Today is Back to the Future Day: specifically, it’s the date Marty McFly visits in Back to the Future Part II, the future-travel portion of the blockbuster 1980s trilogy. No, really. In spite of the fact that similar claims have been popping up on your computer since 2012, today is the real deal. We promise.
So let’s take a collective moment to bask: we made it! Hoverboards! Mind-controlled video games! Rehydrated pizza!
Okay, okay. So the movie didn’t portray a completely accurate vision of 2015. We don’t even have automated dog-walkers or self-fitting clothing, two inventions that I, personally, would find extremely useful. But the film did get some things right: we do have video calls, hands-free headsets, and I swear I saw something that looked like the McFly family’s hydroponics bay in last month’s IKEA catalog.
Lots of folks will be doing this today – tallying up what the film “got right” and where it missed the mark. And that’s all in good fun, but here at the Pop Culture Academy, we always want to dig a little deeper. I suspect, for example, that the real purpose of future-travel programming isn’t actually to predict the future. (If it were, we would have all invested heavily in fax machines and dot-matrix printers back when BTTFII came out – and I sincerely hope that none of you did that.)
To explore the real purpose of all that imagined tech, then, let’s look to the most iconic image of The Future, as envisioned in BTTFII (and others): Flying Cars! Yes, they look cool, and part of me joins in the general lament that we still don’t have them, but flying cars are – in reality – a wildly impractical idea. Just look at all the recent hoopla over remote-controlled drones, and then think of the air traffic controllers’ nightmare if our cars all suddenly became airborne. Hell, in BTTFII, they even still have traffic (Doc Brown: “The Skyway’s jammed!”) which, to my mind, defeats at least half the purpose.
And yet The Future, at least on film, will likely always have flying cars, because flying cars let the viewer know that this story is in The Future. It’s like how parallel universe stories almost always show the skies full of zeppelins, even though – call me skeptical – I don’t think we were ever that close to making zeppelins our main form of air transport. It’s a visual shorthand, meant to let the viewer know – quickly and efficiently – where (or when) the story’s being told.
So then, our next question might be: why tell a future story at all? This varies from film to film, but in BTTFII, it seems the filmmakers wanted Marty – a teenager from the 1980s – to interact with his own teenage children; it’s a nice parallel to the first movie, when he meets his own parents in the 1950s. And to show Marty with his teenaged children, they had to create the year 2015. Re-watching the film, moreover, I was reminded that the whole future sequence is really just Act I; that Act II takes us to an alternate 1980s reality in which Biff is super rich and powerful (although, ironically, no zeppelins); and Act III goes back to 1955 again. It’s all a bit convoluted, to tell you the truth, which is probably why Part II is consistently the lowest rated film of the trilogy: all most people tend to remember, in fact, is its vision of 2015.
Let’s return to that vision, then: Part II’s imagined future – i.e., now – is actually very 1980s: neons and pastels, with leotards, huge earrings, and even one ginormous, 80s-style ponytail. Marty’s auto-drying jacket is more Michael Jackson than Millenial, and the robotic voices coming from the “future” tech practically scream “it’s the 80s!,” even though it would have been simple enough to give them voice-realistic technology.
I suggest, then, that BTTFII – which came out in 1989 – was actually less interested in creating an accurate vision of the future than it was in nurturing an instantaneous nostalgia for the present: the 80s, saying goodbye to itself. There’s even an 80s-themed café, complete with dueling Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini Max Headroom-style video waiters. This type of thing is hardly unique to BTTF, of course – the original Star Trek series, for example, says more about the 1960s than it does about the 23rd century – but Part II does take it to some remarkable, hot-pink-and-blue eyeshadowy heights. And while the film never quite goes meta (although the gag about Jaws 19 comes awfully close), still the entire future sequence is like a long, quasi-meta wink: this is who we are, right now, the film seems to say … and don’t you miss us already?
So where does that leave us, as viewers in the real 2015; why all this looking back at ourselves looking forward; why all this keeping score? I, for one, have always been intrigued by humanity’s capacity to view ourselves through this type of lens. In the year 1984, I was too young to have yet read George Orwell’s iconic novel, but I still remember being fascinated by the flurry of news articles devoted to what he “got right” and where he missed the mark. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Orwell’s novel was published in 1949, 35 years before his imagined dystopia: roughly the same time frame as in the BTTF franchise.) And now here we are again, looking to the past through the lens of the future-present. And while I’ll leave it up to others to do a more complete analysis of the film’s technology-predictive powers (or lack thereof), I do feel compelled to point out one glaring omission, something that the movie utterly failed to foresee – even though it profoundly affects all aspects of our present-day lives. That is, of course, the advent of the Internet, and all the associated media that’s blossomed out of that invention during the past quarter century.
To research this post, I began by watching BTTFII in a way that would have been very familiar to my 1980s self: on my couch, on my television. Granted, it was a flatter-screened television than anyone had back in 1989, but the experience (start movie, watch movie) was much the same as it would have been in any home with a VCR. On my second watch-through, however, the differences became much more pronounced. I watched the film on an iPad, while taking notes on my smartphone, pausing often to chase down facts and explore ideas as they occurred to me. I learned, for example, that you can buy a BTTFII-themed “Pepsi Perfect” this week for an outrageous $20.15, and that there’s a “flux capacitor” smartphone app (time travel not included). I also read a bit about BTTFII’s “future consultants” – the production designers who created the film’s imagined future world. And then, after watching the scene where future Marty gets fired by his boss, a gruff, heavily-accented Japanese man (Japanophobia was, sadly very prominent in the 80s), I Googled the Japanese-American actor who starred in the role. In just a few minutes, I learned that Jim Ishida was born in 1942 in both California and Tokyo; that he and his family were put into Internment camps during World War II; and that he’s had a long, successful acting career, including a small but very funny role in one of my favorite Arrested Development episodes. And while some of this must be misinformation – I tend, for example, to believe Wikipedia over IMDB for Ishida’s birthplace, since I doubt there was much immigration from Japan during the war – I am, nevertheless, much better informed than I could have ever hoped to be in the pre-internet age.
That’s a good thing, I think – truly I do. Yet all of this knowledge comes at a cost. I’m reminded of a storyline in last season’s Bojack Horseman – a show I hope to cover in more detail in a future post – in which a 1980s television producer (and anthropomorphic owl) comes out of a 30-year coma and must come to terms with the way her world has changed. In one particularly brilliant episode, she spends the entire premier of her own new television game show absorbed – one might say, lost – in the “second screen” experience: a world of blogs, Twitter, and other social media, which she obsessively follows on her iPad instead of watching the “real” drama as it unfolds in her studio.
Similarly, in BTTFII, Marty McFly Jr. comes home and begins watching six channels simultaneously on his large, flat-screen television (“Hey, son,” quips his father, “watching a little TV for a change?”). It’s ridiculous, and yet, with the advent of second screen, this may be one of the films more accurate predictions. We don’t do this type of thing at the movies yet (I hope), but at home, our viewing habits have grown infinitely more complex: a phenomenon that I greet with equal parts horror, wonder, and delight. And so today, in honor of Back to the Future Day, I invite you to simply … re-watch the film. Turn your pockets inside out, put on two ties if you must, and then just let this swan song of the 80s wash over you.
Unless, of course, you want to keep reading this blog while you’re watching. No, really – that’s just fine.
Ida L. Bostian has worked as a lawyer, law professor, and Waffle House waitress – not necessarily in that order. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Bethesda Magazine Online, and she is currently revising her first novel.
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