5 Things 'Back to the Future' Tells Us About the Past



"25 years into the future. I've always dreamed of seeing the future, living beyond my years, seeing the progress of mankind... I'll also be able to see who wins the next 25 World Series!"
–Dr. Emmet Brown, October 26th, 1985.

Exactly 25 years have passed since Doc Brown first spoke these words in 1985's Back to the Future. If Doc Brown's original plan hadn't been interrupted, he'd be arriving today to learn about the countless things he'd missed over two and a half decades: the fall of the Berlin Wall; the rise of the Internet; and (perhaps most improbably) two World Series wins by the Boston Red Sox.

The 25th anniversary of Back to the Future has reignited popular interest in the franchise. Earlier this week, digitally remastered versions of all three movies were released on Blu-Ray for the first time. Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson reprised their starring roles for an Entertainment Weekly cover shoot . And Telltale Games is preparing a hotly-anticipated video game sequel to the series, with fan favorite Christopher Lloyd returning to voice Doc Brown.

Though the film series would eventually extend into the future, the first Back to the Future invites us to look at the past. Much of the film's comedy comes from the cultural dissonance between 1985 and 1955—the year Marty ends up in after a trip in Brown's time machine; characters mistake the DeLorean car for an alien spacecraft, recoil at rock 'n roll music, and marvel at Marty's "invention" of the skateboard.

However, contemporary audiences experience a second cultural dissonance: the years between 1985 and 2010. The series has become such a part of the pop culture landscape that it's easy to forget how deeply the first film is entrenched in 1985. What can 2010's Back to the Future audience observe about changes in American culture since 1985?

1. Soft drinks have an incredible brand turnover rate. Marty's attempt to order a "Tab" and a "Pepsi Free" befuddles a diner owner in 1955. It may befuddle audiences in 2010 as well; Tab's market has diminished exponentially as Diet Coke's market has grown, and the Pepsi Free brand name was discontinued in 1987.

2. The adult theater is a thing of the past. In 1955, the Hill Valley movie theater is playing Ronald Reagan's Cattle Queen of Montana; in 1985, it's playing the XXX-rated Orgy American Style. Since Back to the Future was released, the rise of the Internet has coincided with the decline of the adult theater, with most adults deciding they prefer to watch pornography in the privacy and comfort of their homes.

3. There's a new face of terrorism. Doc Brown steals the Plutonium required to fuel his time machine from Libyan terrorists. Despite political conflict in the 1980s, America's political relationship with Libya seems to have stabilized; it's probably safe to say that the majority of modern Americans wouldn't name Libya as America's greatest terrorist threat. It's also a fair bet that Back to the Future will be the last family comedy to feature domestic terrorists amassing weapons-grade plutonium as a major plot point.

4. Computer terminology has entered the zeitgeist. In 1985, "gigawatts" probably meant as much to audiences as "flux capacitor"—just another piece of inscrutable technobabble from Doc Brown. Since then, computers have brought "gigabytes" to the mainstream, and the "giga" prefix with it. The familiarity of the term renders Doc Brown's distinctive pronunciation (which sounds like jigawatt) completely out of style.

5. Politics remain completely unpredictable. When Marty tells 1955's Doc Brown that Ronald Reagan is president in the 1980s, Doc assumes that Marty is a crackpot. It's easy to imagine him being even more incredulous of more recent political developments, like action icon Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2003 election to the California governorship ("Then who's lieutenant governor? Jean Claude Van Damme?").

In five years, every scene of the Back to the Future series will take place in our past—Back to the Future II's "future," which lies at the chronological end of the series, is the none-too-distant 2015. Time keeps on moving, but the films stay the same; will the Back to the Future franchise hold the same cultural appeal as it travels farther and farther into the past?

Time, as always, will tell.