Back To The Future may not have been completely groundbreaking - Ebert grants it only 3.5 stars! - as time travel had been done before, from The Time Machine (1960) to Planet of the Apes (1968). My favorite in the genre is probably Time After Time (1979), with David Warner but Robert Zemeckis set a new benchmark and ever since, any time travel picture has been measured against it. Did you know that Zemeckis also wrote Spielberg's flop 1941 and directed the fabulous Romancing The Stone with Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny De Vito? Here are some more trivia: Douglas and De Vito had both been on One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest with Douglas as producer and De Vito in the cast next to … Christopher Lloyd (here as The Doc). Since writing Back To The Future, Zemeckis' main credits other than The Polar Express have mostly been Back To The Future spinoffs, including the various installments of the game.
I love how the movie sets up the fictional town of Hill Valley, California as a pleasantly comforting small American community with easily recognisable land marks, which is handy when you start time travelling and you have to find your way around. The world is contained and knowable. Not only is it relatively small, everybody knows each other and they mostly know what you're up to as well. It doesn't take long before we feel at home in this town where everything and everyone is safe, even with someone as crazy as the Doc around. So when the Libyan terrorists appear, this is very much a break out of the ordinary world...
The movie boasts a whole range of classic moments, such as the DeLorean's explosive jump back into time, the awkward mother-sun dalliance, the lightning / return climax and Biff's comeuppance. Here is also an example of a deceptively simple, yet highly effective and exciting opening. The writing is super tight, with a bunch of exposition squeezed into mere seconds of screen time. Over the titles, we see a pair of feet entering the Doc's place and we are introduced to a few important clues to the ensuing plot and subplots. Even before a single word is spoken, the audience is fed a whole range of questions and by the time Marty is blown away by the monster loudspeaker, we know he is friends with the Doc, rides a skateboard and plays the guitar.
SETTING UP GOALS EARLY
Perhaps the most important quality of this opening sequence is how it sets up anticipation through visual questions and character goals. Why does the Doc have the missing plutonium hidden in his lab? Why hasn't he been there for a while? The Doc wants to meet Marty that night but won't tell him what for; Marty needs to get to school on time and wants to compete in the music contest. All these questions and goals give the story instant momentum, which is something any screenplay can benefit from. Ask yourself: how do you set up anticipation in your first scenes? The opening elements in Back To The Future are all linked to a deadline or a subplot even in that first act, propelling the story engine with a power of 1.21 GigaWatts.