Monday, March 28, 2011

Questions I have about Back to the Future

The Back to the Future trilogy ranks among my favorite movies of all time. Still, sometimes I wonder about nitpicky things in the films...

Toast is always burning in Doc’s house.

Remember that legendary opening to the first film? With all the clocks going off simultaneously? The TV and radio being flipped on? The motorized arm turning Einstein’s dog dish into a mystery meat mountain of Kal Kan? The blown amplifier? The steaming coffee percolator with no pot? The burning toast in the smoking toaster? That’s all still going on even at the heartwarming end of Part III. Oh, and the crate of plutonium, too.

At no point in any of the three movies does Doc ever enter his lab in the correct 1985. Because he’s been hiding all week, it’s safe to assume that the plutonium in his lab is not the same crate he uses in the Magic Name-Changing Mall parking lot. And it’s safe to assume that all the neglected gadgets that provide comic relief during the opening credits won’t be so funny when Doc’s lab joins the rest of his mansion. In pieces.

Also, Doc’s truck is still in the mall parking lot, with the plutonium crate on the pavement and a van of dead terrorists crashed nearby. And lest there’s any confusion, the truck is emblazoned with, “Emmett L. Brown, 24-hour scientific services.” These days, that circumstantial evidence might be called, “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

Not that it really matters, right? After all, Doc winds up living out his retirement years in the 19th century. Well, not so fast...

Doc emerges in 2015.

In the time between Doc dropping Marty off at his house at the end of the first movie and picking him and Jennifer up the next morning, Doc has spent an unspecified (but apparently substantial) amount of time in the future. He returns with new fashions, a flying car, Mr. Fusion, a 2015 license plate and a new spleen and colon. Which means, among other future chores, Doc learned how to drive a flying automobile and stood in line at the DMV. Possibly complicating this process was that Doc most likely hadn’t been on the California grid for several years. Early in his adventures, Doc said he was eager “to see the future beyond my years.” So even if Doc hadn’t wound up in the Old West, he probably would have died at some point prior to 2015. Have you ever tried to get a driver’s license after you’re legally dead? Pain in the ass.

But even if we accept that Doc spent his life in Clara Clayton’s petticoats, this means he vanished in 1985, right about the time his truck and house were discovered abandoned with plutonium inside them, and a vehicle in his name was discovered destroyed by a diesel train.

In any case, Doc arrives in 2015 to register the same DeLorean that had been destroyed in 1985, and to get a license with presumably with the same address he had in 1985. While he was blissfully unaware of his own destiny. Future society might have abolished lawyers, but Doc sure could have used one when he was arrested on the spot.

In fact, I think this entire period would make a great fourth movie, especially updated to more accurately reflect what we can expect four years from now. On the other hand, they’d have to pretend flying cars and hoverboards will exist, and that’s just too much heartache these days.

Goldie Wilson III got a glimpse of the time machine.

After learning how to fly an automobile (or maybe before?), Doc brought in his DeLorean for a hover-conversion. If the retractable axles and undercarriage lights are any indicator, this was an involved process. Certainly someone working on the car would have wondered what the deal was with the time display, flux capacitor or any of the numerous buttons, lights and pipes that make the time machine tick. To say nothing of the plutonium intake. (Mr. Fusion is more of a wild card, but still...wouldn’t someone have questioned that setup as well?)

And so did Biff Tannen.

In the opening scene of Part II, Biff becomes the first person to witness a flying car. After Doc rather conspicuously reaches 88 and hits his temporal stride in the sky, we’re left with a reaction shot of Biff’s face while he asks, “What the hell is going on here?” We see him resolve the question 30 years later. But that doesn’t explain why, at the end of Part III, he’s nice and not at all freaked out by the amazing occurrence from the day before. You’d think he’d at least have asked Marty if he’d seen it, especially since Biff is most likely aware of the Marty-Doc dynamic.

Biff masters time travel rather fast.

Granted, he had all the time he needed to learn the intricacies of the time machine. Still, he managed to learn the correct speed, fueling protocol and manipulation of the time controls in admirably fast fashion, considering that literally two other people had any idea it existed. He also apparently hid the car quite well during his sojourn in 1955. As for the sonic booms, well, apparently Doc and Marty missed all six emanating from Hilldale, even as they worried about the time machine falling into the wrong hands.

Biff returned to the wrong 2015.

Even if you buy the theory that history changes via ripple, as is often seen and implied throughout the trilogy, the 2015 in which Biff returns should already have been altered into the bad Biff future. Otherwise, the DeLorean should never have returned to that tangent any more than Marty returned to the original tangent where his family was a bushel of sad sacks.

Marty and Jennifer should have known about their future appearance.

Why wouldn’t it occur to old Marty or Jennifer that, hey, isn’t today the day we visited ourselves 30 years ago? And why wouldn’t 2015 Doc be hanging out with 2015 Marty? It’s not like the destiny question comes into play at that point...

How did Doc get the DeLorean on that railroad ramp?

During the scene where Doc pledges his love for Clara and his resultant reluctance to travel back to 1985, Doc and Marty roll the DeLorean off a set of raised tracks onto the railroad tracks. But how did it get there in the first place?

Why would the empty grave picture/blank fax still exist?

It’s understandable that Marty would take a picture of Emmett Brown’s grave in 1955. It’s even plausible that he would have taken the same pic after it changed into Clint Eastwood. But in the end, once both men’s futures are secured and the headstone breaks, the grave fades away entirely. So at that point, someone traveling to that point in 1955 would see Marty taking a picture of a blank space. Why? And wouldn’t another grave be there instead of nothing? And what is Marty’s impetus to travel to 1885 and rescue Doc if there’s nothing to prompt him?

Same deal with the fax from the future that Jennifer collects after Marty gets fired. Since he’s no longer fired, why doesn’t the entire paper vanish? Surely Jennifer wouldn’t have felt compelled to yank a blank piece of paper from the fax machine...

Why didn’t Marty fade out the second time he was in 1955?

In the first movie, during his final chance to see his parents fall in love, Marty begins to vanish both from his picture and from the dance stage. When Marty shadows Biff in the sequel, that same moment of endangerment should have caused Second Marty to momentarily fade away as well. They could have timed it in Part II at about the time Marty has his hand trapped against the desk by Principal Strickland. Can you imagine Marty’s horrible pain relieved when his hand disappears? A missed cinematic opportunity, if you ask me.

How did Doc know at what second the lightning would strike?

Doc’s “weather experiment” relied heavily on an exact convergence of time and circumstances, down to the second. It went awry enough without considering the idea that the lightning could have struck at 59 other seconds besides 10:04:01 p.m. Maybe they knew because of the article on the “Save the Clock Tower” flier? Come to think of it...

Were there no witnesses to the clock tower lightning bolt?

The “Save the Clock Tower” flier Marty receives in 1985 features a copy of the Hill Valley Telegraph front page from Nov. 13, 1955. The main story involves the lightning strike on the clock tower. So apparently, someone had to have witnessed it. But who? Nobody besides the police officer shown earlier talking to Doc was even seen to be around the town square over the course of the entire evening. Anyone else who happened to be there surely would have told the reporter that the lightning bolt was only the secondary story of the night (after all, a weird car disintegrated in the same location at the same time!). Consequently, would Doc have made it into the story that inspired him to harness the lightning in the first place?

Great Scott!

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