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Analyze: Back to the Future

Updated on November 12, 2019

A five minute clip from Back to The Future

The clip chosen is from the 1985 feature Back to the Future, where a teenager goes back in time with the time machine his friend, a disgraced nuclear physicist, made from a DeLorean. The film is a classic and the clip that will be analyzed is the setup for Marty’s adventure and the discovery of the time machine. The 5 minutes clip starts with the main character, Marty McFly, riding his skateboard down a road leading to the Twin Pines Mall parking. The shopping center’s digital sign has a clock, showing the event Marty is about to be part of is during the night, at one fifteen in the morning to be exact. Those details might seem irrelevant, but they come back later in the story and reveal Marty’s time travel. The teenager then comes facing the back of a truck, opening dramatically; light shining Marty’s face, fog coming out the slow opening door and dramatic editing and music. A car is rolled out of the truck and presents for the first time the secondary character Doctor Brown, in all his odd personality and clumsiness. In the rest of the clip, Doc Brown demonstrates his time machine with his dog, Einstein, as a Guinee-pig for his first-time travel attempt.

A lot can be said with this scene, it presents the relationship between the two main characters and the event that will send Marty into the past, but a lot of details present the character upfront. The scene starts with Marty McFly riding his skateboard with his Walkman in the middle of the night. We can then assume that Marty has a lot of confidence in his friend, Emmet Brown, to go to an empty parking lot after midnight. He trusts the Doc by following him, but also by resting by his side. We can also understand their friendship in the scene; Marty calls Doctor Brown Doc, being familiar, but also respects him as a scientist. Also, this appellation is an index, because we know Doc means doctor, therefore we don’t need an explanation for either of the characters to understand Brown’s field of work. This illustration also gives us a practical language example, because we know his title as a doctor. The scene also shows the Doc and his relation towards Marty. When we are presented Doctor Brown, we understand that he has an odd and eccentric personality, stumbling out of his time machine, looking confused. We can also preserve Doc Brown’s trust and friendship with Marty. He demonstrates and tries his time machine with Marty by his side, signifying the importance of showing his invention to him. Sharing the event with Marty is crucial for Doc Brown. Therefore, with those character analysis and presentation, we can understand their future choices and their story.

Another show of trust is Emmet Brown’s confidence in his time machine. The first showing of this trust is his first test; putting his dog, Einstein, in the car while it could not work and possibly crash or blow up. We know by personal experience that we would put a loved one in danger unless we are certain it was not. He trusts his machine to work so much he puts the life of his dog, an animal he loves, in it. He even shows his attention about Einstein in the clip when he gets in the car; ‘’watch your head!’’, we, therefore, know with this practical language that Emmet Brown cares and loves his dog. Also, while he demonstrates it to Marty, Doc (with remote control) drives the car facing towards him and Marty. The remote-controlled car is an icon; we don’t need an explanation about how it works, we all know the miniaturize version, the small electric remote control car, and we can understand the principle of its functionality. His certainty about his design pushes him to put his and Marty’s life in danger. Doctor Brown has created a machine he deems irrefutably functional. Even if Marty trust the Doc, he steps out a bit, doubting his friend and his invention. When the experiment works and Einstein have time traveled, Marty is persuaded Doc Brown has pulverized his dog, making him question his sanity.

Relations a not the only things we can analyze, the main characters and the car’s aspects are also important to the story by giving us useful information. Doctor Emmet Brown is seen, for the first time in the movie, in a white radioactive jumpsuit. We can understand the function of the jumpsuit because of the international nuclear symbol in the back. The symbolic of the suit is understood by those who have learned its significance and language. Usually yellow, his white outfits remind us of a white laboratory coat, showing the audience that Doc is a man of science. Doc’s white jumpsuit points out the similarity with a scientist’s coat and therefore is an icon, while also being an indexical reference; with the white suit, we understand the link with a laboratory coat and therefore understanding Doc brown is a scientist. The same analysis can be done with Marty’s clothes; they’re the same from his day of high school, showing in the scene before he slept in them. His casual outfits also have the same colors has the movie’s title and poster.

Colors and patterns can also be interpreted in the scene. While the Doc controls the time machine with a remote, we can see three important and recurring colors: blue, white and orange. The three of them, while also being the movie’s theme colors, represent, in a very symbolic way, time travel; the past, the future, and the present. Blue, is the past, symbolizing the nostalgia and the calm of memories. White is purity and innocence, showing the present and the character’s cluelessness to what will happen next, and orange signifies the future whiles being dynamic and representing change, like the leaves turning orange in Autumn.

Brown’s time machine is made with a car and, to Marty’s surprise, made with a DeLorean, a rare and futuristic car model with door opening like wings. The car has a lot of futuristic aspects besides the doors, but it is the way it is first presented that shows the tone. When Marty arrives in the parking lot a truck is seen opening and the car rolls out of it. A lot of details are depicted in the mise-en-scene. When the car rolls out of the truck it goes backward, symbolizing Marty’s first-time travel being in the past. A lot of fog can be seen getting out of the car and the truck, adding a dramatic effect. In the car, the Flux Capacitor can be seen. In a later scene, Doc explains its functionality and its role in time travel. Tubes in the form a Y shape and a box form the Flux capacitor and symbolize more; each branch is significant, one represents the past, present, and future. The car’s speed to create time travel is also 88 miles per hour, the number eight being a symbol of infinity within time and space. The Y form of the Flux capacitor is an icon and bears similarity with a uterus’s form, it points to the signification of creation and the birth of something new.

The futuristic aspect is also shown by the sounds and music heard in the presentation of the car; sounds of electricity and hydraulic pressure being released are made, but the music is more interesting. The soundtrack, a poetic language using interpretations and feelings, presents the DeLorean with its theme song which will be repeated throughout the feature film. For people with musical knowledge, soundtracks of a movie can be a practical language and can be interpreted with the use of instruments symbolism. A leitmotiv[1] is also heard, a section of a song/theme representing an object or person, and played with brass which signifies danger, drama, and importance.

Sounds can also give a lot of details into the scene. While Marty enters the shot and roles down the parking lot with his skateboard his wheel is heard, presenting the town’s silence in the night while also being a practical language because we know it’s nighttime and therefore silence. A train blowing can be also heard and (while also being an index, a link between the time machine and the train) symbolizes Doctor Brown’s invention; the invention of the train has been used throughout time, in the past, the present and will be used in the future as well. It is an important device that changed the world’s development and the Doc’s time machine invention represents this evolution.

In conclusion, unless we get an interview with Robert Zemeckis, the director of the Back to the future franchise, we, of course, cannot get exact answers and correct interpretations to all the different details in the movie and the small scene we examined. Back to the future can be analyzed and interpreted in different ways, I think (based on my viewing of the film, behind the scenes and interview, that (besides evident symbolism, ex. The nuclear sign) the movie is more for entertainment than for the analyses of films studies scholars.

[1] A phrase or other feature that is repeated often in a work of art, literature, or music and that tells you something important about it.

University of Cambridge. ‘’ Meaning of leitmotiv in English.’’ Cambridge Dictionnary,2019, Accessed 29 Sep. 2019

© 2019 Heloise Koszegi


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