The Importance Of Relationships In The Back To The Future Trilogy
Thirty-five years ago, Back To The Future began a legacy. Debuting to critical acclaim, it would become the highest grossing movie of the year, generating more than twenty times its original budget of $19 million. To the surprise of nobody with a working brain cell, two sequels were confirmed, being shot back-to-back and released in November 1989 and May 1990, respectively. Collectively, the trilogy would gross over $950 million and expand into comic books, video games and even musicals.
Unfortunately, despite the successful nature of the trilogy, both sequels have polarizing reactions from audiences. Back To The Future Part II is much more complicated than the original, due to its use of alternate timelines and even having Marty and Doc returning to the first movie. This means you end up watching two versions of both Marty and Doc in the same scene trying to make sure the timeline is not disrupted. This amount of immersion has been accused of easily confusing, with some feeling the need to defend its complexity.
In comparison, the third film in the series is renowned for a much simpler depiction of a Wild West setting, with it being compared negatively to its predecessors and requiring its own defence. The time jumps alone encompass the 1950s, 1980s, 2010s and the 1880s, with at least two timelines incorporated, which can sometimes make it more difficult to connect the trilogy together.
However, it’s my belief that the series isn’t defined by its setting in time or its genre, but instead by its relationships. There is a constant thread through the trilogy, where each film‘s importance is due to the relationship that is in focus. Not only that, but each relationship that Marty experiences impacts the next film, creating a domino effect throughout the series. In essence, the differences in each film are due to the impact of the film prior to it.
Back To The Future (1985)
The first film is the most obvious, as Marty accidentally travels from 1985 back to the 1950s and has to make sure that his then-teenage parents meet to make sure he’s born. Prior to his adventure through time, we’ve already seen Marty’s relationship with his parents, neither of which are positive. He feels overwhelmed by his mother’s strictness, especially in regard to his girlfriend Jennifer, and he’s almost resentful of his father’s meekness. The frustration is especially evident in his father’s dealings with his bullying superior, Biff Tannen. Coupled with his mother’s passive aggressive alcohol consumption, and Marty could be seen as ashamed of his parents and family.
However, his journey to the past offers Marty an opportunity to see George and Lorraine as more than just parents: he gets to see them as people. Marty’s own lack of confidence gains new resonance when he discovers George’s own issues with self-doubt, as well as George’s love for creative writing. With Marty’s own love for creativity as reflected in his music record, he starts to identify with the man he once couldn’t stand. In comparison, Lorraine is revealed to be more hopeful and relaxed as a teenager, asking boys to the dance and swiping alcohol from her own mother’s drinks cabinet. Lorraine’s strictness as a mother is due to how miserable she was with her own life.
Marty’s interference in this movie achieves two things: helping George gain the self-confidence to win Lorraine on his own merits, and helping Lorraine lose the resentment that contributed to an unhappy marriage. Now, George is a published author in a loving partnership with Lorraine, who herself has become more open-minded and accepting of Jennifer. Marty himself returns to a cleaner, happier, and much more successful household. Unfortunately, unexpected repercussions would come to light in the sequel.
Back To The Future Part II (1989)
The previous movie ended with Marty returning home and Doc Brown deciding to venture into the future, only to return and reveal that Marty has to come with him. Doc discovered during his adventure into 2015 that Marty’s son and daughter were going to be sent to jail, and he wanted Marty to help him save them. Due to that, you’d think the focus of Marty’s relationship would be with his family, but in actuality, the focus is on Marty’s relationship with himself. There are two new revelations to Marty’s character that gain prominence in the series from here.
The first is the new inclusion of Marty’s reaction to being called ‘chicken’. The original film never hinted at such a characteristic, and there’s a possibility this could be a side effect or influence from Marty’s actions in that film. Where the first movie had Marty with relative anger problems due to the meekness of his father, here he develops an adverse reaction to cowardice, possibly due to growing up with a stronger father figure. This flaw would be revealed by Doc, which leads to the second major revelation, that of Marty getting severely injured in a road accident because of it, ruining his future prospects.
Even though these two aspects come more to fruition in the third movie, Marty still makes a flawed decision that reinforces his lack of maturity. Knowing that he will be marrying his girlfriend Jennifer in the future with a son and daughter, Marty decides to buy an Almanac in 2015 that possesses all sporting results from 1980 onwards, in an attempt to earn money for his future. This knee jerk reaction would be taken advantage of by Future Biff and lead to a dystopian 1985 where Marty’s father is dead, and his mother in a loveless, abusive marriage with Biff. Marty has to deal with the repercussions of his reactions by returning to 1955 to try and steal back the Almanac while avoiding his previous self.
The second timeline is a lesson for Marty that his actions not only have consequences, but that the importance of money is secondary to the safety of his family. In the moment that Marty discovers his father is dead, he accepts that the Almanac needs to be destroyed, returning the timeline to normal while sacrificing his desire for money. It humbles and educates him, and the fact that Doc is willing to help him in such a selfless manner impacts Marty, gaining a better understanding of what truly matters in the final film.
Back To The Future Part III (1990)
With Marty learning some humility in the previous movie, he has a different frame of mind in Back To The Future II. Knowing that he has had an opportunity to improve his family, return to his original timeline in 1985, and even get a chance to save his future children, he is truly indebted to the help provided by his friend. Marty’s fear when Doc disappeared in a lightning strike in the previous movie, and jubilation to discover Doc is alive in 1885, is a touching moment. Furthermore, it suggests that Marty can finally return to his timeline knowing everything has been improved, an opportunity he cannot wait for.
All this changes, however, when Marty discovers Doc’s name on a tombstone. Despite having the ability to return home, Marty cannot walk away, and declares he will go back to 1885 and return Doc home to 1985. This is because the focus of this movie is the relationship between Marty and Doc, where we see Marty make a purely mature decision due to the strength of their friendship. The importance of Doc in this film is exactly why the Wild West becomes so vital, as it’s a personal connection to Doc, whereas 1955 was personal to Marty’s parents and 2015 was personal to himself. The simpler story in this movie allows some quiet moments between the two protagonists where they enjoy each other’s company.
This would also explain the importance of Cara, as where the first film required Marty to understand his parents, and the second required Marty to grow as an individual, this is about Marty stepping aside to allow Doc to find happiness. But this never would have occurred if not for the lessons he had learned, and the positive influence Doc’s friendship had on him. Whereas the trilogy seemed disconnected by going from a teenage romantic comedy to a complex science-fiction movie and culminating in an action western, the relationships actually connect the trilogy, as epitomised in the third act of the third film.
During his time in the Wild West, Marty connects with Sheamus McFly, an ancestor who advises Marty on violence not always being the answer, a family connection like the first film. Marty then attempts to walk away from a fight with ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen, demonstrating the maturity he learned in the second film, but eventually battles Tannen to protect Doc, the focus of the third film.
This growing maturity is cemented by Marty refusing a race with 1985-based school bully ‘Needles’, thereby avoiding the horrendous accident that ruined his future. The fact that Marty independently made this decision makes it more impactful, as it’s only afterwards Jennifer reveals his original future. Without knowing it, Marty had bettered his life because of the teachings he had gained from his friend and mentor, Doc.
During this trilogy, we witness Marty grow from a teenager riddled with self-doubt and a fractured relationship with his family, into a mature, quietly confident individual, with his parents and siblings in a happier place. Doc himself grew from a lonely, ridiculed scientist wanting vindication, into a husband, father and beloved adventurer.
In the end, the trilogy was never about romance, time travel, or even comedy. It was about seeing the trials and tribulations of two friends who improved each other’s lives, leaving them both more confident with the family they always wanted. Though the two friends may end the series not knowing when they’ll next see one another, they know that whether it’s family, friends or themselves, nothing is set in stone.
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