Sunday, 31 October 2010


These brilliant films appeared in 1985 and 1989 respectively, bookended on either side by Jameson’s Postmodernism (essay and book). Like their near contemporaries Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the TV series Quantum Leap, the Back to the Future films gave mainstream expression to a widespread spirit of senescence and belatedness in the mid-late eighties. Herein were the first tremors of that millennial insecurity which would burgeon in the ‘90s into endemic culture-wide retroism and the fin-de-siecle “end of history” zeitgeist.

The post-war years had been a golden age for sci-fi of course. But the shift towards the popularity of the time travel theme was a notable one - "certainly the end of something or other, one would sort of have to think" (DFW). Like Quantum Leap, the first Back to the Future was self-reflexivity in extremis: the time travelling took place exclusively within the post-war period itself, a barely historical immediate past. Marty McFly travels to 1955, only about a decade before his birth; 1985 is the “future” he must get back to. 

History, it seemed, had been downsized.

Light was being thrown on a distinct 30-year epoch as it reached a close, and here the plot's musical orientation is significant. ‘55-‘85 exactly delineates pop music’s confident, classical foundational period. But by the mid-‘80s it was increasingly looking inwards and backwards for inspiration. CD reissues of classic albums glutted the charts. ‘50s artificiality pervaded mainstream pop (cf. Shakin’ Stevens, the ubiquity of covers, and the chilling revival of the saxophone in records like “Careless Whisper” and “The Heat is On”). Further to the left, the major indie bands of the day - The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream - initiated alt-rock’s long-running love affair with the sixties. Psychobilly blossomed. Acid house was just about to offer a postmodern reprisal of the Summer of Love. From this moment on, self-consciousness and pastiche would set the dominant tone in pop.

Back to the Future, with its saxtastic Huey Lewis soundtrack, and climactic performance of “Johnny B. Goode”, expressed all this in deceptively charming, undeniably prescient Spielberg-esque blockbuster fashion. The first film marked an end of sorts for popular post-war sci-fi, and the replacement of futurism in pop culture with an introverted, accelerated version of cultural memory.

But Back to the Future II took a couple of steps back, and gave a précis of what I had left behind. II is an uncanny masterpiece which explores the myriad possibilities of time travel (see 4Qs: the paths we didn’t take, the world of speculations etc) by way of a classically sci-fi modernist mode. It flits back and forth between 1955, 1985, and a projection of the 2010s that is in many ways remarkably accurate. Witness the Café ‘80s revivalism complete with a virtual “ghost” of Michael Jackson; the rainbow-coloured, ersatz consumer gaudiness; the hyper New Urbanist corporatism of Hill Valley circa 2015, with its comprehensively privatised public services; the alternate 2015 in which the millionaire Biff rules over an anarchic, state-less dystopia.

For a mainstream film aimed at the holiday season market, Back to the Future II was a bizarre and intellectual film. But its real value today is as a record of time in the not so distant past when fantastic speculations about the future were a standard facet of pop culture. As our engagement with technology has become passive and uncritical, as our imaginations have been dampened by nostalgia for just-obsolescent consumer pasts, we seem to have lost our taste for the wonderments of time travel. Some basic sense of inquisitiveness, some basic need to predict and to speculate and to self-determine has been lost. Who ever heard of a Hoverboard?