Our last few When Can I Watch columns directly reacted to films opening around us. We discussed J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg homage Super 8 for parents interested in bringing their children, then moved on to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in response to the glut of superhero features fighting for your kids’ attentions. And while we’ll continue to reflect on current movie trends with the weekly Watch column, this installment returns to the project’s mission statement by pulling a geek classic off of the DVD shelf and figuring out when you can enjoy it with your budding film aficionado.
So slide that Van Halen cassette into your Walkman, slip into your purple Calvin Kleins, and power up the flux capacitor. We’re going to get the column up to 88 miles per hour and figure out when you can watch Back to the Future with your kids.
The Discussion: How I Met Your Mother
Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy always seemed to be about slacker teen Marty (Michael J. Fox) and his screwball scientist friend, Emmet “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who somehow figured out how to travel back in time, then spent three films correcting a series of mistakes that started with their initial trip.
And for the most part, it’s still about Doc’s invention and Marty’s decades-spanning adventure behind the wheel of said device. But watching the film with my kids recently, I saw an entirely different movie. I saw the story of how George McFly (Crispin Glover) overcame otherworldly odds to meet his soul mate, Lorraine (Lea Thompson). For parents, that’s a solid gateway into Zemeckis’ crackling film … when you are ready to show it.
My wife, Michele, and I met in college. I can tell you the exact moment we met. Literally, I can close my eyes and watch it unfold. We’re standing in line getting breakfast prior to a training event for our school’s orientation program. We were the last two people in line for food, and there was only one orange juice container left. I told her she could have it, and we struck up a conversation that’s still going on 17 years later.
This summer, for the first time, Michele and I plan to bring our sons back to our college, where I’m going to show them where I met their mother. It’s important that they know that, and I think it’s incredible that I can bring them to the exact spot and say, “This is where it all began.” If not for that orange juice, these two wonderful humans might not exist … at least, not in this form.
And isn’t that the point of Back to the Future? I mean, the real point, not the space-time disruption, the lightning bolt, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll that happens from the stage of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance point? It’s all about Marty helping George meet Lorraine, so that he and his older siblings will be born.
“They’re your parents. You must know them,” Doc tells Marty. But do we? Do our kids know us? I couldn’t tell you how my folks met. They’re just … together. Like they were born that way. As Back to the Future shows, there’s a reason we think about the past. It informs our present and guides our future. As a proper cinematic tool, it can do the same for your family.
Marty would say that sounds pretty heavy. And he’d be right. Which is why Back isn’t necessarily for the young. Let’s elaborate with this week’s red flags.
Red Flags: Besides the fact that McFly’s a peeping tom and Biff’s a date rapist?
OK, those sound much worse when taken out of context. But the fact remains that George climbs a tree to spy on Lorraine in her underwear. And Biff, who clearly doesn’t know “No means No,” gets fresh outside the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
The former is a payoff (and an admittedly funny one) to an earlier setup where Crispin Glover gets gloriously flustered once Lorraine presses him on what he was doing in the middle of the road before her father bumped him with his car. But unless you want to breeze past the scene in question, you’re going to have to explain the definition of a Peeping Tom. And that possibly could evolve into an elaborate discussion on the lengths people had to go to find smut before the Internet.
The latter fact is less overt, though Biff’s clearly a date rapist who would’ve done serious harm to Lorraine if George hadn’t intervened with a well-timed, “Hey, you. Get your damn hands off of her!”
Outside of that, language in Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script can be a red flag, with the occasional “shit,” “you bet your ass,” “spook” or “we turn into assholes or something” uttered by Marty and other characters.
The Libyan attack on the Twin Pines Mall also is a little rough, particularly because Doc takes multiple rounds to the chest. And since it takes the rest of the movie to explain that the frantic scientist survives the shooting, the site of this character biting the dust could disturb young kids trying to keep up with Future. Most of the themes regarding destiny, time travel and the power of love (it’s a curious thing) will zoom over the heads of young kids anyway, which is part of the reason why it’s best to wait until your children are teenagers to first watch Back. But before we get to that ….
Green Lights: “I have to tell you about the future!”
Zemeckis’ original Back to the Future certainly earns its status as a modern geek classic. It’s airtight, populist science fiction that embraces the rules of time travel without twisting logic or alienating its audience. It’s witty as hell, and the entire cast drowns in chemistry, thanks mostly to Fox’s ability to connect with virtually anyone on screen, from Glover to Thompson to – of course – Lloyd.
And it moves liked greased lightning. Pretty much from the moment Marty stops Biff from pummeling George in the diner (escaping on the makeshift skateboard) through the Enchantment Under the Sea dance and right up until the brilliantly conceived lightning strike to the clock tower, Zemeckis’ Back to the Future is a freight train of beautifully scripted and intricately choreographed action. And I don’t mean “action” in the Schwarzenegger sense of the word. I mean physical events grounded in a reality that has eluded the mo-cap-obsessed director since the turn of this century.
Zemeckis’ enthusiasm and effervescent storytelling methods, which carried such remarkable features as Used Cars, Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, came to a head in Back to the Future. It’s so good, from start to finish, that you want to scream your support like Marty bellowing to Doc on the night he goes back. We know you love it, as well as its sequels -- even the Wild West one with Clara, the train, and those silly colored logs. But don’t scream. Talk about it with your children, and bring up a few topics we’ll spell out in our next section.
Talking Points: “… but your kids are going to love it.”
There’s a tremendous scene in the early going of Back where Lea Thompson recalls the story of George and Lorraine’s first meeting. Even under a pound of makeup, Thompson’s face lights up the McFly’s dreary suburban abode, and it’s counteractive to the vivacious teenager we meet during Marty’s travels. The warm glow of memory envelopes Lorraine (and this film), and helps set up the sunny epilogue she and George enjoy after Marty puts his parents on a better path.
Talk to your kids about your own path. Tell them your story. Do your best to light up the room.
And while you’re at it, discuss bullying with your kids. There’s a reason it’s a buzzword in school communities these days. It’s a very real problem, and it often wears a very recognizable face. In Back, it’s Biff, who’s far more terrifying of a cinematic villain than someone like Darth Vader or Freddy Krueger. Biff is the asshole your kids actually can and will encounter on a day-to-day basis, and it’s important that they learn – much like George did – how to stand up for themselves.
Oh, and it’s a throwaway line by George as he holds his first sci-fi novel, but it’s one that bears repeating to your children. “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Hear, hear.
Again, these are heavy topics. If you really want your kids to understand and appreciate everything that’s going on in Back to the Future, then wait until your children are 12 and older to watch it with them.
As always, these estimates are on a child-by-child basis, and some mature kids will buy into Marty’s fantastic journey at a younger age. But the breakneck action of the film’s brilliant second half, while busy enough to entertain any kid, will mean more when your child actually understands WHY Marty needs to get back to the future.
Previous “When Can I Watch” Columns:
Superman: “The Movie
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Indiana Jones series
The Star Wars Saga