|Back to the Future|
Theatrical release poster by Drew Struzan
|Directed by||Robert Zemeckis|
|Music by||Alan Silvestri|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$388.8 million|
Back to the Future is a 1985 American science fiction film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, it stars Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson. Set in 1985, Fox portrays Marty McFly, a teenager accidentally sent back to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean automobile built by his eccentric scientist friend Doctor Emmett "Doc" Brown. Trapped in the past, Marty inadvertently prevents his future parents' meeting--threatening his very existence--and is forced to reconcile the pair and somehow get back to the future.
The outline of Back to the Future originated in 1980 after Gale found his father's school yearbook; he wondered if he and his father would have been friends as youths. Gale and Zemeckis realized that time travel could answer the question. Desperate for a successful film after numerous collaborative failures, they pitched their script, but over 40 studios rejected it. It was not considered raunchy enough to compete with the successful comedies of the era. Following his success directing Romancing the Stone (1984), Zemeckis secured a development deal at Amblin Entertainment for Back to the Future. Fox was the first choice to portray Marty, but his working schedule prevented his involvement; Eric Stoltz was cast instead. Shortly after commencing principal photography in November 1984, Zemeckis determined that Stoltz was not right for the part and made the concessions necessary to hire Fox. This included re-filming scenes already shot with Stoltz and adding $4million to the budget. Back to the Future was filmed in and around California and on sets at Universal Studios.
Re-casting Stoltz delayed production and pushed back the film's release date. Following highly successful test screenings, the date was moved forward to July 3, 1985, to give Back to the Future more time in theaters. This resulted in a limited post-production schedule for editing and special effects; some effects were incomplete on release. Back to the Future was a critical and commercial success, earning $381.1million to become the highest-grossing film of 1985 worldwide. Critics praised the story, comedy, and the cast--particularly Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, and Glover. It received multiple award nominations and won an Academy Award, Saturn Awards, and a Hugo Award. Its theme song, "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News was a significant success globally, and also earned an Academy Award nomination.
In the years since its release, Back to the Future has grown in esteem and is now considered to be among the greatest films of the 1980s, one of the best science-fiction films ever made, and one of the greatest films of all time. In 2007, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Two less-successful sequels, Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990) followed Back to the Future. With its effect on popular culture and a dedicated fan following, the success of Back to the Future launched a multimedia franchise. This includes an animated TV series, video games, comic books, board games, clothing, music, books, food, toys, collectibles, and theme park rides. Its enduring popularity has led to numerous books about its production, documentaries, and commercials. Back to the Future has been adapted into a 2020 stage musical. Despite interest from studios and fans, Gale and Zemeckis have affirmed they will not make another sequel as they consider the series concluded.
In 1985, Hill Valley, California, teenager Marty McFly lives with his family. His mother Lorraine is an overweight, depressed alcoholic; his cowardly father George is bullied by his supervisor, Biff Tannen; his older siblings are professional and social failures. At school, Marty is berated for his repeated lateness and fails an audition for Battle of the Bands. He confides to his girlfriend Jennifer Parker he fears that he will end up like his parents, despite his ambitions.
That night, Marty meets his eccentric scientist friend Emmett "Doc" Brown in the Twin Pines mall parking lot. Doc unveils a time machine built from a modified DeLorean. It is powered by plutonium stolen from Libyan terrorists. Doc programs the DeLorean to travel to November 5, 1955, the day he first conceived of a time travel device. Before he can depart, the terrorists track Doc down and shoot him dead. Marty flees in the DeLorean, inadvertently activating it by driving at 88 miles per hour.
Marty arrives on November 5, 1955. The plutonium is depleted, and he is unable to return to 1985. While exploring the now-burgeoning Hill Valley, Marty encounters his teenage father and discovers that Biff has been bullying him since high school. Marty covertly follows his father and learns that George has been spying on the teenage Lorraine. While pushing George to safety, Marty is struck by Lorraine's father's car. He is tended to by Lorraine, who becomes infatuated with him. Marty realizes he has inadvertently prevented his parents' first meeting.
Marty finds the 1955 version of Doc and convinces him he is from the future. Doc explains the only power source equivalent to plutonium would be 1.21gigawatts of electricity--a lightning bolt. Marty knows the clock tower is broken in 1985 because it will be struck by lightning in the next few days. Marty's siblings begin to fade from a photo he is carrying with him. He and Doc realize that Marty's actions have altered the future, preventing his siblings from being born. Doc warns Marty he too will cease to exist if he does not get his parents together. Early attempts to pair up George and Lorraine fail and only strengthen Lorraine's affection for Marty, especially after he stands up to Biff.
Lorraine invites Marty to the school dance. He devises a plan to feign inappropriate advances on Lorraine, allowing George to intervene and "rescue" her. The plan goes awry when Lorraine is receptive to Marty's advances, and then Biff intervenes. Biff's gang drags Marty away and locks him in a car trunk while Biff attempts to rape Lorraine. George arrives, but Biff once again bullies him into submission. When Biff also hurts Lorraine, George strikes Biff, knocking him unconscious. George escorts a grateful Lorraine to the dance. The dance band rescues Marty, but the lead guitarist is injured doing so and Marty takes his place. One student takes Lorraine away from George to dance, and Marty begins to feel himself fading away until George asserts himself and re-takes Lorraine. The pair kiss, fully restoring Marty and his siblings in the photo. The storm arrives and Marty travels to the courthouse. He conceals a note in Doc's coat, warning him of his future death. Doc destroys it, refusing to know too much about his own destiny. Marty recalibrates the DeLorean to take him to just before Doc's death.
The lightning strikes and Marty returns to 1985. The DeLorean breaks down, and Marty is forced to run to the now Lone Pine mall, arriving just in time to see Doc killed again. While Marty grieves at his side, Doc sits up, revealing he wore a bulletproof vest after piecing Marty's note back together. He takes Marty home before departing to the future in the DeLorean. Marty wakes the next morning to find his father is now a successful, confident author, his mother is fit and happy, his siblings are successes, and Biff is a servile valet in George's employ. After Marty reunites with Jennifer, Doc reappears, insisting they return with him to the future to help the pair's future children.[N 1]
James Tolkan portrays Hill Valley high school principal Strickland in both 1955 and 1985.Back to the Future features a 1985-era cast that includes Claudia Wells as Marty's girlfriend Jennifer Parker, and Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber as Marty's siblings Dave McFly and Linda McFly respectively.Elsa Raven portrays the Clocktower Lady, who tells Marty about the lightning strike on the clock tower. Singer Huey Lewis cameos as a judge for the Battle of the Bands contest. Richard L. Duran and Jeff O'Haco portray the Libyan terrorists.
The 1955-era cast includes George DiCenzo and Frances Lee McCain as, respectively, Lorraine's parents Sam and Stella Baines, and Jason Hervey as Lorraine's younger brother Milton. Biff's gang includes Jeffrey Jay Cohen as Skinhead, Casey Siemaszko as , and Billy Zane as Match. Norman Alden plays the cafe owner Lou and Donald Fullilove appears as his employee (and future mayor) Goldie Wilson. Harry Waters Jr. portrays Chuck Berry's cousin Marvin Berry, Will Hare appears as Pa Peabody, and Courtney Gains portrays Dixon, the youth who interrupts George's and Lorraine's dance.
Long-time collaborators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis conceived of Back to the Future in 1980. They wanted to develop a film about time travel but were struggling for a satisfying narrative. The pair were desperate for a successful project following the disappointing performance of their recent efforts. Their comedies I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980) had fared well critically but failed financially, and 1941 (1979) had failed critically and commercially. These projects had been collaborations with Zemeckis' mentor Steven Spielberg.
Following Used Cars release, Gale visited his parents and came across his father's high school yearbook. Gale questioned whether he and his father would have been friends had they attended school together; he did not think so. He realized he could test his theory if he could travel back to a time when he and his parents were a similar age. He shared the idea with Zemeckis, who recalled his mother's childhood stories were often contradictory.
Gale and Zemeckis began a draft in late 1980. They sketched and acted out each scene to help develop the dialogue and actions. They believed many time travel films focused on the past being immutable. They wanted to show the past being changed and the impact those changes would have on the future. In the draft, video pirate Professor Brown builds a time machine that sends his young friend Marty back to the 1950s where he interrupts his parents' first meeting. In September 1980, Gale and Zemeckis pitched their idea to then-president of Columbia Pictures Frank Price. Price had liked Used Cars and was keen to work with the pair. Gale recalled having to rein in Zemeckis' enthusiastic pitch out of concern it would give Price time to change his mind. Gale and Zemeckis completed the first draft for Price on February 21, 1981. Price deemed it to need significant refinement.
Some early concepts were abandoned. Originally, the changes to 1955 had a more significant impact on 1985, making it more futuristic, but every person who read the script hated the idea. Marty's father became a boxer, a result of his knockout punch on Biff; Gale and Zemeckis decided that it was not a good solution to Marty's 1985 problems. The time machine was conceived of as a stationary object moved around on the back of a truck. Inspired by the documentary The Atomic Cafe, the pair wrote that the drained time machine would be powered by Marty driving it into a nuclear explosion at a testing site, combined with an additional ingredient--Coca-Cola. Gale and Zemeckis took inspiration from tales of legendary scientists and their creations, opting to make the time machine's creator an individual instead of a faceless corporation or government. The pair knew that the time travel had to be an accident because they did not want the hero to be seeking personal gain.
The pair drew humor from the contrasts between 1955 and 1985, such as Marty entering a 1955 soda shop while wearing 1985 clothing. The shop owner asks Marty if he is a sailor because his jacket resembles a life preserver. They also identified conveniences of 1985 that Marty would take for granted but be denied in 1955. The pair struggled for ideas as they were in their 30s and did not particularly identify with either era. The All-American aesthetic of films by Frank Capra featuring white picket fences and exaggerated characters like Biff,The Twilight Zone, science-fiction films, and books by Robert Silverberg and Robert A. Heinlein inspired them. The romantic relationship between 1955 Lorraine and her future son was one of the more difficult writing challenges. Gale and Zemeckis attempted to take the concept as far as possible to keep the audience feeling on edge. They knew it had to be Lorraine who stopped the relationship; she remarks that kissing Marty feels like kissing her brother. Gale jokingly said that no-one asked what she had been doing with her brother to make the comparison, but that audiences would accept it because they did not want the relationship to happen. The second draft was completed by April 7, 1981.
When Gale and Zemeckis returned to Price with the second draft, he opted not to green-light the project. The most successful comedies at the time like Animal House (1978), Porky's (1981), and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), featured sexual and bawdy elements. Back to the Future was considered too tame in comparison. Price liked the draft, but he did not think it would impress others. He put the project in turnaround--a process that allowed it to be pitched to and purchased by other studios to compensate Columbia Pictures for its initial investment. The script was rejected approximately 40 times, in some cases receiving multiple rejections from the same studios. Studios gave many reasons for turning the project down, including the concept being unappealing to contemporary rebellious youth, and the failures of other time travel films like The Final Countdown (1980) and Time Bandits (1981).Walt Disney Productions rejected Back to the Future because they considered the setup of Marty having to fight off advances from his future mother too risqué for their brand. The only person supportive of the project was Spielberg. However, with their previous collaborations considered relative failures, Gale and Zemeckis feared another misstep would give them a reputation of only getting work because they were friends with Spielberg.
Zemeckis opted to accept the next project offered to him, Romancing the Stone (1984). Against pre-release expectations, the film was a significant success. It gave Zemeckis enough credibility to return to Back to the Future. Zemeckis held a grudge against the studios that had failed to support him and Gale and turned to Spielberg. Spielberg had set up his own production company, Amblin Entertainment, at Universal Studios, where Price now worked. Spielberg disliked Price because he had rejected E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and demanded that his involvement in Back to the Future be minimal. Sidney Sheinberg installed himself as chief executive on Back to the Future to oversee the studio's investment. Amblin executives Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall joined Spielberg as the film's executive producers.
A third draft of the script was completed by July 1984, however, it remained tied to Columbia Pictures. Price had moved from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures shortly after greenlighting Ghostbusters. His successor, Guy McElwaine, was developing a satire of the Universal-owned noir film Double Indemnity (1944) called Big Trouble (1986). Columbia Picture's legal department assessed that Big Trouble was so similar to Double Indemnity that the studio would violate Universal Pictures' copyright. With production imminent, McElwaine asked for the rights from Price. Price agreed in exchange for the rights to Back to the Future.
Sidney Sheinberg suggested modifications to the film. He wanted the title to be changed to Space Man from Pluto because he believed Back to the Future would not resonate with audiences. He also wanted Marty to introduce himself to George as a spaceman from Pluto. Gale and Zemeckis did not know how to reject Sheinberg's suggestions without risking his ire. Spielberg intervened, sending Sheinberg a memo that read: "Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep 'em coming." Spielberg knew Sheinberg would be too embarrassed to admit that his memo was to be taken seriously. Sheinberg later claimed the story about his request was "bullshit". He also wanted to change the name of Marty's mother from Meg to Lorraine (a tribute to his wife Lorraine Gary), and rename Professor Brown to Doc Brown because he considered it shorter and more accessible.
The lengthy development time allowed Gale and Zemeckis to refine the script's jokes, especially ones that had become dated since 1980. The joke about former actor Ronald Reagan becoming President of the United States remained because he was re-elected in 1984.
Michael J. Fox was the first choice to portray Marty McFly. Gale and Zemeckis believed his acting timing in the sitcom Family Ties (1982-1989) as the sophisticated Alex P. Keaton could be translated to Marty's clumsiness.
Spielberg asked the show's producer Gary David Goldberg to have Fox read the script. Concerned that he would take the role and his absence would damage Family Ties success--especially with fellow star Meredith Baxter already absent for maternity leave--Goldberg did not give Fox the script. Other young stars were considered including: John Cusack, C. Thomas Howell, Johnny Depp, Ralph Macchio, Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer, Ben Stiller, Peter DeLuise, Billy Zane, George Newbern,Robert Downey Jr., Christopher Collet, and Corey Hart (who declined to audition). Howell was the preferred option, but Sheinberg wanted Eric Stoltz, who had impressed the producers with his portrayal of Rocky Dennis in a preview screening of the drama film Mask (1985). With the filming date approaching, Zemeckis opted to go with Stoltz. Sheinberg promised that if Stoltz did not work out that they could reshoot the film. The character's name was derived from Used Cars production assistant Marty Casella. Zemeckis suggested McFly because it sounded like an "All-American" name.
Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow,Dudley Moore,John Cleese, John Candy, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Gene Hackman, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Randy Quaid, Joe Piscopo, Mickey Rourke, and Gene Wilder were considered for the role of Doc Brown. Producer Neil Canton suggested Lithgow, having worked with him and Christopher Lloyd on Buckaroo Banzai (1984). Lithgow was unavailable, and the role was offered to Lloyd. Lloyd was reluctant to join the production until a friend encouraged him to take the part. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein and conductor Leopold Stokowski inspired Lloyd's wild, white hair. Lloyd affected a hunched posture to lower his 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 m) height closer to that of the 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 m) tall Fox.
While researching Stoltz in the comedy-drama The Wild Life (1984), the filmmakers became aware of Lea Thompson. Crispin Glover used many of his own mannerisms in portraying George McFly. Gale described his performance as "nuts". Glover was told to be more restrained when appearing as the older George of 1985. He lost his voice during filming and dubbed in some of his lines later. According to Glover, Zemeckis was very unhappy with his performance choices.
Tim Robbins and J. J. Cohen were considered to play Biff Tannen. Cohen was not considered physically imposing enough against Stoltz, and the role went to Thomas F. Wilson, his first feature starring role. Cohen portrayed Biff's minion Skinhead instead. Tannen's name was taken from then-Universal Studios executive Ned Tanen, who had been unpleasant with Gale and Zemeckis. Claudia Wells was offered the role of Jennifer Parker but had to turn it down because of her commitment to the short-lived television series Off the Rack (1984). The show was canceled, freeing up Wells. In the interim, Melora Hardin was cast and signed a two-film contract. After Stoltz was replaced, the crew were polled about Hardin being taller than Fox; the female crew overwhelmingly voted that Marty should not be shorter than his girlfriend, so Hardin was replaced by Wells. Actress Jill Schoelen was also considered but was told she looked too "exotic" and not All-American enough.
Doc Brown's pet dog Einstein was scripted as a chimpanzee named Shemp. Sheinberg insisted films featuring chimps never did well.James Tolkan was the first choice for Principal Strickland after Zemeckis saw him in the crime drama Prince of the City (1981). Singer and soundtrack contributor Huey Lewis cameos as a Battle of the Bands judge. Zemeckis asked him to appear and Lewis agreed as long as he was uncredited and could wear a disguise.Back to the Future also features the first film appearance of Billy Zane, as another of Biff's minions. Gale has a brief cameo, portraying the hand in the radiation suit tapping the DeLorean time display.
Principal photography began November 26, 1984, with a schedule of 22 weeks. The budget was reported to be $14million. Filming took place mainly at the Universal Studios lot and on location in California.Dean Cundey served as the cinematographer. He had worked previously with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone. Editor Arthur Schmidt was hired after Zemeckis saw his work on the drama film Firstborn (1984); Schmidt recommended hiring Harry Keramidas as co-editor. Marshall also served as a second unit director. Spielberg spent less than two hours in total on the set, being present for the first scene filmed, and offering advice on tone.
Owing to the tight schedule, Zemeckis opted to have the film edited while he was shooting it. On December 30, 1984, Zemeckis reviewed the existing scenes with Schmidt and Keramidas. Zemeckis did not want to review the footage this early because he knew he would be critical of his own work, however, he had come to believe that Stoltz was not working out in the lead role and needed to see if he was imagining the problem. He had already decided on several scenes he wanted to reshoot. Zemeckis called in Gale, Canton, Marshall, Kennedy, and Spielberg to show them the footage; they agreed Stoltz was not right for the part. Stoltz was performing the role with an intense and serious tone and not providing the "manic" energy they wanted from the character. Gale said that Stoltz was a good actor, but in the wrong part.
Stoltz utilized method acting on set and stayed in character as Marty when not filming, refusing to answer to his own name. This had resulted in some personal animosity with some of the cast and crew, including Wilson. When required to shove Biff, Stoltz put his full strength into pushing Wilson rather than imitate doing so, despite Wilson's requests for him to stop. Spielberg told Zemeckis that he needed to have a replacement in place before asking Sheinberg to fire Stoltz, or he risked the production being canceled. Zemeckis and the producers asked Sheinberg for permission to fire Stoltz and do whatever was necessary to accommodate Fox's participation. Spielberg made another call to Goldberg. On January 3, 1985, Goldberg told Fox about withholding the Back to the Future script from him, and that the filmmakers wanted to know if he was interested. Baxter had returned to the show, and they could be more flexible with Fox's time, but Family Ties had priority over the film. Fox agreed to join without reading the script. The transition could not take place immediately and filming continued with Stoltz in the lead role, unaware that he was to be replaced.
On January 10, 1985, Stoltz turned up for filming as scheduled. Zemeckis informed him he would no longer be involved in the film. Spielberg was nearby in case he was needed. Zemeckis described it as "the hardest meeting I've ever had in my life and it was all my fault. I broke [Stoltz's] heart." Stoltz was reported to have told his make-up artist he was not a comedian and did not understand why he was cast. The producers then informed the principal cast. Thomson had left the country to visit her then-boyfriend Dennis Quaid against the studio's instructions. At first when she saw she had received numerous messages relating to Stoltz, she believed she had been fired for her actions. The rest of the crew was informed that much of Back to the Future would need to be re-shot. Cinematographer Dean Cundey said that most of the crew saw Stoltz's removal as "good news". Some of the crew said later there were obvious signs that Stoltz would be replaced. The set designers were told not to change the 1955 set as it would be required again, and a scene involving a discussion between Marty and Doc was filmed only showing Doc. Stoltz had shot numerous key scenes including Marty traveling to 1955 in the DeLorean and it breaking down as he prepares to return to 1985. His final filmed scene was Marty's return to the altered 1985. Filming fell behind schedule, with 34 days of filming lost and an additional cost of $3.5-$4million. This included Stoltz being paid his salary in full.
Fox's first day on set was January15, 1985. He had to accommodate filming for Family Ties between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm and then travel to the Back to the Future filming location. Often, he would not return home until 2:30am the following day. On weekends, the Back to the Future schedule was pushed back further as Family Ties was filmed in front of a live audience. This meant that Fox would not finish work until 7:00 am the following day. Sometimes the teamster dropping Fox at home had to carry the actor to bed. This continued until April when Family Ties finished filming. Gale said that Fox's youth meant he could cope with less sleep than usual. Fox described it as exhausting, but worth the effort. Further into the filming schedule, Fox was energetic during his scenes but struggled to stay awake off set. He ad-libbed some lines when he forgot the intended dialog. Fox recalled how he looked for a camcorder on the Family Ties set, later realizing it was a prop on Back to the Future. In addition to his filming schedules, Fox had to learn to mimic playing the guitar and learn choreographed skateboarding routines taught by Per Welinder and Bob Schmelzer; the pair also taught Stoltz and the stuntmen involved.
To compensate for his conflicting schedules and to keep the production costs low, some scenes involving Marty were shot without Fox; Fox would film his part separately. Re-shooting scenes in full gave the filmmakers the opportunity to see what had not worked and implement new ideas. To avoid building an additional classroom set, the opening pan across the array of clocks in Doc Brown's laboratory replaced an opening scene where Marty sets off a fire alarm to get out of detention. The height differences between Stoltz and Fox necessitated other changes. A scene of Fox teaching George how to punch had to be re-worked because Fox could not reach the necessary prop. According to Gale, once Fox replaced Stoltz, the atmosphere on set improved. Thompson anecdotally said that while Stoltz ate alone in his trailer, Fox ate with the cast and crew. The Universal Pictures marketing team was tasked with liaising with the press to mitigate the negative implications of a project replacing its main star.
The production used many locations in and around Los Angeles. The clock tower is a structure on the Universal Studios Lot in Universal City, California. When filmed from below, Lloyd was positioned on a recreation of the clock tower, but when filmed from above, Lloyd stood atop the tower itself. Production designer Lawrence G. Paull insisted on using the Universal backlot sets because of the difficulties and costs involved in making an on-location area look 1955 appropriate.Whittier High School in the city of Whittier is the Hill Valley high school. Marty's home and the surrounding Lyon estates are in Arleta, Los Angeles. Several of the residential locations were filmed in Pasadena: Lorraine's and George's 1955 homes, and Doc Brown's 1955 home--its exterior is the Gamble House--and interiors were shot at the Blacker House. The Walt Disney Studios-owned Golden Oak Ranch in Newhall, Santa Clarita, California, serves as the Twin Pines ranch where Marty lands in 1955 and Puente Hills Mall in Rowland Heights is the Twin Pines mall that replaces the ranch in 1985. Other locations include the basement of the Hollywood United Methodist Church where the school dance was filmed, and Griffith Park, where Marty begins his drive to the courthouse to return to 1985, crossing by a lamp post, situated outside of the Greek Theatre.
Arthur F. Repola served as the post-production supervisor. Normally producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall were in charge of pre-production and post-production, respectively. However, as both were involved with other films, Repola became responsible for many aspects outside of his role, including budgets, storyboarding, and general problem-solving. Arthur Schmidt found editing the film difficult. He had to imagine where the special effects would be later, as there was no time or budget to re-edit afterward.
A rough version of the movie was cut together for a test screening at Century 22 theater in San Jose, California, in mid-May 1985, just three weeks after filming concluded. The audience was seemingly uninterested at first at the exposition-heavy opening but was engaged after the appearance of the DeLorean. 94% of the audience at a test screening in Long Beach, California, responded that they would definitely recommend the film; 99% rated it very good or excellent. Gale said there was some concern that Doc's dog Einstein was sent through time, as the audience believed he had been killed. The film was re-cut and screened again at the Alfred Hitchcock theater at Universal Studios for studio executives, including Sheinberg. He was so impressed that he moved the scheduled release date forward to July 3, 1985, to give it more time in theaters. This reduced the post-production schedule to just nine weeks for special effects and editing. Zemeckis spent much of June 1985 rushing to finish the film.
Several scenes were filmed but did not make it into the finished film: a scene of Doc looking at an issue of Playboy, remarking that the future looks better; a scene of 1985 George being coerced into buying a large amount of peanut brittle from a young girl; a scene of George being trapped in a phone booth by the man who interrupts his dance with Lorraine; and the scene of Marty pretending to be "Darth Vader" to influence George was shortened. Zemeckis also considered cutting the "Johnny B. Goode" performance scene because it did not advance the story, but test-audiences reacted well to it. There is a dispute if a scene of Stoltz's hand is in the finished film in the scene where Marty punches Biff. Wilson said he did not recall re-shooting a close-up scene with Fox and so it must be Stoltz. Gale has said the scene was re-shot with Fox, but Keramidas marked it as low quality. Gale noted that it is impossible to tell without checking the original film negative, which would risk damaging it. The final cut was completed on June 23, 1985. It had a runtime of 116minutes. Universal Studios took out a full-page advertisement in Variety magazine, thanking the entire post-production crew for completing their work on time. The final budget was $19million.
Alan Silvestri composed the score for Back to the Future; he had worked with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone. The only direction Zemeckis gave him was that "it's got to be big". Silvestri used a big orchestral score to create a sound that contrasted with the small-town setting and the significant time-changing events occurring within it. He wanted to create a heroic theme that would be instantly recognizable in just a few notes.
Huey Lewis was approached to write a theme song for the film; he was coming off the success of his recent album Sports. He met with Gale, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, who intended that Huey Lewis and the News be Marty's favorite band. Though flattered, Lewis did not want to participate because he did not know how to write film songs and did not want to write one called "Back to the Future". Zemeckis assured Lewis that he could write any song he wanted. Lewis agreed to submit the next song he wrote, which was "The Power of Love". Lewis maintains that "Power of Love" was his first submission, but Zemeckis recalled that he sent a different song first that was rejected. Around the same time, Lewis was approached to write the theme song for the 1984 supernatural comedy Ghostbusters, but he had already committed to Back to the Future. Lewis later acquiesced to Zemeckis' request for a second song, "Back in Time". Marty and his band the Pinheads sing a version of "The Power of Love" during their battle of the band audition.
Musician Eddie Van Halen performed the guitar riff that Marty (dressed as "Darth Vader") uses to wake George. The filmmakers wanted to use Van Halen's music, but the band refused to take part, so Eddie opted to take part on his own. Mark Campbell provided Marty's singing voice. Campbell did not receive credit as the filmmakers wanted to create the illusion that Fox was singing. When music supervisor Bones Howe learned of this, he secured Campbell a small percentage of the soundtrack revenue as compensation.Paul Hanson taught Fox how to use a guitar to play "Johnny B. Goode", and choreographer Brad Jeffries spent four weeks teaching Fox to replicate various rock star moves popularized by artists like Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, and Chuck Berry. Berry withheld permission to use "Johnny B. Goode" until the day before filming. Eventually Gale and Zemeckis paid him $50,000 for the rights. Harry Waters Jr. provided the vocals on "Earth Angel".
Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) developed Back to the Futures special effects under the supervision of Ken Ralston and Kevin Pike. The film contains approximately 27-32 special effects shots, compared to the 300 effects typical in higher-budget films of its time. The effects studio worked simultaneously on effects for The Goonies and Cocoon. ILM gave The Goonies priority because of its earlier release date. Ralston took on the additional work of Back to the Future because it required few effects, and he was interested in realizing the then-planned ending of Marty driving the time machine into a nuclear explosion. Ralston found the schedule difficult; he worked on Cocoon during the day and Back to the Future at night.
The team had nine-and-a-half weeks to develop the special effects, but once Universal Pictures moved up the release date, this was reduced to eight weeks. Ralston said that ILM was working on Back to the Future up to the last minute before it had to be handed over to print the theatrical film reels. The tight schedule impacted the special effects' quality. Ralston considered a scene where Marty's hand fades away as his future is altered disappointing. Fox was filmed separately from his hand and the two were composited together; because the hand was filmed with a wide-angle lens, it appeared larger than normal and had to be scaled down. Zemeckis wanted the fade to be subtle, but it resulted in a small circle of the hand fading away and there was no time to fix it.
In the same scene, Marty and his siblings fade away from a photo. ILM found it difficult to fade the photo's different aspects individually, especially as it is moving on the neck of a guitar. A replica of the guitar neck was constructed at four times the normal size; the guitar strings were made of cable up to a quarter-inch thick. An 11x14 inch aluminum plate was attached to the guitar to hold the enlarged photograph. ILM used a version of the photo without Marty or his siblings and individually pasted each character into the photo. When this did not work, four different photos were used: one containing the background, and one for each McFly sibling. A Tondreau Mechanical camera allowed them to cycle through each photo as it was aligned into the shot and print it to the film. The enlarged guitar was moved around to add to the realism.
The original nuclear test site was considered too complicated and expensive, with an estimated cost of $1million. Art director Andrew Probert storyboarded the scene which would have been created using a combination of sets and miniature recreations. With the ending moved to the clock tower, ILM researched storms to achieve the right look. Clouds were constructed from polyester fiberfill, suspended in a net and filmed from above while Ralston shone a powerful light from below. He used a rheostat to change the lights' intensity rapidly to imitate lightning.
The lightning bolt that strikes the clock tower was described as "the largest bolt of lightning in cinematic history".Wes Takahashi's animation department developed the effect. It was intended to originate far in the distance and move towards the camera, but the scene had been filmed too close to the clock tower and there was not enough space between it and the top of the frame for the effect to fit. There was also an issue of showing the bolt onscreen for too long (initially 100-120 frames) as it made it more obvious that it was animated. The frame count was reduced to 30, but the effect did not look erratic enough. Viewing the animation on a moviola, Zemeckis picked out a single frame of the bolt in an "S" shape. He asked that the effect focus on that shape and be reduced to 20 frames. The bolt was drawn in black ink on white paper; a glow and diffusion effects were added by the Optical department.
The DeLorean was developed under the supervision of Lawrence Paull, who designed it with artist Ron Cobb and illustrator Andrew Probert. They intended for the vehicle to look fixed together from common parts. The time machine was conceived as a stationary device; at one point it was a refrigerator. Spielberg vetoed the idea, concerned that children might attempt to climb into one. Zemeckis suggested the DeLorean because it offered mobility, a unique design, and the gull-wing doors would appear like an alien UFO to a 1950s family. The Ford Motor Company offered $75,000 to use a Ford Mustang instead; Gale responded that "Doc Brown doesn't drive a fucking Mustang". Michael Fink was hired as the art department liaison and tasked with realizing Cobb's sketches and overseeing the car's construction. Paull and Canton, who had worked with him on Blade Runner (1982) and Buckaroo Bonzai, respectively, recruited him. Fink had a project lined up but agreed to help in the free weeks he had remaining.
Three DeLoreans used were purchased from a collector--one for stunts, one for special effects, and one for normal shots. They were unreliable and often broke down. 88 mph (142 km/h) was chosen as the time travel speed because it was easy to remember and looked "cool" on the speedometer. A custom speedometer was built to simulate 88mph, as a 1979 law passed by then-President Jimmy Carter had limited cars to 85mph to reduce speeding. The Flux Capacitor, necessary for time travel, was called the Temporal Field Capacitor; Zemeckis said the name was not believable. From his work on the 1979 drama The China Syndrome, Fink had learned of Neutron flux. He and Zemeckis simultaneously suggested renaming it the Flux Capacitor. Cobb and Probert had already placed the Flux Capacitor on the external and interior roof of the DeLorean. Fink placed it next to the driver. Fink constructed the device using a NEMA box and backlit Torr High-Voltage relays. The time display was constructed from LMB boxes. When Fink left, he picked Michael Scheffe to replace him. Scheffe finished the Flux Capacitor build and built the "Mr. Fusion" replacement power supply out of a Krups coffee grinder.
The flying DeLorean used a combination of live-action footage, animation, and a 1:5 scale (approximately 33 inches (840 mm) long) model built by Steve Gawley and the model shop crew and filmed against a blue screen. Months were spent building the model from epoxy, steel, and aluminum. Halogen lamps were fitted to the tires to simulate thrusters; the tires were made from aluminum to withstand the heat. Blue chalk was rubbed on the windscreen to conceal the lack of riders-- the last effect produced by ILM.
The act of the DeLorean traveling through time is referred to as the "time slice" effect. Zemeckis only knew that he wanted it to be a violent transition. He described it like a "Neanderthal sitting on the hood of the Delorean and chipping away the fabric of time in front of him". He suggested a crack in time opening before the car, but animators could not determine what would be on the reverse of the opening visible to the audience. An electrical effect enveloping the car was abandoned because a similar process had been used in the science fiction film The Terminator (1984). Other ideas included a wave of energy that moved over the car before exploding and blowing open a hole in time, and a "cubist" effect where the car would break into separate segments, each individually expanding in proportion before disappearing. Takahashi developed artwork showing the segments popping out from the Delorean and glowing. Gale liked the effect, but Zemeckis did not; Spielberg found it unrealistic.
Takahashi animated separate effects like contrails and flashing lights; Zemeckis opted to use them all. The effects were drawn in black and white and optically manipulated afterward. This resulted in the Delorean appearing to emit various effects that strike in front of the car to create an explosion that opens the time slice. This was combined with practical effects including smoke, sparks, and flash-bulbs. Fire emitting from the tires was intended to start the sequence but the gas jet mechanism repeatedly failed; it only functioned for two of the six shots required. Peggy Regan animated flames and reflections for consistency. The trails of fire left behind the Delorean were practical, but the actual movement was slow. The footage was sped up and smoke added where the car disappeared. Fox and Lloyd were filmed against a reflective mylar blue screen set to match the car park's wet surface and composited into the trails of fire. Reflections of the actors were matte paintings filmed through a ripple glass to add texture. A stuntman in a dog suit portrays Doc's dog when in the moving car. It was suggested that the DeLorean emerge from the time slice in sections that slam into each preceding section. Norwood and Charlie Mullen outlined an animation and Ellen Lichtwardt animated a glow to the vehicle. The effect is so quick as to be imperceptible. Zemeckis preferred this as he did not want the audience to think too much about how everything worked.
In the film, the filmmakers used a stylized adaptation of 1950 aesthetics closer to TV show interpretations than an exact recreation. They used modern technologies--such as contemporary fabrics--because they felt the fashions of the time were less aesthetically pleasing. Using actual brand names like Texaco made the sets more realistic. Paull said the producers mandated the inclusion of certain brands who had paid to appear in the film. An unnamed gas company offered a large sum to be included, but Paull used Texaco because it reminded him of a joke from The Milton Berle Show. This led to some disputes. Pepsi's makers, PepsiCo, did not want a joke about Tab in the film as its rival Coca Cola made it. Twenty clock wranglers were needed for the opening scene to synch up the many clocks. They used pulleys to start the clocks in sync with the scene recording.Drew Struzan produced the film's poster. The producers hoped his in-demand poster artwork would help generate public interest in the film.
To represent characters across three decades, the filmmakers did not want to have older actors stand-in for the younger ones. They believed the change would be obvious and detrimental to the film. Special effects artist Ken Chase was hired for his experience with prosthetics. He ran several make-up tests on the young actors to age them; initially, the results were discouraging. In particular, Chase said the result for Glover was terrible. Chase created a prosthetic neck and a bald cap with a receding hairline for Glover's character, but they were considered excessive. Chase found it difficult to balance aging the actors while retaining enough of their natural faces so they remained recognizable.
Casts were made of the actors' faces, from which plaster molds were made. Chase sculpted more subtle effects over the plaster molds using latex. For Lorraine, he crafted jowls and eye bags, plus body padding to reflect her increased weight and alcohol abuse. Instead of a receding hairline, Chase just changed the style of George's hair and used prosthetics to give him a less defined jawline. Biff's character changed more significantly; he was made to look fatter, given sideburns, and a comb over hairstyle to hide a growing bald-spot. Chase wanted him to look "obnoxious". The prosthetics were combined with makeup and lighting visually aging the characters further.
Chase found the work frustrating compared to his more fantastical prostheses produced for other films that made it easier to hide defects. By comparison, blending small prosthetics into natural skin was harder. The rubber latex did not reflect light the same way as natural skin. Chase used a stippling process--creating a pattern with small dots--to add varied colors to the actors' faces to better conceal where the skin and prosthetics met; close-up shots were avoided. Doc's appearance was not altered significantly. Chase used a technique where he painted latex on Lloyd's skin which, when removed, caused crinkles in the skin; other elements like liver spots and shadows were painted on.
By June 1985, the theatrical industry had seen a 14% decline in ticket sales over the previous year's $4billion record sales. The summer period (beginning in the final week of May) had 45 films scheduled for release, including action film Rambo: First Blood Part II, adventure film The Goonies, the comedies Brewster's Millions and Fletch and the latest James Bond film A View to a Kill. This represented a 25% increase in the number of releases over the previous year, leading to concerns among industry professionals that the competition would divide audiences and limit financial returns. Financial success was important, as the average cost of making a film had increased to $14.5million and the average cost of marketing a film to $7million. A higher budget to secure a popular cast was considered a suitable risk, as the resulting box office returns were typically higher. Most of films expected to be released were aimed at younger audiences, focusing on fantasy and the supernatural. Reflecting the times, these fantasy elements often employed a technological source instead of a magical one. Only a few films, like Cocoon and Prizzi's Honor, were targeted at adults.
Initially, Back to the Future was scheduled to be released in May 1985. It was pushed back to June 21, the earliest Zemeckis could have the film ready. The production delay following Stoltz's replacement pushed the release back to July 19, and later to August. After previewing the film, Sheinberg was impressed. He moved the release date forward to July 3, giving it an extra 16 days of theatrical screen time during the industry's most profitable period of the year. The move would offer approximately 100,000 extra screenings worth an estimated $40million. Sheinberg said he also wanted to avoid the negative perception of films released later in the summer period, instead of early like other blockbuster films. The change required renegotiations with theater owners to secure screens in an already crowded marketplace. In some cities, it was legally required that exhibitors be shown a film prior to purchase. An unfinished cut of the film featuring a temporary music score and incomplete special effects was shown to exhibitors and young test audiences. Exhibitors described it as not at the same level as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or Ghostbusters, but a guaranteed box office hit. Fox was unavailable to promote the film because he was making Family Ties Vacation (1985) in London.
In North America, Back to the Future received a wide release on Wednesday July 3, 1985, ahead of Independence Day holiday weekend. The film earned $3.6million during the opening Wednesday and Thursday. During its inaugural weekend, it earned a further $11.3million from 1,420 theaters--an average of $7,853 per theater.Back to the Future finished as the number one film of the weekend ahead of the western Pale Rider ($7million) in its second weekend, and Rambo: First Blood Part II ($6.4million) in its seventh. It retained the number one position in its second weekend with a further gross of $10.6million, ahead of the debuting action film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ($7.8million) and Cocoon ($5million). It remained number one in its third weekend, ahead of the re-release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ($8.8million) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ($5.4million). In its fourth weekend it fell briefly to number two behind the comedy National Lampoon's European Vacation ($12.3million). It returned to number one in its fifth weekend with $8.4 million, and remained there for the following eight weeks. Recalling the opening weeks, Gale said "our second weekend was higher than our first weekend, which is indicative of great word of mouth. National Lampoon's European Vacation came out in August and it kicked us out of number one for one week and then we were back to number one."
The film remained a steady success through to September. By October, it had surpassed Rambo: First Blood Part IIs $149million box office earnings to become the year's highest-grossing film with $155million. In total, Back to the Future was the number one film for 11 of its 12 first weeks of release. It remained in the top ten highest-grossing films for its first 24 weeks of release. By the end of its theatrical run, Back to the Future had earned an approximate box office gross of $210.6million. This figure made it the highest-grossing film of 1985, ahead of Rambo: First Blood Part II ($150.4million), the sports drama Rocky IV ($127.9million), and the drama The Color Purple ($94.2million). According to estimates by Box Office Mojo, this indicates that over 59million tickets were bought to see the film. Industry experts suggest that as of 1997, the box office returns to the studio--minus the theaters' share--was $105.5million.
Outside North America, the film earned a further estimated $170.5million. This made it the third-highest-grossing film behind the romantic drama Out of Africa ($179.1million) and Rocky IV ($172.6million). Cumulatively, Back to the Future earned a worldwide gross of $381.1million, making it the highest-grossing film of 1985 worldwide, ahead of Rocky IV ($300.5million) and Rambo: First Blood Part II ($300.4million).
Back to the Future has received several theatrical re-releases to celebrate anniversaries, including a remastered version screened in 2010. These releases have raised the film's worldwide total to $388.8million.
Back to the Future received generally positive reviews from critics.Janet Maslin called it the "most sustained and entertaining" of the summer's films.Richard Corliss referenced Marty's dialogue during the "Johnny B. Goode" scene, saying the audiences' kids will love the film over the next 30 years.Paul Attanasio said the film offered a return to a focus on storytelling. He added that even though every facet seemed mechanically designed to create a broadly appealing film, it never felt too safe. Attanasio concluded that Back to the Future was a "wildly pleasurable" and sweet science-fiction comedy. Several reviewers compared it favorably to the 1946 fantasy drama It's a Wonderful Life.Roger Ebert said Zemeckis had delivered a "fine comic touch" and humanity. He said the film had charm, humor, and held a lot of surprises that offered the film's "greatest pleasures". Kirk Ellis (writing for The Hollywood Reporter) offered a similar sentiment, saying Zemeckis' direction added a comic humanity to the science-fiction setting. Ellis called it the Oedipal version of It's a Wonderful Life. He said that despite Spielberg's role as a producer, Back to the Future was clearly Zemeckis' film, being more subtle, gentler, and less noisy.
Gene Siskel said that initially Back to the Future seems to be everything wrong with movies of its era aimed at a young audience. However, it subverted his expectations by avoiding traveling to an unidentifiable future or historical event to focus on the unique perspective through a relatable tale of a child being able to meet his parents in their youth. It offered something for both children and adults.Sheila Benson was more critical; she called the film "big, cartoonish and empty". She said that Back to the Future had an interesting premise but was overproduced and underdeveloped. Benson believed the film lacked tension because there was never any doubt that Marty would succeed, and the ending was left feeling hollow with materialistic rewards. Siskel countered that the tension came by defying the expectations of a typical time travel film in making the past mutable and the future uncertain.
Kehr remarked that Gale and Zemeckis were among the first wave of filmmakers openly influenced by growing up on televised entertainment, and their inspirations are evident throughout Back to the Future. He described it as "zestfully tasteless" with a uniquely American vulgarity, crassness and manic energy. Attansio appreciated the film had irreverent humor that was not mean spirited. He felt the film succeeds by having an emotional core that keeps the audiences' interest among the laughter.
Reviewers agreed that the exposition-heavy opening leads into a better half. Ray Loynd, writing for Variety, described the opening as "shaky" and exposition heavy, but noting the rest of the film is filled with wit, wonder, and fresh ideas. He appreciated the comparisons between 1955 and 1985, and the "delicious" premise of Marty returning to the past only for his mother to fall for him romantically. Corliss agreed the opening was akin to a "long fuse that explodes into comic epiphany mid way".Leonard Maltin said it took a while to get to the action, but in describing the ending, he said it was a "wow".
All the cast performances were generally well received, particularly those of Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, and Glover. Reviewers were consistent in their praise for Fox's "appealing" performance. Several reviewers believed that Lloyd's performance stole the film. Ellis said Lloyd was at his "scene-stealing best", offering an uncontrolled performance that would redefine movie scientists for the modern audience. Attanasio agreed; he said that Lloyd demonstrated that his unique "intensity" could carry a film.Dave Kehr called Lloyd's character a tribute to every great mad scientist portrayed by the likes of Sid Caesar and John Belushi.Vincent Canby and Ray Loynd said that both Fox and Lloyd were good, but that it was Glover and Thompson who were the standout performers. Loynd said that Glover's bumbling-to-confident George McFly was the highlight, supported by Thompson's "deceptively passionate" performance. Some reviewers considered the use of Libyan terrorists, an actual fear at the time, to be in poor taste.
At the 1986 Academy Awards, Back to the Future received one award for Best Sound Effects Editing. It received a further three nominations: Best Original Screenplay for Gale and Zemeckis (losing to Earl W. Wallace, Pamela Wallace, and William Kelley for the crime-drama Witness); Best Sound for Bill Varney, B. Tennyson Sebastian II, Robert Thirlwell, William B. Kaplan (losing to Chris Jenkins, Gary Alexander, Larry Stensvold, and Peter Handford for Out of Africa); and Best Original Song for "The Power of Love" by Chris Hayes, Johnny Colla, and Huey Lewis (losing to "Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie for the drama film White Nights). It received four nominations at the 43rd Golden Globe Awards:Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) (losing to Prizzi's Honor), Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) for Fox (losing to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor), Best Original Song (again losing to "Say You, Say Me"), Best Screenplay for Gale (losing to Woody Allen for The Purple Rose of Cairo).
At 39th British Academy Film Awards, Back to the Future received five nominations including: Best Film and Best Original Screenplay (losing both to The Purple Rose of Cairo), Best Visual Effects and Best Production Design (losing both to Brazil), and Best Editing (losing to Nena Danevic and Michael Chandler for Amadeus). At the 13th Saturn Awards, the film won three awards: Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actor for Fox, and Best Special Effects for Kevin Pike.Back to the Future also named Favorite Motion Picture at the 12th People's Choice Awards and won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The film performed well internationally: it won Best Foreign Producer (Spielberg) and Best Foreign Screenplay at the David di Donatello awards (Italy), Outstanding Foreign Film from the Japan Academy, and the Goldene Leinwand (Germany) for selling more than 3million tickets in its first 18 months.
The year 1985 was considered an unsuccessful year for the film industry. Despite a record number of film releases for the decade, many films failed at the box office, and ticket sales were down 17% compared with 1984. Industry executives believed the problem, in part, was a lack of original concepts. Films about fantasy and magic failed, as audiences leaned towards science-fiction. Janet Maslin said the fault for this lay partly with Spielberg, who had created such a successful template with films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that many fantasy films had closely emulated them. There was also an over-saturation of youth-oriented films targeted at those under 18 years old. Executives were not fond of these films, but the financial rewards were too significant to ignore. Only a few films were aimed at older audiences, leading to surprise successes like Cocoon. Only Back to the Future and Rambo: First Blood Part II were successful blockbusters, earning more than double the box office of Cocoon. Films offering escapism and pro-America themes like Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV had also fared well.
A glut of youth-targeted films like Return to Oz and The Black Cauldron, and science-fiction comedies like Weird Science, Real Genius, and My Science Project had resulted in a string of failures. Executives said that the films were all very similar and marketed in the same way, offering no variety for audiences.Back to the Future was one of the few original concepts.
After years of poor performances, Back to the Future, along with Fletch, Brewster's Millions, and Mask, reversed Universal Picture's fortunes. This was credited to the foresight of Frank Price; it was the second-highest-grossing studio that year. For Fox, before Family Ties and Back to the Future, he was financially struggling, had no car or home, and contacted his agent using payphones. Afterward, he became one of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood, receiving marriage proposals and letters from fans around the world. "The Power of Love" also gave Huey Lewis and the News, their first number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 and their first international success.
Back to the Future was released in on VHS on May 22, 1986, priced at $79.95. It was also the most rented cassette of the year. A sequel was not planned until after Back to the Futures release. A "To Be Continued..." graphic was added to the VHS release to promote awareness of future sequels. When the film was released on DVD in 2002, the graphic was removed because Gale and Zemeckis wanted it to be as it had been in theaters. It has not appeared in releases since.
On the film's 25th-anniversary in 2010, it debuted on Blu-ray. The release included a six-part documentary including interviews with the cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, and associated music videos from all three films. The release was notable for including the first released footage of Stoltz in the role of Marty McFly. For its 35th anniversary in 2020, a remastered 4K Ultra HD version was released on Blu-ray. Along with extras included in previous releases, this edition included audition footage and an exploration of the film's props hosted by Gale. Limited edition steel bookcases or a display replicate of the levitating hoverboard from Back to the Future Part II were also available.
The Back to the Future soundtrack was released in July 1985, on cassette tape, LP record, and Compact disc. Sales were initially slow, but it eventually peaked at number 12 on the Billboard 200, in part because of the success of "The Power of Love".
The main theme of Back to the Future concerns taking control and personal responsibility over one's own destiny. A situation can be changed even if it seems otherwise impossible to overcome. Thompson said the film represents how one moment can have a significant and lasting impact on a person's life. Gale said that Doc Brown provided the perfect summary of the theme running throughout the film series, when in Back to the Future Part III he said: "Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one."
Even so, Marty's future is enriched at the expense of others. At the start of the film, Marty is rejected at Battle of the Bands and admits his fears that his ambitions will remain unrealized. He worries he will end up like his parents and sees direct evidence in 1955 of George, also afraid of rejection, being unable to approach Lorraine; his fears risk Marty's future. Marty sets about manipulating the past to ensure his own survival without concern for what impact his presence in 1955 is having on others. On his return to 1985, he is rewarded with wealthier parents and a nicer car, but he has simultaneously damaged Biff's future, reducing him to a valet for the McFlys. Glover was critical of the film's ending. He believed Marty's reward should have been happy parents in love with each other. He considered the ending a result of the film serving a corporate interest, promoting the accumulation of wealth and purchasing new things. In 2015, Zemeckis said the ending was perfect for its time but would be different if he made it now. Gale disagreed and said he did not apologize for the scene. American audiences largely had no issue with this ending, but some international audiences criticized it.
Despite rejection by film studios for not being raunchy enough,Back to the Future alludes to sexual assault, racism, and the Oedipus complex--a psychiatric theory developed by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud that says a child has an unconscious sexual desire for their opposite-sexed parent. This refers to the relationship between Marty and his future mother Lorraine in 1955. The relationships between parents and children are the basis of many elements of the film. Where most people can only know their parents, Marty is given the opportunity to see his parents as his peers, when they were his age and shared the same ambitions and dreams as him.
The film can also be seen as promoting Reaganism--the political positions of then-president Ronald Reagan--promoting the older values of the American dream, self-reliance, initiative, and technological advancement. 1985 is presented as run down and in decay, while 1955 is presented as a more simplistic and seemingly safer time seen through the lens of nostalgia. Marty's future is bettered because he goes back to 1955 and teaches George to be more assertive and self-reliant. This leads to a more prosperous future for Marty with materialistic rewards. The film uses many brand names of the time to make the setting more realistic--like Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and Texaco--but the filmmakers were financially compensated for their inclusion, making them symbols of commercialism and thus materialistic.
Sorcha Ní Fhlainn argues that many 1980s films resulted from the American public's desire for escapism from cultural anxieties and fears, including nuclear proliferation, unemployment, crime, growing inequality, and the AIDS crisis. Films like those in the Star Wars series and Back to the Future are designed to offer a child-like reassurance of safety and comfort. They emphasize idealized American values and the positive effects of instilling power in a patriarchal figure like George McFly or Darth Vader. Susan Jeffords notes that Doc Brown is an analog for Reagan, a man who embraces technological advancement, who is in conflict with Libyan terrorists and provides the means for a failing family to better themselves.
The song "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry is used during the film's final act. Berry resisted allowing the song to be used in the film at first. NPR argued that while this may have been a matter of money for Berry, there are underlying racial issues involved in Marty, a Caucasian male, rewriting history to invent the rock and roll music genre, which was heavily influenced by African American music styles. The 1955 segment also presents a distorted view of America, showing an African American band playing at the high school dance at a time when they would never have been allowed to. Similarly, the African American character Goldie Wilson is seemingly inspired to work towards becoming mayor by Marty's intervention, inspiring a Reagan-style initiative and self-reliance.
As film fans, Gale's and Zemeckis' influences are seen throughout Back to the Future. There are references to The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the Star Wars film series, and television shows including Mister Peabody, Star Trek: The Original Series, The Outer Limits, and The Twilight Zone. There are also allusions to The Time Machine (1960)--based on the 1895 novella of the same name by H. G. Wells--and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, in which the central character seemingly moves through time. The DeLorean dashboard chronometer uses the same color scheme as the time device of The Time Machine. Ray Loynd opined that Doc can be seen as a King Arthur-type, with Marty serving as his knight.
Back to the Future is now considered a landmark of American cinema and an enduring popular culture touchstone. The film has global popular appeal and is particularly popular in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Japan. It has continued to find fans decades after its release. In October 2015, the day Doc and Marty travel to at the end of Back to the Future, and depicted in Back to the Future II, an estimated 27million social media users discussed the films; the most active users were in the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Brazil.
As of 2003, Gale continued receiving mail from fans, mainly addressing the trilogy's first film. Gale said he understood the continuing appreciation for the film as it was the "purest" and "most complete" film in the series. Fox compared it to The Wizard of Oz (1939), saying it still appeals to children because they do not think of it as an old film. In 2012, Thompson said her role as Lorraine was the greatest of her career. She said Back to the Future had remained relevant to new generations because of its core idea that the viewer's parents were once kids and had the same dreams they do. Dean Cundey believed it still resonated with fans because it offers the fantasy of going back in time to change things and make the present better. Glover said he had watched it once and liked parts of it, but he believed it sent the wrong message that the hero is rewarded with wealthier parents and a new car instead of the reward being his parents are happily in love. As of 2020, Wilson still carries around cards containing answers to fan questions he has been asked over the preceding years, to avoid constantly repeating himself. Lloyd described being approached by fans from around the world, who have said the film inspired them to become a scientist.
Many of the principal cast have reunited in the years since Back to the Futures release. Often these reunions are for charitable purposes, including The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's disease (Fox was diagnosed with the disease at age 29), and Project HOPE. A 2019 reunion for the TCM Classic Film Festival featured the premiere of the film's 4K restored version. The cast has also appeared in advertisements only loosely related to Back to the Future, trading on their associated popularity.
The DeLorean is considered one of the most iconic vehicles in film history. DeLorean's creator John DeLorean was a fan of the film and sent personal letters to Gale and Zemeckis, thanking them for using his vehicle. The DeLorean was not a popular vehicle before the film's release. However, in the years since it has become a popular collectors item, and the DeLorean Motor Company issued kits that enabled fans to make their vehicle look more like the DeLorean time machine. $78,500 was crowdfunded to restore one of the original cars used in the film and an associated documentary about the restoration, Out of Time: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine.
Michael J. Fox...became a full-fledged movie star thanks to this time-traveling comedy adventure... An extremely clever premise is further enlivened by quick-fire direction from Robert Zemeckis and a superb, witty script... Fox is perfect as the teen trying to unite his parents... Lloyd suitably foolish as the nutty scientist, while Glover and Lea Thompson (as Marty's mom) have a great time playing their characters as both middle-aged parents and teenagers. A timeless comedy adventure.
In 2004, The New York Times listed it as one the 1,000 Best Movies Ever. In 2005, the film's screenplay was listed as the fifty-sixth greatest screenplay of the preceding 75 years on the Writer's Guild of America's (WGA) 101 Greatest Screenplays list. In 2006, it was listed at number10 on Film4's 50 Films to See Before You Die. In 2008, Empire listed the film at number23 on its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time, behind the 1977 space opera Star Wars. They said, "Weird science and teenage dreams combine in a wish-fulfilment sci-fi lent heart by the fantastic Mr. Michael J. Fox." That same year, the American Film Institute listed Back to the Future as the number10 best science-fiction film, based on a poll of 1,500people from the creative community. In 2010, Total Film named it one of the 100 greatest movies ever made. In 2014, a poll of 2,120 entertainment-industry members by The Hollywood Reporter it ranked as the twelfth best film of all time, again behind Star Wars. In 2015, the screenplay was listed as the sixty-seventh funniest on the WGA's 101 Funniest Screenplays list, positioning it behind Some Like It Hot (1958) and Annie Hall (1977). That same year, Entertainment Weekly named it the twenty-eighth best high school movie.Rotten Tomatoes also listed the film at number84 on its list of 200 essential movies to watch.
Several publications have listed it as one of the best science-fiction films ever made, including: numbertwo by Rotten Tomatoes; numberseven by Syfy; numbereight by Empire; number14 by GamesRadar+, and Paste; number17 by IGN; number20 by Business Insider; number27 by Thrillist; and unranked by Esquire,The Guardian,Time Out, and Wired. Similarly, it has been listed as one of the best films of the 1980s by publications including: numberone by Consequence of Sound, and Rotten Tomatoes, numberthree by ShortList, numberfour by Elle, numberfive by Empire, number12 by Parade, number20 by Time Out, number25 by GamesRadar+, and unranked by Cosmopolitan,Esquire,Harper's Bazaar,Highsnobiety,Marie Claire,Town & Country,
Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone listed it as the numberone and numberfour best time travel film ever made.Entertainment Weekly named it the fortieth most essential film to be watched by pre-teens. Based on average review score, Rotten Tomatoes lists it as the eighty-seventh best Action and Adventure film.USA Today listed it as the numbertwo comedy of the 1980s. Marty McFly appeared at number39 on Empires 2006 list of its '100 Greatest Movie Characters'; Doc Brown followed at number76.Rotten Tomatoes assesses a 96% approval rating from the aggregated reviews of 83 critics, with an average rating of 8.80/10. The consensus reads, "Inventive, funny, and breathlessly constructed, Back to the Future is a rousing time-travel adventure with an unforgettable spirit." The film has a score of 87 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 15 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". In the United Kingdom, readers of Empire voted the film as eleventh on their 2017 list of "The 100 Greatest Movies". In March 2011, the film was voted by BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 1Xtra listeners as their fourth favorite film of all time.
In 2007, the United States Library of Congress selected the film to be preserved in the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Ronald Reagan was a fan. When he first saw the joke about Doc Brown's incredulous response to Reagan becoming president, he ordered the theater's projectionist to stop the film, roll it back, and run it again. At his 1986 State of the Union Address , he referenced the film to appeal to America's young voters. He said, "Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, 'Where we're going, we don't need roads'."Back to the Future is also seen as being responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of skateboarding in the 1980s. It made skateboarding a mainstream pastime acceptable for all, not just rebellious teens.
A variety of media have referenced Back to the Future including: American Dad,A Million Ways to Die in the West,Avengers: Endgame,Family Guy,Grand Theft Auto V,Rocket League,Stranger Things, and The Simpsons. Doc and Marty, respectively, inspired the eponymous characters of the 2013 animated television show Rick and Morty. The British pop rock band McFly are named for Marty McFly. The 2011 novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and the 2018 film adaptation (directed by Spielberg) both heavily reference the film, including the central character using a DeLorean for transport. Filmmaker J. J. Abrams has also cited it as an inspiration.
The 2015 crowdfunded documentary Back in Time follows various fans of the series and details the impact it has had on their lives, interspersed with interviews from the crew including Fox and Lloyd.
Merchandising for a film was a relatively new concept popularized by the Star Wars film series. As Back to the Future was not specifically aimed at children, there was no significant merchandising at the time of its release. One of the earliest items was a rideable DeLorean for children, released in 1986. Since then, the film and its sequels have been represented across a wide variety of merchandise produced for fans including: Playmobil, playing cards, clothing, pottery, posters, board games, sculpted figures, plush toys,Funko POP! figures, action figures,Hot Wheels and die-cast vehicles, books, music albums, and Christmas ornaments.
There have been several video game adaptations of the film. Back to the Future was released alongside the film for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum. An arcade-adventure game, Back to the Future, was released in 1989 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In it, the player guides Marty around levels to collect clocks and avoid obstacles. Gale called it one of the worst games ever made and advised people not to purchase it.Back to the Future: The Pinball was released in 1990. Fox did not give permission for the developers to use his likeness, so a different model was used for Marty McFly. An episodic graphic adventure game, Back to the Future: The Game, was released in 2010. Gale contributed to the game's narrative, which takes place after the events of the third film in the series. It follows Doc's and Marty's adventures through time. Lloyd voiced Doc Brown, and Fox performed minor voice work as a McFly ancestor. An area in Lego Dimensions is based on Back to the Future and features voice work by Lloyd.
Back to the Future: The Ride, a simulator ride, ran from 1991 to 2007 at Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida. The ride's development was supervised by Spielberg and featured Lloyd reprising his role as Doc Brown to chase down Biff (played by Wilson) who has stolen the DeLorean. A version of the ride is still active at Universal Studios Japan. A Back to the Future-themed Monopoly board-game was released in 2015. A Funko board game was released in 2020. It casts players as one of the main characters from the films to battle different Tannens across history.
There have been several books about the making of the film series. We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy is an oral history by those involved in the production, including Gale and Zemeckis.Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History--a book chronicling the development of the entire Back to the Future franchise--was released in 2015. It contains previously unseen photos from the production. The British Film Institute released BFI Film Classics: Back to the Future about the film's background. A novelization by George Gipe was released in 1985. There has also been a crossover between the Back to the Future and Transformers franchises. This included featuring a transforming DeLorean toy and associated comic books.
The film's success spawned the Back to the Future franchise comprising film sequels, animated television shows, video games, comic books, and a wide variety of merchandise. It is considered one of the most successful film franchises. A sequel was not planned before Back to the Futures release. The teaser ending of Doc, Marty, and Jennifer flying off in the DeLorean was intended to suggest their adventures would continue off screen. Again written by Gale and Zemeckis, the sequel script was so long that it was split into two films, Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III; both films were shot back to back.
Part II was released in 1989. In its story, Marty and Doc travel to 2015, inadvertently enabling the now-elderly Biff Tannen to steal the DeLorean and return to 1955, rewriting history in his favor. Wells and Glover did not return for the sequels. Wells opted to care for her ailing mother; Elisabeth Shue replaced her. Jeffrey Weissman replaced Glover. The reason for Glover's replacement is disputed: Gale maintains that Glover demanded too much money to participate; Glover countered that Gale and Zemeckis never intended to bring him back, as they were upset that he had challenged them over the moral message of the first film's ending.Part II was a financial success but was criticized for its complex, convoluted narrative. Zemeckis has said Part II is his least favorite film in the series. The final film in the trilogy, Part III, was released in 1990. Its plot follows Marty as he travels to 1885 to rescue a time-stranded Doc. While the film fared less well financially than the two earlier films, it was more critically well-received than Part II.
A 2018 poll by The Hollywood Reporter of 2,200 people found that 71% of those asked wanted a Back to the Future sequel, ahead of another Toy Story or Indiana Jones film. In the years since the release of Part III, studios have attempted to convince Gale and Zemeckis to make another film; the pair shares a controlling interest in the series, preventing sequels being made without their permission. Gale has said there will never be a fourth film. He likened it to "selling your kids into prostitution". He added a Back to the Future film could never happen without Marty McFly, and Fox could not participate because of the effects of his Parkinson's disease. There was also concern that other popular film series had been revived for sequels only to be critical failures.
An animated television series, Back to the Future, which aired on CBS in 1991-1992 followed the films. The series followed Doc's and Marty's adventures through various historical periods, intercut with live-action segments featuring Lloyd, as Doc, performing science experiments alongside Bill Nye. The series' narrative has been expanded in comics and video games that detail Doc's and Marty's adventures before and after the events depicted in the films. A short film Doc Brown Saves the World was released in 2015 to celebrate the film's 35th anniversary. Written by Gale and Zemeckis, it follows Doc Brown, portrayed by Lloyd, who must travel to the future to prevent a nuclear holocaust in 2045.Josh Gad, as part of his "Reunited Apart" charity series of events during the COVID-19 pandemic, included a Back to the Future retrospective episode in May 2020 that included the participation of Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, Steenburgen, Wells, Shue, Gale, Zemeckis, Silvestri, Lewis, and a guest appearance by J.J. Abrams who expressed his admiration for the film.
A musical theater production, Back to the Future, was announced in 2014. The musical was written by Gale and Zemeckis, with music written by Silvestri and Glen Ballard. It debuted at the Manchester Opera House, England, in February 2020, to positive critical reviews. Gale said the musical was the best way to give fans more Back to the Future without adding to the film series.