Back to the Future (1985), written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, is considered one of the best sci-fi movies ever. And that should come as no surprise, it’s a great film. Let’s analyze the screenplay.
- Draft Read: “FOURTH DRAFT”
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 96
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Hill Valley, California
- Plot Structure: Linear (debatable), Spanning multiple decades
- Genre(s): Sci-Fi
- Theme(s): Love, Justice, Friendship, Science, Technology, Music, comedy
- Protagonist Change: Moderate
Concept is king. And Back to The Future is like Alexander The Great. Beyond the story, the characters are entertaining, their interactions are cringy and funny, and above all, everything just seems to work. One read of the script and it’s obvious why it was a success.
But why do I not see it as one of the greats? Just to pick two: The King’s Speech (2010) and Cool Hand Luke (1967), are without question better scripts. Perhaps it’s because of Marty; a great character, but not flawed in any meaningful way. And there are a few spots, really only a few, that aren’t great; such as Marty getting locked in the trunk of the car. Sure, this happens and then that happens and so forth, but a few of the latter sequences include relatively boring scenes for the sake of getting the story to the next important part. Simply, the wow factor is lost as the story becomes a slave to plot.
The characters (explained below) – Marty, Doc, Biff are just excellent, well-developed characters.
The plot. Obviously. How smart to use the exact minute the clock tower is struck to time the jump back to the future.
The use of music. Particularly Marty’s electric guitar solo.
The pop culture references and general comments about the differences between 1955 and 1985. For example, Marty confuses a street name because in his era it’s called JFK drive.
Doc’s character needed, and went through, some revisions between this version of the script and the final film. In this script, he is somewhat chauvinistic (Brown hosting a wild party on Page 42) and uses profanity (One example on Page 45). The character’s biggest change between script and film: Making him go from a mad scientist to a really mad scientist.
I’ve never really understood Biff’s sidekicks (Match, Skinhead and 3-D). Perhaps they were caricatures of common jocks/bullies in the 50s?
As noted above, a couple of the subplots (and certain scenes) feel out of place or rushed.
None to note.
The magic to Back to The Future, in my opinion, isn’t really the plot; a teenager travels back in time to save both his friend (a mad scientist) and help his family, but how it all comes together.
It’s worth noting that the climax includes a bunch of things going wrong and then everything coming together at the last second. It sort of kind of, follows the idea of a sudden reversal creating the best type of climax (See the ending video mentioned in Little Miss Sunshine (2006)). But it’s not super efficient (things keep going wrong versus get progressively worse). For example, Doc had to slide down the electrical wire; he could have had a phobia of heights. Likewise, Biff, the greatest enemy, had already been defeated. It’s still a great climax though.
Doc, Marty, George and Biff are truly epic characters. There’s not much I can write that hasn’t been analyzed by countless others. It’s probably worth noting that women play a secondary role in the script. A bit worse is the pretty clear sexual assault scene which seems brushed over in the later version of 1985 (the McFly’s are fine with Biff working for them… odd). Here’s an article that goes into more detail.
Dialogue & Pacing
Great dialogue. For example, here’s a message thinly disguised in dialogue; on Page 14 George says:
… and what if you were so good that other people wanted to hire you? You’d have to worry about scheduling your jobs around school. Believe me, you’re better off without those headaches.
There are some critiques of society too. In 1985, Hill Valley’s town square is described as run-down due to the existence of the mall, yet in 1955 (action line from Page 30):
The town square is immediately recognizable because the courthouse clock tower is now working. In 1955, the town square is a healthy, vibrant center of commerce. The same buildings are well-kept and clean, and the street bustles with Saturday morning activity.
No additional notes on pacing.
As with any sci-fi, this film packs a lot into a short amount of time (or perhaps a lot). There are strong messages in regard to relationships, self-confidence, decision-making and always-relevant issues such as racism and bullying. Without doing a deep dive into the emotional impact of the film, it’s pretty obvious that people connect with it. Part of that may be it’s unique plot and it’s obvious nostalgia, but on a deeper level the inter-character dynamics (and the individual problems they face) are as relatable and relevant today as they were then.
Best Part of The Script
The whole thing? Alright, a few scenes to note:
- George punches Biff (Page 74).
- Marty’s guitar solo (Page 78).
- The jump Back to The Future (starts roughly on Page 83).