Contact (1997)

2017 #79
Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Contact

Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

'90s beats

Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

“One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

Pod person

Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

5 out of 5

A Christmas Carol (2009)

aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

2016 #188
Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Disney's A Christmas Carol

You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

2 out of 5

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #97

It’s the story of a man, a woman,
and a rabbit in a triangle of trouble.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 104 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 22nd June 1988 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd December 1988
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Super Mario Bros.)
Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Addams Family Values)
Charles Fleischer (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gridlock’d)
Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone, The Virgin Suicides)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Beowulf)

Screenwriters
Jeffrey Price (Doc Hollywood, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
Peter S. Seaman (Wild Wild West, Shrek the Third)

Based on
Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a novel by Gary K. Wolf.

Animation Director
Richard Williams (Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, The Thief and the Cobbler)

The Story
When cartoon movie superstar Roger Rabbit is accused of murder, rundown private detective Eddie Valiant overcomes his dislike of toons to take the case — which masks a much bigger conspiracy…

Our Heroes
Eddie Valiant is an alcoholic Hollywood PI who used to work high-profile cases involving toons, but now dislikes them because one killed his brother. Nonetheless, an innate sense of justice (and a pair of handcuffs) brings him to the aid of Roger Rabbit, the manic major cartoon star who’s accused of murder and on the run for his life.

Our Villain
The cheerily named Judge Doom, the sinister and literally-black-hatted judge responsible for Toontown who has developed a special substance especially for killing toons, called “Dip”. Very keen to introduce Roger to it.

Best Supporting Character
Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s human (well, cartoon human) wife. A slinky, sexy, 2D femme fatale, she’s the cartoon character even people who aren’t attracted to cartoon characters are attracted to.

Memorable Quote
“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” — Jessica Rabbit

Memorable Scene
When Judge Doom and his henchmen discover Roger in hiding, he and Eddie escape in a cab — an anthropomorphic toon cab called Benny. Cue a chase involving a real human in a cartoon vehicle, which exemplifies the film’s technical chutzpah.

Technical Wizardry
The whole film is a technical marvel, what with many of the lead characters being created in 2D animation integrated into live-action footage. What’s even more impressive is that they’re 2D characters who exist convincingly within a 3D space. Production went to a lot of effort to pull this off, including using life-size models on set. (And if you need proof of how hard it is to do right, watch Cool World.) In total, 326 animators worked full-time on the film, drawing and painting 82,080 frames of animation. Animation director Richard Williams estimates that, after including storyboards and concept art, well over a million drawings were completed for the film.

Making of
With a production budget estimated at $70 million, Roger Rabbit was the most expensive film produced in the ’80s. Animation is expensive, of course, and the team were dedicated: when Eddie takes Roger Rabbit into the backroom of the bar to cut the handcuffs, the ceiling lamp is bumped and swings around, meaning lots of work for the animators to match the shadows between the live-action footage and the animation — something most viewers aren’t even going to notice, at least not consciously. Apparently “bump the lamp” has since become a term used by Disney employees to mean going the extra mile to make something special even when most viewers won’t notice.

Next time…
Three short animations starring Roger Rabbit were made to promote the film and screened with other movies (they’re all available on the DVD/Blu-ray release). Although the original book is very different (and therefore any sequels to it are presumably unlikely to provide suitable movie material), Gary K. Wolf has nonetheless penned two follow-ups: 1991’s Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? and 2014’s Who Wacked Roger Rabbit? Talk of a movie sequel has occurred ever since the original film was a hit — J.J. Abrams met with Spielberg in 1989 to work on an outline and storyboards, for example. Nat Mauldin wrote a prequel titled Roger Rabbit: The Toon Platoon, about Roger and his animated friends having to rescue Jessica from the Nazis in 1941, but Spielberg decided he couldn’t satirise the Nazis after directing Schindler’s List. Retitled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, the screenplay was reworked to cover Roger’s rise to fame on Broadway. That version got quite far: Alan Menken wrote five songs and test footage was shot that mixed live-action, traditional animation and CGI, but it was abandoned when the budget spiralled over $100 million. Nonetheless, various people involved have expressed their interest ever since, with numerous scripts supposedly in the works. Even Bob Hoskins’ death hasn’t stopped such talk, though it seems to have led to a definite focus on any follow-up being a prequel.

Awards
4 Oscars (Editing, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award to Richard Williams for “animation direction and creation of the cartoon characters”)
3 Oscar nomination (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
4 BAFTA nominations (Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design)
1 Annie Award (Technical Achievement)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Director, Special Effects)
5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bob Hoskins), Supporting Actor (Christopher Lloyd), Supporting Actress (Joanna Cassidy), Writing, Music)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“This splendidly entertaining film, which craftily combines live action with cartoon animation, […] is an absolutely new and novel motion-picture concept. Illusion on the big screen has never been better executed or more uproarious in effect. Assuming you can withstand the laughs during the first 10 minutes of the film — with its dazzling, breakneck animated sequence and introduction of the goofy star, Roger — then brace yourself; you`re in for the ride of your life, disbelieving all you will see and hear.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not a children’s film; it’s too noir for that; there’s scenes of drinking, smoking, sexual intrigue and murder. The strong animated aspect, however, draws children into the film and these dark overtones engage them in a completely different way. That’s one of the things that’s so special about Roger Rabbit; you feel as if you’re watching a film made for an adult audience using elements that appeal to one’s more childish side. The USA and UK ratings of the film are a PG, so younger audiences can still watch. However, the twisting noir-esque plot focusing on Judge Doom’s attempt to destroy The Red Car trolley service and ToonTown in order to build a freeway can be hard enough for adults to follow. […] This is why the film works so well; everyone is committed and the characters show no awareness that they’re in a PG rated noir with elements of comedy; they commit as if they are in a 1940s, life-or-death, grown-up movie.” — queenieem, the6fingeredblog

Verdict

“Effects movies” used to mean lots of model work and now of course means non-stop wall-to-wall CGI, but you could also apply it to Roger Rabbit, considering the monumental effort involved in animating half the cast, not to mention props and locations. But that would undersell it, because while the technical achievement remains impressive today (bearing in mind the limitations of the time) it’s all in service of the characters and the story. Even as you marvel at the visuals, you’re engrossed by the mystery and kept amused by the gags, including clever and witty references to cartoons and film noir.

I’ve always liked Roger Rabbit, but I re-watched it recently for this project and discovered I really love it. I think it’s underrated, even — it’s a masterpiece.

#98 will be… the beginnings of another stage of human evolution.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #7

They’ve saved the best trip for last…
But this time they may
have gone too far.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 11th July 1990
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The American President)
Christopher Lloyd (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead)
Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood, Step Brothers)
Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future, Born to Be Wild)
Lea Thompson (SpaceCamp, Some Kind of Wonderful)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, The Polar Express)

Screenwriter
Bob Gale (Used Cars, Back to the Future)

The Story
With Doc stuck in 1885, Marty McFly must travel back to save him before he’s killed by Biff Tannen’s ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen. With the DeLorean damaged during his arrival in the past, they also have to come up with a plan to get back to their correct time…

Our Heroes
Marty McFly finally grows as a human being as he learns some stuff this time, while Michael J. Fox also gets to ham it up a little as his Irish ancestor, Seamus. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, is still the one and only Doc.

Our Villain
It’s Thomas F. Wilson again, this time as Biff’s trigger-happy Wild West ancestor, Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen. Who also gets covered in excrement.

Best Supporting Character
Mary Steenburgen is one of the few wholly original characters in either sequel, the love of Doc’s life, Clara Clayton. She’s also a confident, competent, and capable female character — a character type that’s only now ceasing to be a rarity in effects-y blockbusters, 25 years after this was made.

Memorable Quote
“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.” — Doc

Memorable Scene
Marty and Doc hijack a train in the hope of using it to get the DeLorean up to the required 88mph. As the looted locomotive heads towards a mighty fall off an unfinished bridge, it turns out Clara is on board too. Tension! Action! Excitement! What more do you want from a climax?

Truly Special Effect
With the DeLorean destroyed, the film ends with a reveal of Doc’s new time machine, and it’s awesome.

Making of
There are tonnes of lines, jokes, characters, locations, and even background details referenced back and forth across the whole trilogy, but only one actual scene appears in all three: the moment Marty travels from 1955 to 1985. It’s the climax to the first film, then appears at the end of Part II, and consequently is in the ‘recap’ at the start of Part III.

Previously on…
Part III indeed: this picks up exactly where the second film left off, and they were shot back-to-back. It’s fundamentally standalone other than that, mind.

Next time…
As mentioned on the first film, Back to the Future has continued in an animated series, theme park ride, video game, and a comic book that started last year. Plus Doc Brown turned up in A Million Ways to Die in the West, so… there’s that…

Awards
2 Saturn Awards (Supporting Actor (Thomas F. Wilson), Music)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen), Costumes)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
Back To The Future Part II teed off a lot of critics by not being a remake of the first film, and for daring to be a) complicated, b) very fast and c) heartless. Part III, which is slightly less fleet of foot, restores heart interest of the first film and has a satisfying complete storyline.” — Kim Newman, Empire

Score: 74%

What the Public Say
“One of the clearest indications of an excellent series is an ending is so satisfying you can’t even be mad the adventure is over. Part III delivers a happy ending so well-rounded […] there is no yearning for more story. I remember feeling quite content after seeing that movie for the first time; actually more like thrilled that the trilogy ended on such a great note.” — Avril Brown, Comics Waiting Room

Verdict

The consensus used to be that Part III was unquestionably the weakest part of the trilogy, a slightly bizarre Old West-set addendum to the first two. These days, I feel like an increasing number of people say it’s definitely better than Part II. Personally, I’ve always had a particular fondness for it. I’m not entirely sure why. Much like the second film, it can’t attain the perfection of the first movie, but it can be the next best thing — a fun and funny adventure with these great characters. And even as I say “they’re not as good as the first one”, I don’t wholly believe it: to me, Back to the Future never has and never will be just one film, or one film and its two sequels — it’s a trilogy; a three-parter. (So there.)

#8 will be… an alliterative origin.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #6

Getting back was only the beginning.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 108 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 22nd November 1989 (USA)
UK Release: 24th November 1989
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Doc Hollywood, The Frighteners)
Christopher Lloyd (Clue, The Pagemaster)
Lea Thompson (Red Dawn, Casual Sex?)
Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future, High Strung)
Elisabeth Shue (Adventures in Babysitting, Leaving Las Vegas)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away)

Screenwriter
Bob Gale (1941, Interstate 60: Episodes of the Road)

The Story
Marty and Doc travel forward to 2015 to save Marty’s son from imprisonment, but this allows future-Biff to steal the DeLorean, taking it back to 1955 to allows his younger self to profit from future knowledge. Faced with a nightmare version of 1985, Marty must travel back into the events of the first movie to fix things.

Our Heroes
Michael J. Fox is not only Marty McFly, but older Marty McFly, and his son, Marty McFly Jr., and also… his daughter, Marlene McFly. Just in case you’d forgotten these were comedy movies, I guess. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, is the one and only Doc.

Our Villain
It’s Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff again, but this time he’s not just a bully, but someone who — thanks to his meddling in time — represents a threat to Marty’s whole lifestyle. And he’s a right nasty piece of work in the dystopian variant of 1985, too. Still gets covered in excrement, mind.

Best Supporting Character
Spare a thought for Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer. The end of the first film has her getting in the DeLorean with Doc and Marty, because she was there and the ending was never intended to lead to anything (yes, kids, once upon a time movies weren’t made with the assumption there’d be sequels). Come the second film, Zemeckis and Gale were stuck having to integrate her into the story, which they did by… knocking her out early on and leaving her out of it.

Memorable Quote
“The time-traveling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women!” — Doc

Memorable Scene
30 years in the future, they’re still making crappy Jaws sequels. (The irony now is, in the real 2015 we were still getting often-crappy sequels to pretty much every major ’70s/’80s franchise except for Jaws.)

Technical Wizardry
You’ll believe a board can hover. Well, you probably won’t, but some people did. That’s just testament to how well made the sequence is.

Truly Special Effect
Quite apart from the hoverboard, the sequence where they first arrive in 2015 — a ‘road’ of flying cars in a rainy nighttime sky — is a triumph of model work.

Making of
For various reasons (possibly moral, possibly financial) Crispin Glover refused to return as Marty’s father, George McFly. Instead, the filmmakers used outtakes from the first film, as well as an actor wearing prosthetics made from casts of Glover taken for the first film. Glover objected to his likeness being used without permission, sued, and Universal settled out of court. More than that, it led to a change in contract rules at the Screen Actors Guild to stop the same thing happening again. (See also: The Four Musketeers.)

Previously on…
Not only does Part II pick up exactly where the first film ended, it goes back into its events and interacts with them.

Next time…
Part II ends with a huge cliffhanger, leading directly into the series’ final trilogy-forming instalment.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA (Special Effects)
1 Saturn Award (Special Effects)
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Costumes, Make-Up)

What the Critics Said
“Like its predecessor, Back to the Future Part II does not merely warp time; it twists it, shakes it and stands it on its ear. But as before, the film’s technical brilliance is the least of its appeals. Satirically acute, intricately structured and deftly paced, it is at heart stout, good and untainted by easy sentiment.” — Richard Schickel, TIME

Score: 63%

What the Public Say
“the biggest prediction the film nails is not any one piece of technology, but our reaction to it: indifference met with annoyance of its imperfections. The movie focuses not on what the technology can do, but on what it can’t. The skyway’s jammed. Marty’s hover board doesn’t work on water. The voice-activated home-entrance lights don’t turn on when Jennifer enters. […] What we get is “the future” as “the present.” None of the doom, destruction and dystopia of Blade Runner or The Time Machine. 2015 Hill Valley and 2015 Chicago are just like 1985 Hill Valley and 1985 Chicago, only with cooler stuff.” — Jack M Silverstein, ReadJack.com

Verdict

There are some who consider Back to the Future an all-time classic and think the two sequels are meritless wastes of space. There are others who see them as a complete trilogy of more-or-less equal quality. Considering that ever since I’ve seen them all three parts have existed, it isn’t much surprise I’m one of the latter. Part II may not have the elegant simplicity of the first film, but it still has plenty of original and exciting ideas, not least using the time travel conceit to go back into the first movie. It may not be as good, but it’s a fine adventure in its own right.

#7 will be… wicky wicky wild wild West.

Back to the Future (1985)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #5

He was never in time for his classes…
He wasn’t in time for his dinner…
Then one day…
He wasn’t in his time at all.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 3rd July 1985 (USA)
UK Release: 4th December 1985
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Teen Wolf, Stuart Little)
Christopher Lloyd (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, The Addams Family)
Lea Thompson (All the Right Moves, Howard the Duck)
Crispin Glover (Willard, Alice in Wonderland)
Thomas F. Wilson (Action Jackson, The Heat)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump)

Screenwriters
Bob Gale (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Trespass)
Robert Zemeckis (1941, A Christmas Carol)

The Story
After Marty McFly travels back to 1955 in a time machine invented by his friend, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown, he accidentally prevents his teenaged parents from meeting. It’s up to Marty to make them fall in love and therefore ensure his own existence.

Our Hero
A star-making turn from Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, cocky teen and guitar hero.

Our Villain
Thomas F. Wilson is Biff Tannen: in the ’80s, McFly Sr’s bullying supervisor; in the ’50s, McFly Sr’s high school bully. Prone to getting covered in excrement.

Best Supporting Character
An equally iconic turn from Christopher Lloyd as Doc, mad scientist extraordinaire.

Memorable Quote
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” — Doc

Memorable Scene
The climax: Marty’s one hope to get back to 1985 is a bolt of lightning that will strike the town’s clock tower, which he can use to power the DeLorean. As the moment approaches, Doc battles to connect the wiring, and Marty must make sure the car is travelling at the right speed at the right moment… Well, of course they succeed, and Doc skips happily between the time machine’s flaming tyre tracks.

Write the Theme Tune…
In a rare case of an iconic movie theme from the ’70s and ’80s not composed by John Williams, Back to the Future’s memorable motif was composed by Alan Silvestri.

Technical Wizardry
To some, the DeLorean is a failed automobile. To a generation (and, probably, every generation since) it’s one of the most iconic movie cars of all time. “Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Genius.

Making of
It’s now quite well known that Eric Stoltz was originally cast as Marty, and had even started filming before it was decided he wasn’t right and was replaced with Michael J. Fox. This wasn’t after just a day or two of production, though: Stoltz filmed for four weeks, completing a significant chunk of the film. So much, in fact, that it wasn’t all re-shot with Fox: most of the material without Marty actually on screen was retained (Fox had to film reverse angles for dialogue scenes without the other actors present), and a couple of long shots in the finished film actually feature Stoltz.

Next time…
Two direct sequels (the first of which picks up immediately from the end of this one), as well as an animated series, an iconic theme park ride, a computer game from adventure maestros Telltale, an ongoing comic book that launched last year, and a semi-disastrous Secret Cinema event.

Awards
1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Sound, Original Song)
5 BAFTA nominations (Film, Original Screenplay, Editing, Production Design, Visual Effects)
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor, Special Effects)
6 Saturn nominations (Director, Supporting Actor (Crispin Glover and Christopher Lloyd), Supporting Actress (Lea Thompson), Music, Costumes)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“though it is hardly one of the greater flights of cinematic imagination to be seen since science fantasy reared its head as mass appeal material again, it would be virtually impossible not to enjoy it in some way or another.” — Derek Malcolm, The Guardian

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“nothing short of an example of screen-writing brilliance. Tightly pack[ed] and interwoven from the opening scene to the final ‘cliffhanger’ which, let’s face it, was never meant to be a cliffhanger as much as just a cool and intriguing ending to a stand alone film.” — nEoFILM

Verdict

Who knew a movie about mother-son incest could be one of the most entertaining family comedies ever made? That’s because it’s magnificently written, faultlessly performed, packed with inventiveness… oh, and because the mother is the same age as the son, doesn’t know he’s her son, and the incest doesn’t actually happen. Ah, time travel! A notoriously difficult sci-fi nut to crack, another reason BTTF succeeds is because it isn’t really about time travel. One of those times where talent and good fortune come together to craft perfect movie entertainment.

Roads? Where #6 is going, it doesn’t need roads…

Back in Time (2015)

2015 #161
Jason Aron | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Canada & UK / English

If you’re on social media (or even just frequent pop culture news sites), you can’t fail to have noticed that Wednesday just passed was “Back to the Future Day”, the exact date Marty McFly and Doc Brown (and Marty’s girlfriend) travel to in Back to the Future Part II. As one of the many, many (many) things that went on to mark the occasion, Netflix debuted this crowdfunded documentary worldwide. Apparently it began life as a film just about DeLorean owners, but then expanded to include Back to the Future fans in general, and ultimately features many of the trilogy’s cast and crew talking about the movies themselves, too.

So it’s a “fan documentary”, like, say, Starwoids, Ringers, Done the Impossible, or the one it most reminded me of, Legends of the Knight, This focus has not gone down well with some viewers: there’s quite a lot of criticism on Letterboxd from people who clearly expected something else entirely. Far be it from me to judge (haha! S’exactly what I’m about to do), but I didn’t read up much on the doc before viewing and I’d managed to be aware it was about the movie’s legacy and its fans, so I’m not entirely sure what they expected. If you’re not interested in a documentary about a movie’s legacy and its fans, maybe don’t watch a documentary about a movie’s legacy and its fans?

That said, it does begin with a hefty behind-the-scenes making-of type section about the film in question. Interviewees including Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, supporting cast members, production crew, and at least one studio executive, talk us through the genesis of the project, the travails of getting it greenlit, some of the making of the first film (not least the recasting of Eric Stoltz), touch on their imaginings of 2015 for Part II (not least the famous hoverboard), and only mention Part III in the context of it being the end (reiterating that there are no plans for either Part IV or any kind of remake).

Then it moves on to the fans — what the film means to them, and what that’s led them to do. Those we meet include a couple who travel around the US in a DeLorean fundraising for Michael J. Fox’s charity; the team of aficionados who restored Universal Studios’ decrepit display DeLorean; the family of collectors who own the only film-used DeLorean that will ever be in private ownership; a guy who built a mini-golf course in his yard with a Back to the Future-themed hole that he’s used for charity events with some of the films’ cast; the people who have had some success developing a real-life hoverboard; and the guy who set up a fansite that was so good it became the official site, and is now regularly employed as an official consultant about the films, not least for the rafts of merchandise that comes out these days. We also get a look at the Secret Cinema event in London from a year or two ago that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Naturally, none of that gets mentioned here (in fairness, because it has nothing to do with Back to the Future itself).

Finally, there are some “famous” fans: Adam Goldberg, who appears to have created some US comedy show I’m not familiar with that had a Back to the Future-themed episode once; and Dan Harmon, who created Community (which this week was revealed to have helped Yahoo lose tens of millions of dollars, of course) and some animated show that the makers of the documentary clearly assume you’re familiar with (I’m not). Harmon comes across… well, he ultimately doesn’t come across very well, let’s leave it at that.

Some consumer advice, if you do intend to watch it on Netflix: someone technical has clearly messed up, because the title cards and end credits are completely black, and interviewee IDs flash up for half a second each on a subtitle track. Obviously it doesn’t ruin the overall flow (unless you really want to know people’s names and jobs), but it’s a shame.

That glaring error aside, Back in Time is not a bad film, provided you know what to expect. It’s a shade too long and the storytelling is occasionally a little jumbled, but there are some nice interviews and stories — hearing Michael J. Fox recount the Royal Premiere where he was sat next to Princess Diana pretty much makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

3 out of 5

Back in Time is available on Netflix now.