Back to Back to the Future

Revisiting Back to the Future on Blu-Ray, it’s hard not to get sucked into an infinite regress the likes of which would probably have pleased screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale: the 1985 original, viewed 25 years later, has acquired layers of unintended convolution, discovery, and loss.

As with any smartly-executed time travel story (see: La JeteePrimer, Timecrimes, and “City on the Edge of Forever”), the plot gets you thinking in loops, attentive to major and minor patterns of similarity and difference, playing textual detective long before Christopher Nolan came along with the narrative games that are his auteurist signature. And BTTF is nothing if not a well-constructed mousetrap, full of cleverly self-referential production design, dropping hints and clues from its very first frames about the saga that’s about to unfold. (Panning across Doc Brown’s Rube-Goldberg-esque jumble of a laboratory, the camera lingers on a miniature clock from whose hands a figure hangs comically, in a shoutout both to Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! [1923] and to BTTF’s own climax.) In this sense, it’s a film designed for multiple viewings, though the valence of that repetition has changed over the quarter-century since the film’s first release: in the mid-eighties, BTTF was a quintessential summer blockbuster, its commercial life predicated on repeat business and the just-emerging market of home rentals. Nowadays, the fuguelike structure of BTTF lends itself perfectly to the digitalized echo chamber of what Barbara Klinger terms replay culture and the encrusted supplementation of making-of materials sparked in the random-access format of DVDs and fanned into a blaze by the enormously expanded storage of Blu-Rays. (Learning to navigate the interlocked and labyrinthine documentaries on the new Alien set is like being lost on the Nostromo.)

But in 1985, all this was yet to come, and BTTF’s bubbly yet machine-lathed feat of comic SF is all the more remarkable for maintaining its innocence across the gulf of the changing technological and economic contexts that define modern blockbuster culture. It still feels fresh, crisp, alive with possibilities. If anything, it’s somehow gotten younger and more graceful: expository setups that seemed leaden now trip off the actors’ tongues like inspired wordplay, while action setpieces that seemed unnecessarily prolonged — in particular, the elaborate climax in which a time-traveling DeLorean must intersect a lightning-bolt-fueled surge of energy while traveling at exactly 88 miles per hour — now unspool with the precision of a Fred Astaire dance routine. Perhaps the inspired lightness of BTFF is simply a matter of contrast with our current blockbusters, which have grown so dense and heavy with production design and ubiquitous visual effects, and whose chapterized storyworlds so entangled with encyclopedic continuity, that engaging with them feels like subscribing to a magazine — or a gym membership.

BTTF, of course, is a guilty player in this evolution. Its two sequels were filmed back-to-back, an early instance of the “threequelization” that would later result in such elephantine letdowns as the Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean followups. But just as the story of BTTF involves traveling to an unblemished past, when sin was a tantalizing temptation to be toyed with rather than a buried regret, the reappearance of the film in 2010 allows us to revisit a lost moment of cinema, newly pure-looking in relation to the rote and tired wonders of today. For a special-effects comedy, there are surprisingly few visual tricks in evidence: ILM’s work is confined to some animated electrical discharges, a handful of tidy and unshowy matte shots, and a motion-controlled flying-car takeoff at the end that pretty much sums up the predigital state of the art. Far in the future is Robert Zemeckis’s unfortunate obsession with CGI waxworks a la The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and soon — shudder — Yellow Submarine.

As for the Blu-Ray presentation, the prosthetic wattles of old-age makeup stand out as sharply as the heartbreakingly unlined and untremored features of Michael J. Fox, then in his early 20s and a paragon of comic timing. It makes me think of how I’ve changed in the twenty-five years since I first saw the movie, at the age of 19. And somewhere in this circuit of private recollection and public viewing, I get lost again, with both sadness and joy, in the temporal play of popular culture that defines so much of my imagination and experience. The originating cleverness of BTTF’s high concept has been mirrored and folded in on itself as much by the passage of time as by Universal’s marketing strategies, so that in 2010 — once an inconceivably far-flung punchline destination for Doc Brown in the tag that closes the film and sets up its continuation in BTTF 2 — we encounter our own future-as-past, past-as-future: time travel of an equally profound, if more reversible, kind.

Predestination Paradox


It would be nice if ABC’s new series, Flashforward, didn’t stylistically model itself quite so slavishly on Lost — which is not to deny a legitimate familial relationship between the two shows. Indeed, it’s largely thanks to Lost that broadcast television now periodically risks acts of serial storytelling with genuine intricacy and depth, sizeable and interesting casts of characters, and generic inflections that flirt with science fiction and fantasy without ever quite falling into the proud but doomed ghetto of, say, Virtuality and Firefly. Nowadays we seem to prefer our fantastic extrapolations blended with a strong tincture of “reality”; while I might privately consider series such as Mad Men and Jericho to be as bizarre in setting and plot machination as Farscape ever was, the truth is it will be a long time before we see a space-set show lasting more than a season or two. (And before you ask, no, I haven’t gotten around to watching Defying Gravity, though some trusted friends have been telling me to give it a try.)

So Flashforward clearly owes a debt to Lost for tutoring audiences in the procedures and pleasures of the complex narratives so deftly dissected by Jason Mittell: in this specific case, the shuttling game of memory and induction by which viewers stitch together a tale told in pieces. Where 24 builds itself around the synchronic, crosscutting among simultaneous story-streams until the very concept of a pause, of downtime, is squeezed out of existence, Lost and Flashforward take as their structuring principle the diachronic, bouncing us backwards and forwards through time until one can no longer tell present from backstory. (I will admit that the most recent season of Lost finally threw off this faithful viewer like a bucking bronco; while I’m all for time-traveling back to the glory years of the 1970s, the show’s intertitled convolutions have become too much for me to keep up with, especially when further diced and sliced by the timeshifting mechanism of my DVR.)

No wonder, then, that David S. Goyer (late of Blade) and Brannon Braga (who in the 1990s both saved and ruined the Star Trek franchise, IMO) felt the moment was ripe to adapt Robert J. Sawyer‘s novel for TV. (Apparently there’s a history involving HBO and a tug-of-war over rights; perhaps a branching feature on the show’s eventual box-set release will as a deconstructive extra interweave this additional knotted plotting, an industrial Z-axis, into the general mayhem.) I remember reading Flashforward-the-book when it first came out, but it took Wikipedia to remind me how it all ended. Now that original ending has of course been jettisoned, in the process of retrofitting the story to serial form.

And a clever adaptation it looks to be. By moving up the collective “flashforward” experienced by the entire human race from twenty-odd years to six months, the TV show embeds its own climax within a different kind of foreseeable future: the conclusion of season one. That is, as the characters catch up with their own precognated fates on April 29, 2010 (in show-reality), so will we the watchers (in audience-reality), making for what I expect to be a delicious and delirious moment of suture. Like the first season of Heroes, Flashforward constructs itself around its own endpoint, arriving like clockwork twenty-odd episodes from now.

Clever, but maybe not smart. Look what happened to Heroes, which did great until collapsing into meaningless narratorhea with the start of its second season. I can think of countless TV series done in by their own cruelly relentless seriality, overstaying their welcome, swapping in cast members and increasingly baroque storytelling gimmicks until the final result is a ghoulish, cyborged facsimile of the show we once knew and loved. People speak of “jumping the shark,” but the truth of a TV show that’s lost its soul is something much more depressing: an elderly parent babbling in the grip of Alzheimer’s, a friend lost to dementia, a young and innocent heart curdled by prostitution or drug addiction. The excitement of Flashforward will consist of watching as it knowingly exploits the feints and deferrals of serial form, doling out clues and red herrings that keep us guessing even as the destination comes inexorably into greater focus — a finale that, by its final arrival, will appear perfectly logical. Good storytelling gets us to the expected endpoint by unexpected means, and I wonder if Flashforward has it in itself to pull off the trick more than once.

In the meantime, let’s sit back and appreciate the tapestry as it emerges for the first, unrepeatable time. The characters have already begun to build a “conspiracy wall,” tacking up photos, scribbled notes, and lengths of string to make a tableau that simultaneously constructs the future as solution while decoding it as mystery. And don’t forget the wonderful opportunity for meta-reflection on the existential whys and wherefores of TV as the first episode ends with another kind of “flashforward” — this one a promotional montage enticing us with glimpses of the season to come. In this sense, of course, the show is a perfect commercial animal, advertising itself and its high concept with every beat of its crass and calculated heart. But in another, purer sense, it is a kind of koan, an invitation to meditate on the deeper patterns of the stories we tell; the time in which we experience them; the nature of narrative consciousness itself.

Flashforward may be, in short, one last chance to live in the media present (even as its central conceit destroys any sense of simple present-ness). Here’s to enjoying the experience before the show is ruined by its own need to respawn in 2010-2011, by the ongoing efforts of the spoiler community and devout Wiki priesthood, or by the aforementioned box sets, downloads, and torrents. A series like this is perfectly engineered for its time, which is to say, paced to the week-by-week parceling of information, the micro-gaps of commercial breaks and the macro-gaps between episodes.

Yet even as we put a name to the temporality of TV, it is already past. For all such gaps are dissolving in the quick waters of new media, and with them the gaps in knowledge (precisely-lathed questions with carefully-choreographed answers) on which a show like Flashforward, and by extension all serial storytelling, thrives. We who are “lucky” enough to straddle this historical juncture — at which the digital is reworking the media forms with which we grew up — face our own version of the predestination paradox: knowing full well where we’re going, yet helpless before the forces that deliver us there.