Back to the Future Plot Summary (Spoilers):
Back to the Future begins in a room full of ticking clocks. A young man with a skateboard, played by Michael J. Fox, arrives, and calls for a man named Doc, as various wacky machines perform household tasks with varying degrees of success. The young man, whose name is Marty, receives a phone call from Doc, played by Christopher Lloyd. Doc tells Marty he has made a major breakthrough and asks him to meet him at the Twin Pines Mall at 1:15 A.M. Marty agrees to the meeting and then realizing he is late for school, rushes off on his skate board.
Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer intercepts him at the front door of the Hill Valley school and warns him that he needs to avoid Principal Strickland or he’ll receive his fourth tardy in a row. Their plan to avoid him fails and both Marty and Jennifer receive tardy slips. Strickland calls Marty a slacker like his old man, warns him against hanging around with Dr. Brown, who he calls “dangerous” and tells him that he doesn’t know why his band is bothering to audition to play at the dance, because no McFly in the history of Hill Valley has ever amounted to anything.
Marty’s band, The Pinheads, auditions for the dance, but is shut down quickly. The judge tells them they are too loud. Marty tells Jennifer that maybe he should just give up on music, but she insists that he’s really good and should send in his audition tape to a record label. Marty fears being rejected and laments that he’s starting to sound like his old man. He spots a fancy 4×4 pickup and fantasizes about what it would be like to take the truck to his planned weekend lake trip with Jennifer. Jennifer asks if Marty has told his mother he is going to the lake with her and Marty says he told her he’s going camping with the guys, because his mother is always telling him about how she never did that kind of stuff when she was his age. They are interrupted by a woman raising money to save the clock tower, which she explains was struck by lightning in 1955. He gives her a quarter and she hands him a flyer.
Marty arrives at his home in Lyon Estates, to discover that his father’s boss Biff has wrecked the car Marty had planned to borrow for his lake trip.Biff blames Marty’s dad, George, for the accident, saying he didn’t tell him the car had a blind spot and then bullies him about some reports he hasn’t finished yet. Marty scolds his father for letting Biff drive the car and his father apologizes, saying he doesn’t like confrontations.
At the family dinner, Marty’s mother, Lorraine, tells the family that they will have to eat the cake she has made themselves, because their Uncle Joey didn’t make parole again. Marty’s brother heads off to his fast food job and his sister tells him that Jennifer called for him twice. Marty’s mother tells them she doesn’t like Jennifer and that when she was young she never chased boys or called boys or sat in parked cars with boys. When Marty’s sister asks how she’s ever supposed to meet anyone, their mother tells them the story of how she met their father when their grandfather hit him with his car while he was bird watching. She nursed him back to health and then they went to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance together, where they shared their first kiss and fell in love.
Marty meets Doc Brown at the mall at 1:15 A.M. The doc shows him a contraption he has made out of a DeLorean. He then belts his dog Einstein into the vehicle and shows Marty the watch he is sending with Einstein, is perfectly in sync with his own watch. Using a remote control, he drives the car across the parking lot, straight towards Marty and himself, while Marty films the whole thing. When the vehicle reaches 88 M.P.H., it vanishes, leaving a twin trail of flames behind, just before it reaches Doc and Marty. Marty accuses the Doc of disintegrating Einstein, but the Doc explains that he has sent Einstein 1 minute into the future. A minute later, the DeLorean reappears in the parking lot, crusted in ice. Einstein is alive and well inside the car and the Doc excitedly tells Marty that Einstein’s watch is exactly 1 minute behind his own watch.
The Doc shows Marty how the time machine works. He enters a few different dates in the destination, finishing up on Nov. 5th, 1955, which was the date he says he invented time travel. He explains that he slipped off the toilet while hanging a clock, hit his head on the sink and had a vision of the flux capacitor, which is what makes time travel work. He reminisces about how much things have changed and tells Marty the parking lot where the Mall is, used to be farmland as far as the eye could see. He also explains to Marty that the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity he needs to power the flux capacitor is powered by plutonium, which he stole from some Libyan nationalists, who wanted him to build them a bomb. Marty and the Doc put on radiation suits and replace the time machine’s plutonium supply. The Doc tells Marty he plans to travel 25 years into the future. Before the Doc can leave, a van full of gun wielding Libyans arrive and begin shooting at him. Doc tells Marty to run. The Doc tries to surrender to the Libyans, but they shoot him multiple times and then turn their gun on Marty. When the shooter’s gun jams, Marty is able to escape into the DeLorean, and he speeds across the parking lot, with the Libyans in pursuit and still shooting at him. When the car reaches 88 M.P.H. it vanishes, leaving the bewildered Libyans behind.
Marty sees a flash of light and then suddenly, he is in a farmer’s field and crashes into a barn. The farmer and his family come out to the barn to see what happened and the farmer’s son shows the family a comic he is reading, called “Tales From Space,” which features a vehicle that looks somewhat like the DeLorean and a space man who is wearing a suit that resembles the radiation suit Marty is wearing. When Marty steps out of the vehicle, the family screams in terror and runs away. Marty exits the barn and the farmer fires his shotgun at him a couple of times. Marty gets back in the DeLorean and speeds away from the farm, while the farmer continues to fire shots at him, calling him a “space bastard.”
Marty attempts to return home, but discovers that Lyon Estates is nothing but a sign in the middle of an empty field. He tries to stop a passing motorist for help, but they refuse to stop. When he tries to start the DeLorean, it won’t start and he sees a blinking light indicating that the plutonium chamber is empty. Marty pushes the DeLorean behind the Lyon Estates ground breaking sign and then walks the 2 miles to Hill Valley.
Marty arrives in Hill Valley and is shocked by the changes, including a fully functional clock tower. He grabs a discarded newspaper out of a trash can and discovers the date on it is Nov. 5th, 1955. Marty heads into a coffee shop and tries to call Doc Brown, but doesn’t get an answer, so Marty tears the page with the Doc’s address out of the phone book. He sits down at the counter, right next to the 1955 version of his father, and 1955 Biff walks in and immediately starts hassling George. After Biff leaves, George takes off on his bike and Marty follows him.
Marty spots his father up in a tree, using binoculars to peep at a girl undressing in a house across the street. George falls out of the tree, right in front of a car. Marty pushes his father out of the path of the car and gets hit by it himself and blacks out. George runs away. 9 hours later, Marty wakes up to the sound of his mother’s voice, thinking the whole time travel incident was a nightmare. However, when his mother says he’s safe and sound in 1955, he realizes it was no dream.
Marty has dinner with his grandparents and his mother’s siblings. The tell him how to get to Doc Brown’s address, when he asks. Marty’s mother tells his grandmother that she thinks Marty ought to spend the night in her room, since his parents are out-of-town, but when his mom grabs his thigh under the table, Marty decides to head to Doc Brown’s place.
Marty arrives at the Doc’s house and the Doc answers the door, wearing some strange gizmo on his head. Marty tells Doc Brown that he is from the future and he arrived in 1955 in a time machine that the Doc invented. He explains that he needs the Doc’s help to get back to 1985. The Doc doesn’t believe Marty’s story, until Marty tells him the story of how the Doc invented the flux capacitor after falling off the toilet.
Marty takes the Doc to see the DeLorean and when the Doc sees the flux capacitor he is ecstatic to find that he has finally invented something that actually works. They take the DeLorean back to the Doc’s house and begin working on a way to get Marty back to 1985. Marty plays back part of the tape he made of the time experiment with the DeLorean. When the Doc learns he needs to generate 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to make the time machine work, he flips out and tells Marty that it looks like he’s stuck in 1955. Marty protests that he has a life back in 1985 and the Doc tells him the only source of energy that could generate that kind of power would be a bolt of lightning, but you never know when or where one is going to strike. Marty shows Doc the flyer for the save the clock tower fundraiser and tells him that they do now. The Doc decides that they can find a way to harness the power from the lightning strike and channel it into the flux capacitor. He warns Marty that he needs to stay in the house for the week remaining before the lightning will hit the clock tower, because he might accidentally change future events. He then asks Marty if he has interacted with anyone other than him that day and Marty admits that he ran into his parents. The Doc demands to see the photo of Marty and his siblings and discovers they are beginning to fade.
They conclude that Marty getting hit by his grandfather’s car, instead of George, has changed the future and his parents no longer fall in love and Marty and his siblings will never be born, unless Marty can change events again. Marty finds his father at school and tries to introduce him to his mother, but she only has eyes for Marty. They determine that Marty needs to make sure his father takes his mother to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, in the hopes that some alone time with George will cause Lorraine to forget about Marty and fall in love with George.
Marty is surprised to learn that his father writes science fiction stories, though he won’t let anyone read them, because he fears rejection. Marty tells George that Lorraine really likes him and told Marty that she wants George to ask her to the dance, but George is too chicken to ask her and he thinks she’d rather go with Biff anyway. Marty turns around to see Biff harassing his mother. Lorraine slaps Biff and Biff grabs her arm. Marty confronts Biff and the two almost get into a fist fight, but Mr. Strickland arrives and Biff backs off.
Marty continues to try to badger his father into asking Lorraine out, but George refuses. Since George is a Sci fi nut, Marty dresses in his radiation suit and plays loud Van Halen music on his Walkman to convince his father that he is an alien named Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan and commands George to ask Lorraine out. The next day George begs Marty for assistance on asking Lorraine to go to the dance with him. Marty coaches George on what to say to Lorraine and it seems to be working, but Biff interrupts. Marty trips Biff and then when Biff confronts him, he hits him with a cheap shot and runs out of the cafe. Lorraine is once again smitten with Marty.
Marty flees the cafe, stopping to grab a kid’s scooter, which he rips the top portion off, to fashion a makeshift skateboard that he uses to try to escape Biff. Biff and his friends pursue Marty in Biff’s car, but Marty outmaneuvers them, causing Biff to crash into a manure truck. Biff vows revenge and Lorraine vows to find out where Marty lives.
Marty returns to Doc’s house, to find him watching the end of the tape Marty made. Marty tries to tell Doc that the Libyans will shoot him, but Doc refuses, saying no man should know too much about his own future. The Doc demonstrates his plan for getting Marty back to 1985, which involves running electrical cable from the clock to some lamp posts. He has outfitted the DeLorean with a metal hook, that runs into the flux capacitor. Marty will need to get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour and then catch the wire with the hook at the precise moment that the lightning strikes the clock tower in order for the plan to work.
Marty’s mother arrives at Doc Brown’s house and tells Marty that she’d like for him to ask her to the dance. Marty suggests she go with George instead, but Lorraine tells him that she thinks a man should be strong, so he can stand up for himself and protect the woman he loves. This gives Marty the idea to tell George that Marty will take Lorraine to the dance and around 9:00, Lorraine will get angry with him, because he is going to make a move on her in the car. Marty wants George to confront him in the parking lot and save Lorraine from his advances, so that she’ll fall for George and go to the dance with him instead.
The Doc’s excitement about how he will get the chance to travel into the future makes Marty sad, knowing what the Doc’s fate will be, so he tries to tell the Doc about the shooting again, but the Doc refuses to listen. Marty decides to write him a letter, explaining what will happen and puts it in an envelope marked, “Do not open until 1985.” He slips the envelope into the Doc’s jacket pocket.
Marty’s plan goes awry when his mother is enthusiastic about the idea of the two of them parking before they go into the dance. When it comes time for Marty to make his pretend move on his mother, he can’t bring himself to do it and she ends up making the first move. However, Lorraine tells Marty that kissing him is like kissing her brother. Biff shows up and pulls Marty out of the car. He then gets in the car with Lorraine and orders his friends to take Marty around back and wait for him. Biff’s friends lock Marty in the trunk of the dance band’s car. The band runs Biff’s friends off, but they discover that the keys to the trunk are locked in the trunk with Marty.
George, who is running late for his 9:00 rescue mission, runs into the parking lot and sees Biff and Lorraine struggling in the car. Thinking this is Marty carrying out their plan, George confronts Biff and tells him to get his damn hands off Lorraine. Once George realizes it is Biff in the car, he is afraid, but when Lorraine begs him for help, George stands up to Biff. George tries to punch Biff in the stomach, but Biff grabs his arm and twists it behind his back. Meanwhile, the band gets Marty out of the trunk, but the guitar player cuts his hand in the process. Lorraine tries to help George and when Biff pushes her down, George becomes angry and slugs Biff in the face, laying him out in front of his classmates, who are very impressed. Marty arrives on the scene just in time to see it happen. George and Lorraine head into the dance, but when Marty checks the photo, his siblings are still fading.
Marty rushes back to the band and discovers they plan not to play the rest of the dance, because of their guitar player’s cut hand. Marty fills in on guitar, so that the dance can continue and his parents can have their first kiss. Another boy cuts in on George and Lorraine’s dance and Marty begins to fade, but George pushes the kid out-of-the-way and then kisses Lorraine, restoring Marty and his siblings in the photo. The band talks Marty into playing an encore and he plays “Johnny B. Good”, which the kids like and a guitar solo, which they don’t, to finish up the dance. Marty says goodbye to his parents and George thanks him for all his good advice. Lorraine muses that Marty is a nice name.
Marty meets up with Doc at the clock tower and they say their goodbyes. The Doc gives Marty an alarm that will sound when he needs to start driving the DeLorean towards the clock tower. Marty gets in the car, but before he can leave, Doc discovers the letter Marty put in his jacket pocket and rips it up, in spite of Marty’s warning that his life depends on the information inside. Marty tries to tell Doc about the shooting, but is interrupted when a limb falls on the cable from the clock tower and the pair are forced to reattach it. Marty passes the cable up to Doc on the clock tower and then tries to tell him about the future again, but the clock chimes and drowns him out. The Doc orders Marty to get the DeLorean to the starting line before he runs out of time and Marty complies.
Marty gets the DeLorean to the start line and decides to reset the time machine, so he arrives back in 1985 10 minutes early, so he can warn the Doc about the shooting. Meanwhile, the Doc is having trouble getting the cables reconnected and nearly falls off the clock tower. Marty runs into his own troubles, when the DeLorean’s engine dies and won’t restart. Marty gets the engine restarted and the Doc gets the cables reconnected just in the nick of time and the DeLorean disappears, leaving a fire trail behind in 1955. The Doc celebrates in the street.
In 1985, Marty crashes the DeLorean into a building downtown. Marty stops the car and gets out to confirm he is in 1985. When he gets back in, the DeLorean won’t start. Marty sees the Libyan’s van pass him and pursues them on foot to the mall, where he arrives just in time to see the Doc get shot. He watches himself flee the Libyan’s, who crash into a photo hut after the DeLorean vanishes, and then rushes to check on Doc, who appears to be dead. The Doc sits up and reveals that he is wearing a bullet proof vest and that he taped Marty’s letter back together and read it. The Doc drives Marty home and tells him he is headed 30 years into the future. Marty tells the Doc to look him up when he gets there.
When Marty wakes up the next morning, he discovers that his family has completely changed. His brother is now a successful businessman, his sister has so many boyfriends, she can’t keep them straight and the house has much nicer furnishings. Marty’s parents have also changed. His mother is much thinner and his father is a successful author, who no longer looks like a nerd. His mother also now approves of Jennifer and their plans to go the lake for the weekend. Biff has also changed and now kisses his father’s ass, instead of bullying him. Marty also discovers that he now owns the fancy 4×4 pickup he had previously drooled over.
Just as Marty shares a kiss with Jennifer, Doc Brown arrives in the DeLorean. He tells Marty that he and Jennifer need to come with him to the future, because something has to be done about their kids. The Doc dumps some garbage into the DeLorean’s “Mr. Fusion” and prepares to take off. When Marty protests that they don’t have enough road to get up to 88 m.p.h., the Doc tells him where they are going, they don’t need roads and reveals that the DeLorean can now fly. The DeLorean takes off for the future and the film ends.
Back to the Future Commentary (Spoilers):
Back to the Future is an entertaining film that deals with the usual time travel tropes. The idea that a person can change the future in major and possibly disastrous ways by making small changes in the past is explored, as well as the idea that a person could also affect positive change (depending on your point of view) in the same way.
Marty’s actions in the past, result in what he perceives as a better future, but what Biff, no doubt, would perceive as a worse future. It is unknown what other events the changes in Marty’s family may have affected over the years and whether those were to the good or the bad.
The Doc, who had protested potentially changing the events by learning about his future changes his mind and reads the letter, leading to his survival of the terrorist shooting. He then decides to meddle further in events, by dragging Marty and Jennifer into the future to change the fate of their children.
The movie requires a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, particularly when it comes to things like the fading photo and even Marty physically fading away as the result of Marty pushing his father out of the path of the car.
The message of the film is, in many ways, quite reflective of the 80’s. By becoming the tough, manly man, via punching one guy in the face and knocking another to the ground, George gains all the trappings of 80’s success: money, a thin, beautiful wife, a successful son, a daughter who is popular with the boys, fancy cars, etc. It is also very reflective of the popular fantasy that standing up to your bullies will “build character” and fix all your problems. The fantasy is a fun one, but somehow I doubt that one event would actually result in such sweeping changes for George and his family. However, the entertainment value of the movie, makes the parts that are hard to believe worth overlooking.
Fox and Lloyd are perfectly cast and the film features mostly impressive for the time period effects, though the old age makeups on the 1985 versions of the actors aren’t entirely convincing. I loved this movie as a kid back in 1985 and I still enjoy it today. Back then, the movie sparked wonderment at what the future might be like. Today, it brings back nostalgic memories and a bit of resentment that we still don’t have those flying cars that run on garbage we were promised.