Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts #25: Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985)

Fox was a lightweight actor, his limitations exposed whenever he took on stuff with any gravity, such as a rape-objecting grunt in Casualties of War or a cokehead loser in Bright Lights, Big City. Man, does he not sit right in those two flicks, but as a bewildered Californian schoolboy frantically trying to save his very existence in Back to the Future, he’s perfect. Diminutive and fresh-faced, there isn’t one scene in this box-office smash where he puts a sneakered foot wrong.

He plays seventeen-year-old Marty McFly, a skateboarding, wannabe musician who is somehow pals with an eccentric inventor, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Thanks to the doc’s newly unveiled, plutonium-powered time machine he soon finds himself in a ‘very intense dream’ stranded in 1955, having to put up with everything from the meathead, hiss-worthy town bully to the unwelcome advances of his future mother.

The fast-paced Back is built on an unusually intricate level of writing that becomes ingenious by its second hour, allowing its pleasingly clever echoes and repetitions to effortlessly feed into the comedy. There’s also meat on the funny bone as it chucks in bullying, the threat of rape, a bit of racism, Oedipal stuff and the fascinating idea that destiny can be sent spinning in a different direction by a single act (“History is gonna change.”) 

The likable, down to earth McFly is a winning character, at his best with an electric guitar in hand during the climactic school dance. Here his initially restrained performance turns into a high-octane bout of duck walking, amp kicking and orgasmic face-pulling that manages to mash up the trademark moves of Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend. It’s a wonderfully Spinal Tap-like minute or so that singlehandedly invents a musical genre in front of a baffled, silent audience. “Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…” McFly sheepishly tells them, “but your kids are gonna love it!”

Twenty-three years old at the time of filming, this was Fox’s moment. Despite serious competition from an outstanding supporting cast, he holds centerstage in one of Hollywood’s most magical efforts.



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One response to “Starring Debuts #25: Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985)”

  1. John Welsh Avatar
    John Welsh

    “Great Scott, this is heavy”, Dave.

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