondly, while Doc is able to create a time machine, he is incapable of overcoming the reliance upon a naturally occurring, highly volatile nuclear substances. These issues are drastically similar to America's dilemma; we don't want anyone else to have nuclear weapons, but we can have them. And when we take these bombs away or commit atrocities "in the name of freedom" against our enemies, we wonder why other countries threaten or attack us in return.
It should be pointed out that this substance is a decay product of Uranium, and considering that Marty is transported back to a massively dark period of cold war anxiety, it does not seem that this year was chosen arbitrarily; the element which was of dire necessity for time travel was most likely being formulated at massively high quantities through both Russia and America’s nuclear programs during the year of 1955 AND 1985. This further adds to the humor when Doc states that, “I’m sure plutonium is sold at every corner store in 1985;” indicating his knowledge of the growing nuclear productions, while also exhibiting irony in the fact that 1955 should have been the premiere year to acquire such a product.