Thirty years ago, the blockbuster release for the July 4th weekend was a film about a young man trying to rescue his parents’ marriage. Yes, Back to the Future involves time travel, special effects, and some dizzyingly creative science-fiction plotting, but the story at its core is a simple one, and its stakes are appreciably low. Just as Jaws ignited a box-office revolution ten years previously as a tale of three men in a boat after one shark, Back to the Future was a genre-defining hit in 1985, spending 11 weeks at number one and spawning two sequels—all without resorting to over-budgeted theatrics.
Strip away the time-travel facade and Back to the Future is a fun, zany small-town comedy, with its nastiest villain a high school bully and its biggest triumph a kiss between his two victims. Director Robert Zemeckis seized upon the concept of Marty McFly’s DeLorean trip to 1955 while looking through his parents’ basement and stumbling upon relics from their graduating class. He pitched the idea to Steven Spielberg, who agreed to produce the project. The strength of the movie is that its most fantastical element is rendered as something any audience member could imagine: the bizarre and frightening experience of meeting your parents as their teenaged selves. Compared to the current era of summer movies, so focused on omnipotent superheroes doing battle on a planetary scale, that simplicity feels revolutionary.