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Back to the Future (1985)

by | Sep 2, 2012

A 1980s teenager accidentally thrust 30 years into the past must attempt to return to his proper time and place—and repair the potential damage resulting from his appearance in the past.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Production Co.(s): Universal Pictures; Amblin Entertainment

The Story on the Screen

In Back to the Future, high-school student Marty McFly befriends a slightly mad scientist, Doc Brown, and is accidentally thrust 30 years into the past by means of the scientist's time machine, which happens to take the form of a modified DeLorean sports car. When Marty finds himself displaced into the world of his home town, circa 1955, he sets his sights on returning to his own place and time.

High-school student Marty McFly befriends a quirky mad scientist and is accidentally thrown back 30 years into the past—from which he must strive to return.

Marty's efforts to return are complicated by encounters with the girl and boy who will become his mother and father, by a high-school bully who hates him, and by aspects of the time travel phenomenon that sent him into the past—all of which he overcomes, but not without changing his own world of 1985.

Behind the Scenery

Marty's journey in the film is one of attempting to return to the world he knows. Consequently, he is a regain character whose primary intent is to regain his proper place in time. His location in the world of 1985 is the treasure that existed (for him) at one time but was lost or taken away.

Marty is a regain character whose treasure is the world that he has grown up in and knows.

In this respect, Back to the Future shares at least one aspect of its soul with the film, The Wizard of Oz. Both are regain stories in which a teenager has been displaced from his or her proper place and must struggle to return "home."

As with any other well-told story, the film is filled with scenes involving all three types of intent—for example, when Marty seeks out and enlists the aid of the 30-years-younger Doc Brown (thereby gaining an ally) and when he uses his skateboarding skills to avoid capture (keeping himself safe from harm) by Biff Tannen, the bully who serves as his primary opposing character in 1955. But his fundamental intent is to regain his place in the world with which he is familiar, and that is the type of intent that informs and drives the story.

As with many well-told stories, the film involves all three types of intent—gain, regain, and keep.

Of course, complications arise in his quest, the most significant of which centers around his accidental disruption of the potential relationship between the couple who would grow up to become his parents. Having quite possibly nixed their relationship before it even gets off the ground, he has inadvertently created the prospect that they will never fall in love and that, as a result, he and his two siblings will never be born.

Consequently, in addition to attempting to regain his place in the world of 1985, he must attempt to repair (regain the health of) their potential for a relationship. In this regard, both of his major actions in the story—to return to his time and to repair the relationship—are regain actions with a single goal: To return to the world as he knows it (his treasure).

The desire to return to one's home is a powerful and universal drive in human beings, and the storytellers address it directly in the film, taking the implicit position that it stands as the foundation of an advisable endeavor. Consequently, we-the-audience are prone to hope for Marty's success in the attempt, and the proposition of the story can be stated as:

  • One should attempt to restore (regain) the proper arrangement and functioning of his world when it is upset by forces beyond his control, because success in the attempt will restore balance to his life and the world.

Which is similar to the proposition for The Wizard of Oz and illustrates the hidden commonalities between seemingly disparate stories that come to light when viewed in the context of the grok approach.

In the end, Marty succeeds in both of his quests. The boy who will become his father musters the bravery to rescue the girl from the clutches of the bully, and her appreciation leads to their marriage and Marty's birth. And thanks to the efforts of the young Doc Brown, Marty succeeds in returning to his own place and time.

And because we-the-audience like Marty and agree with the worthiness of his intent, we are glad for his success, which places the story quite firmly in the ranks of succeed/pleased stories.

Looking a Bit Deeper

When Marty returns to the world of 1985, he finds it not only intact but greatly improved. His father, a psychological weakling prior to his adventure, is now a dashing and confident businessman. His mother is fit and lovely, in stark contrast to her condition before he left. And even his siblings are changed—successful, charming, and not given to the petty squabbling that previously defined them.

But all of these improvements are merely unforeseen consequences of his success in achieving his story goal. At no point in his journey does he actively pursue improvement of his world (which would be a gain intent). In fact, the only conscious action that he takes to change life in the future (his past) involves an effort to prevent the gunning down of Doc Brown.

The improvements to Marty's world of 1985 that result from his adventure are consequences rather than direct artifacts of his goals in the story.

Instead, the story revolves entirely around his quest to return to (regain his place in) the world to which he belongs. Every step toward achieving that goal feels like movement forward. Every complication feels like movement backward. And any step that moves us neither forward nor backward feels like redirection or stasis.

So in this case, Marty's primary intent—to return to his own place and time—is entirely consistent from a grok standpoint with his secondary intent of restoring the relationship between the boy and girl who will become his parents. Both are regain intents. And the consistency of direction in these two intents makes his journey feel focused and complete.

Although other characters constitute parts of the obstacles that Marty must overcome, none of them oppose his main goal directly and can be defined as "antagonists."

Also, Back to the Future illustrates a principle described in Chapter 6 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story—that is, that it can be misleading (and damaging) to view stories as always having "protagonists" opposed by "antagonists." In this story, none of the characters in the world to which Marty is displaced (the world of 1955) directly tries to prevent Marty from regaining his place in the world of 1985, which is his primary goal. In fact, the only character who is even aware of his displacement, Doc Brown, tries to help Marty succeed in achieving his goal.

The other characters may complicate Marty's efforts to pursue his intent, but none sees opposing those efforts as his or her personal goal; therefore, none can be rightly labeled as his "antagonist."

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.



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