Destroy All Monsters: BACK TO THE FUTURE and The Power Of Love

Matt Brown, Columnist

The power of love is a curious thing, as Back to the Future's power ballad affirmed. If you grew up in the 1980s (or really, any decade of cinema which mythologized the fairy-tale patriarchy, in whatever modernist guise), movies like Back to the Future would boil the romantic notion of a predestined life partner down to single, key, highly cinematic moments.

In both versions of the timeline in Back to the Future, the moment Lorraine Baines knows she'll spend the rest of her life with George McFly comes when he kisses her at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance - not before, not after, but at that exact moment, and so insolubly that Time Itself can evidently be cemented by a single smooch to the dulcet tones of the Marvin Berry singing "Earth Angel."

The power of love might make a' one man weep, make a' nother man sing, but in Back to the Future itself, it makes men man up. I don't think we can realistically argue that George was in love with Lorraine when he marched, John Wayne-style, up to Doc Brown's Packard on that night in 1955, and found Lorraine and (unexpectedly) Biff inside, "struggling" (i.e. in mid-sexual assault). The scenario was contrived by weakling George and his time-traveling future boy, Marty, in an effort to fulfill Lorraine's key criteria for manhood: strength and the ability to protect the woman he loves.

What we can argue, though, is that for any degree to which Lorraine might have been an agented character up to now - she does, after all, drive the central problem of Back to the Future, albeit through her boy-craziness; and in a real sense it is George's failure up to now to be worthy of her palms-up sexual interest that has created the problem - as soon as George opens that car door, the whole power schematic drains down to a blissfully conservative view of men and women in society.

Women, in this view, are the damsels to be protected and prizes to be won. Men are neatly divided between the loutish sexual predators with delusions of their own importance (Biff), and valiant knights-errant-in-waiting, who - either by their bookish interests in the creative arts, or more menial pleasures in skateboarding and 4x4 trucks - bear a depth of earnest feeling that gives them an inherent sense of "the right thing." "The right thing" will motivate George and Marty to action that will earn them just rewards.

Back to the Future is a time-traveling adventure rubric for young males on how to live morally in an otherwise-random world. For Marty, in Back to the Future (not Part II or Part III, mind you, but certainly in Part I), there is never a single moment in which he behaves in any manner but selflessly. (His greatest act of personal defiance is his repeated, stubborn attempts to tell Doc Brown about the future - and thereby save his best friend's life.)

Marty, notably for an '80s fantasy movie, is a hero without a hint of a Campbellian arc. He's caught up in a situation that he must resolve, but does not change notably in the process of doing so. He's the same Marty at the beginning of the movie and at the end. His reward for this selflessness is a complete rejuvenation - in more literal terms than usual for this sort of thing - of his entire life, family, and relationships, up to and including the acquisition of that very '80s prize: the bitchin' car. This is the Mythos of Spring.

But if the power of love turns a heart to a little white dove, for George the decision to defend Lorraine's honour nonetheless requires feats of manly strength. This moment does not arrive at the apex of any kind of learning curve about his own inner fortitude; his decision is so powerful exactly because he's the same coward at that moment that he's been since we first meet him (30 years later) as a cowed 47-year-old man. He's scared shitless of Biff and has no idea what he's going to do to stop what's happening to Lorraine in front of him; but he knows he has to stop it, anyway.

When George belts Biff - and for all its visual telegraphing, I still cannot recall a more satisfying single punch in the whole history of film - he is not enacting some of Biff's might-makes-right hucksterism to gain sexual advantage. He is merely ending the argument, in terms as clearly communicated as possible, about which incarnation of the male Back to the Future would rather its young audience aspire to be. Here endeth the lesson.

But there still needs to be that kiss, and in its sole moment of scripted redundancy (the screenplay for Back to the Future is otherwise a model of structural seamlessness), the movie contrives to separate George and Lorraine again on the dance floor, immediately after the punch. This is only so that George can once again man up and take Lorraine back from a second, trivial aggressor, in order to seal the deal with the aforementioned kiss.

It's loopy from a writing perspective (though I suppose it does accurately presuppose that, in something like real life, all of George McFly's behavioural aspects would not be rewritten by throwing a single haymaker in a parking lot) but the contrivance arrives at its intended effect. It creates a second emotional peak for the suspense of the George/Lorraine relationship (and by proxy, the photographic and literal annihilation of the existence of Marty McFly).

More than a feeling, that's the power of love. This is the kind of romantic fable my generation grew up on. George and Lorraine's kiss is not the only one, by any means, that seems to bend the entirety of time and space around it in a single lip-on-lip press; it's just the one that does it most literally. That idea - that with one kiss, one's true destiny, the "right timeline," can be permanently asserted - is the naïve and hopelessly wonderful piece of romantic mysticism that the Hollywood bauble, at its most bauble-icious, blithely promised us.

It's a detail nested in the first act of the film, presumably as setup: old, drunken Lorraine claiming that the moment George kissed her in 1955, she knew they'd be together forever. Without directly referring to it (except via the destiny/density wordplay in George's aborted diner meet-cute), Back to the Future is entirely about the notion of romantic destiny. It merely shunts the concept into analogy, by way of the idea of the "right" timeline.

There is just one way this story has to proceed, for all to be well: it has to end up with George and Lorraine kissing on the dance floor. This is more than just integral to Marty's continued existence; it's positioned (even more heavily in Part II) as a component of a kind of temporal nexus point upon which the entire space-time continuum hinges. Consider the lovestruck implications of that: a kiss that doesn't just change a couple's lives, but reality itself!

The outcome of the kiss is not inherently positive destiny, mind you; destiny is neutral. In one version of reality - that with which we are presented at the beginning of Back to the Future - the iron chain forged between George and Lorraine at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance results in a kind of lifelong imprisonment, as dark (in its way, at least for Lorraine) as the Biff timeline from Back to the Future, Part II.

In the other version of reality, though - the one gained by Marty and to a lesser extent George, through heroic deeds - Lorraine and George's chain becomes a flexible, positive bond precisely because (in the movie's view) one half of the equation, George, manned up. This is an entirely male pedagogical view, constructed by (grown-up) little boys for (not-yet-grown-up) little boys, though this does not, I'd argue, remove its merit. Boys need to be versed in the value of being a George over being a Biff. And if they pick up the quixotic notion in the process that one destined kiss can change the world, all the better.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is on his way to Ebertfest this week, follow him on Twitter.

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  • Cedric Chou Ya-Li

    It is, as always, even if the subject matter this time around is not as controversial and/or thought provoking as it sometimes is, a pleasure to read your column.

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