Visual Parallelism in Back to the Future

Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of my favorite films of all time – Back to the Future, Part I. Despite the Back to the Future films’ cheesy eighties aesthetic, they remain timeless examples of good storytelling. Though the first film stands alone quite well, the trilogy is most effective viewed as one cohesive story divided into three distinct acts. In each movie hero Marty McFly visits a different time period and learns something different about himself. 

In keeping with this theme, there are strong parallels in each time period Marty visits. For example, the 1955 villain of the first film, schoolyard bully Biff Tannen, reappears as his grandson Griff Tannen in 2015 and his great grandfather Buford “Mad dog” Tannen in 1855. Several other actors reprise their roles across time in a similar fashion, establishing a theme of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Dammit, no skateboards in this era…

The other parallel that is established is in the form a scene that happens once in each movie. Marty walks into a restaurant and Biff/Griff/Buford starts some kind of argument, culminating in the bully calling Marty “chicken.” Marty loses his cool and starts a fight where he is way outmatched, which turns into a skateboard chase that ends with the bully with his head in a pile of manure. Shot for shot, angle for angle, these scenes are repeated in 2015 and 1855. In this way the camera angles and shot structure themselves serve as a sort-of visual call-back joke to people who have seen the previous films.

The comedy comes from how the change in setting effects each scene – Marty’s improvised skateboard in 1955 becomes a hover board in 2015, Biff’s car becomes Buford’s horse, etc. The first repetition is funny because the audience doesn’t realize it’s the same scene until halfway through. The final repetition is funny because we realize it almost immediately, and spend the rest of the scene wondering how it’s going to translate to the new time period.

Or, apparently, this one.

Though these scenes are the most extreme examples, other scenes, and indeed the basic structure of each film, continue to parallel each other. Considering this, one would think we could be looking at some of the most unoriginal sequels of all time, but it doesn’t come out that way at all. Why? Because Marty changes. He grows, and he learns, and the last time a bully accuses him of cowardice, he doesn’t take the bait. As a result, he prevents the accident that crippled him in 2015.

In other words, the repetition of plot elements throughout the films isn’t purely a comic device. It also serves to contrast the organic nature of the characters. Across a hundred and fifty years, the films say, people are basically the same. And yet, even over the course of a few days, one person can change.

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