Just as Jurassic Park maintains a movie monopoly over dinosaurs, one trilogy of films will always and forever own the concept of time travel.
Much has been written about why the Back to the Future trilogy is great: how the films redefined VFX, how they invented nostaglia for things that never existed, and even how everybody thought hoverboards were real for a hot second.
But the fact that Back to the Future has become synonymous with on-screen time travel is bonkers. When it comes to time travel narratives within science fiction — whether in print, on TV, or in other films — there’s a “before Back to the Future” and an “after Back to the Future.”
But, true to the nature of time paradoxes, even time travel stories written before 1985 (when the first film in this franchise came out) feel beholden to it. Here’s how this trilogy of films defines this subgenre — and the specific scenes that made it break through to the mainstream. Mild spoilers ahead for movies you’ve surely seen already.
Recasting Marty McFly saved the movie
In his excellent book, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, author and journalist Caseen Gaines writes:
“The trilogy has forever changed the landscape of cinema by redefining what a summer blockbuster could be, who could star in one, and under what improbable circumstances trio of films could have a major impact around the world.”
Although you might think Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd were mega-famous before the trilogy, your nostaglia brain is playing tricks on you. Famously, the character of Marty was originally played by Eric Stoltz. After shooting a good deal of the movie with Stoltz as Marty — who, as a method actor, was referred to as “Marty” on set — director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale decided to recast the role. In We Don’t Need Roads, Gaines writes that Zemeckis described “a hole in the middle of our screen.” In other words: “The lead actor doesn’t work.”
In recasting Fox as Marty, the makers of Back to the Future, effectively, went back in time, giving themselves another chance to get the movie right.
Time paradoxes you can understand
One of the greatest all-time moments in science-fiction arrives when Doc Brown draws on a chalkboard in Back to the Future Part II, after he and Marty are caught in an alternate 1985.
To be clear, time travel causing people to get stuck in alternate timelines was by no means invented by Gale and Zemeckis. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” features a similar moment in its denouement; a time traveler returns to the present only to find it radically altered from the moment he left. Even the the most celebrated episode of the original Star Trek series had a similar plot. In “City on the Edge of Forever,” Kirk and Spock briefly visit a future where the Enterprise doesn’t exist, all because something relatively small was changed in the past (a neat summation of the butterfly effect).
The difference is, Doc explained all this by drawing a simple diagram. Suddenly, paradoxes and branching timelines made sense to a generation of moviegoers less predisposed to loving sci-fi.
The first Back to the Future is similarly easy to understand. Marty actually experiences two alternate timelines in it, albeit briefly. The first timeline is the one in which he was apparently never born, of course. But after Marty “fixes” the timeline by making sure his parents get together, he returns to a future (present) considerably better than the one he originally left. Counting Marty’s timeline at the beginning of the movie, that’s three timelines! And it didn’t even hurt your brain!
Back to the Future forever
In 2012, reporters and fans stood outside of the Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York City and watched in awe as the Season 7 cast of Doctor Who — Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill — all emerged from matching DeLoreans. I was there. It was unbelievable.
Now, Doctor Who predates Back to the Future by more than two decades. It’s one of the original time travel franchises. But by the time of the Who renaissance in the early aughts, if you were doing time travel, you were in the lineage of Back to the Future. Even Avengers: Endgame specifically mentioned the time travel rules of Back to the Future, instead of referencing Doctor Who, even though Who alum Gillan was standing right there!
The point is, by being accessible, aesthetically brilliant, and endlessly hilarious, this nearly perfect trilogy of sci-fi films became the standard by which every time travel journey since has been measured. Six years after the “future” 2015 of the second film, we keep going back to these films: over and over again.
Watch the Back to the Future trilogy on Netflix before it leaves the service on June 30.