‘Back to the Future’: The Hidden Tragedy Behind The Classic Movie

Ask people to name their favourite “feel-good” movies, and ‘Back to the Future’ from 1985 is bound to be a top pick across generations. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film is an entertaining journey filled with lovable characters, intense action, thrilling music, and a cool car, making it a quintessential comfort movie. Michael J. Fox, already a TV star from ‘Family Ties,’ skyrocketed to movie stardom with his role as Marty McFly, the quintessential nice but cool guy who triumphs against the odds. 

By the end, he successfully restores his family’s happiness, returning to a family better than the one he left. However, this seemingly happy ending is, in reality, a tragedy. Marty doesn’t truly know these people anymore, and they don’t know the real him, leaving him more alone than ever.

Also Read: ‘The Greatest Hits’ Review: Time Travel Rom-Com Misses The Mark

Back to the Future Tragedy
Image Courtesy: IMDb

Interestingly, Michael J. Fox wasn’t the original Marty McFly. Eric Stoltz was initially cast and had filmed much of the movie before producers Steven Spielberg and Zemeckis decided to replace him with Fox. Stoltz’s serious approach turned McFly into a darker, sadder character, while Fox’s lightheartedness fit the film’s tone perfectly.

In a 2015 interview with ‘Pop Goes the Culture’, Lea Thompson, who played Marty’s mother Lorraine, explained why Stoltz didn’t work out. His method of acting was so intense that he insisted on being called by his character’s name and adopted quirks like growing his fingernails long for guitar playing. 

Back to the Future Tragedy
Image Courtesy: Netflix

His serious demeanour didn’t align with the film’s vibe. During the first table read, Stoltz remarked, “I think it’s a tragedy, really… My entire family remembers a past, and I, Marty, remember a completely different past.” Though Thompson acknowledged he was right, his approach wasn’t suitable for the film’s intended light-heartedness.

In ‘Back to the Future,’ Marty’s family initially appears dysfunctional. His father George (Crispin Glover) is a pushover bullied by his supervisor Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), his mother Lorraine is unhappy, his brother Dave works at Burger King, and his sister Linda is preoccupied with boys. Marty’s accidental trip back to 1955 leads his mother to fall in love with him, and he spends the movie trying to get his timid father to win Lorraine’s affection.

Back to the Future Tragedy
Image Courtesy: Rotten Tomatoes

In the original timeline, George and Lorraine meet after George is hit by a car, with Lorraine’s initial infatuation leading to disappointment. In the altered timeline, George’s newfound courage in defending Lorraine from Biff earns her true love. When Marty returns to 1985, his family is drastically different: his father is a successful novelist, his parents are in love, and his siblings are confident and successful.

While this ending seems sweet, it’s also tragic. Marty is bewildered by the changes, and his confusion won’t fade after the credits roll. His family has different memories and experiences, making Marty feel like an outsider in his own life. Marty grew up with different parents, shaping him into a different person from the one who left. Though his family may be better off, Marty now lives a life he was never truly part of.

– Farheen Ali