[As always, Josh Sibley’s opinions do not reflect those of the JKP! group at large or, indeed, most reasonable people… except for this time, actually.]
Most generations growing up had “the future” as some far flung, wholly removed from reality idea. Space travel, with star dates to go along with them. Buck Rogers, Commando Cody serials. Sometimes it was merely an ideal: Disney’s concept of “Tomorrow”. Sometimes that was a little more grounded, but there was never a date. Even right before my generation, “The future” was in a time when years were meaningless and apes ruled. The future was little more than an excuse to have a different setting. After Gen X got in full swing, visions of the future were almost exclusively bleak: If they had a specific date, it didn’t matter, because you wouldn’t want to be amongst the pile of skulls and murder cyborgs anyway.
My generation had something different, something better. My generation had a bright, achieveable future with a specific date attached. The date of the future.
4:29pm, Wednesday October 21st, 2015.
Now, everywhere else on the internet, you can see a ton of insufferable nerds talk about how you won’t BELIEVE what Back to the Future II predicted, and some of them have even been me, on this very website. That’s not what this is about.
I re-watched the Back to the Future trilogy recently, and something struck me about them that had never done so before, purely because of the upcoming “future date”, and that was how old they made me feel. Recently, me and my girlfriend have had an ongoing discussion about art, and what makes art important and relevant. It’s been my assertion that regardless of its quality, art that is older is inherently less important or relevant, because by definition art is conveying some sort of message or statement, and the further you get away from all of the societal context that message was trying to be delivered in, the less effective that statement can’t help but be. My favorite example of this is a lot of what Shakespeare did: There’s several things we have no idea what he’s talking about in his plays, because the thing he’s referencing has been lost to time.
But back to Marty’s saga: Watching it again now, I realize that in this epic of time travel, the march of time has changed forever the context this film will be viewed in. When I first saw it growing up, Marty was the quintessential everyman. A cool kid, but not mean. Awkward, but confident. Smart enough to get himself out of trouble, but not smart enough to where he was a nerd (because that wasn’t cool yet). Other than brief glimpses of his home life and a band contest tryout, we have no idea what Marty’s life is like when his voice isn’t cracking while being incredulous at a wild-eyed old scientist. We didn’t need to though, because he was everyteen USA.
I believe the BTTF franchise is the best film franchise ever made, partially because it’s so timeless, at least for now. If you shot Part 1 today, it could still pretty much be the same script. However, that doesn’t change the fact that now, Marty is as removed from me as I was removed from the era that my parents were from in 1955, and when I was a kid, the 50’s seemed like ancient, far-flung history. Kids watching it today will be able to enjoy it far more than I was able to enjoy a movie from 1955 when I was young, but they’re no longer going to view Marty as the quintessential everyman. At best, it’ll be a mini version of what Marty goes through: a window into what their parent’s young life was like. It will have morphed into this weird… museum piece. Back to the Future keeps this from being what normally would be a depressing revelation to me because the message throughout all of time ends up being “kids from every era went through similar stuff, you’re not as alone as you think”, which is a good message for any kid to hear.
Back to the Future II comes out far worse. The central conceit of the first half of the movie was, up until the future actually hit, “We’re lampooning modern day (i.e. 1989) culture by showing you the logical extension of all these trends, and look how silly it all is”. The future segment acted as a mirror to a society that didn’t yet have the internet to make fun of itself and depress itself on a constant basis. Now that October 21st, 2015 is actually here, that segment will be this: “Look at all this nonsense they thought the future would have, how stupid”. It won’t hit them how amazing it is how much they got right, because they will actually be watching it on a flat screen TV, probably with another, smaller screen sitting in their lap. They won’t understand that all of this is supposed to be an absurd parody, because they’ll be living in an even more absurd parody. They won’t quite understand how annoying Marty’s kids are supposed to be with their glasses phones at the dinner table, because they are exactly that annoying right now (If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have to go yell at a cloud). The only generation that can really look at that film and see what was originally intended was my generation. Time itself has muddied the waters for anyone else.
On a more real-world, practical note, they also won’t understand how incredible a piece of film Back to the Future II is on a technical level. The split screen scene with multiple Michael J. Foxes interacting at the same time had never been attempted like that before. The initial future reveal where Marty walks into the square was incredibly complex, with many different layers all working at once and composited. Flying traffic lanes, swooping Delorean shots, all done without a drop of CG. I was recently able to watch the film with Zack’s little brother, and when I mentioned all of what he saw was before CG, he couldn’t believe it. He genuinely thought I was lying.
When I was a kid, I looked forward to today and what it would bring. I realized that someday, I was going to be where Marty was, only I would get there much slower. Sure, we don’t have flying cars or holographic movies, but when I look back over how much has changed over the course of my life, in a lot of ways it’s far more impressive. Unfortunately, the reality of future day is that I realize that all of the stuff I hoped for and looked forward to as a kid is officially in the past. It’s time for younger kids to wonder what their future will be.