Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future

My Favorite Scene: Back to the Future (1985) “The Clocktower”

This week I was having a discussion with a friend about whether directors are really storytellers at all or if they are helpless without a good script.  I don’t think you can have a good movie without a good script.  It’s the foundation of all great films.  I remain perpetually baffled that movies spend $20 million on a special effect but won’t drop a quarter of that on a script.  Some directors are just not great storytellers, but there are some who, when given something solid to work with (like Bob Gale’s great script for Back to the Future) can take those words and bring it to life in a way that exceeds anything printed on a page.  Robert Zemeckis is absolutely at the top of the list of these “storytelling directors”.

Back to the Future, over 30 years after its release, still holds up as one of the great action comedies of recent memory.  The film is full of iconic moments from the hoverboard chase, to Johnny B. Goode, to every time Christopher Lloyd bellows “GREAT SCOTT!”, but my favorite scene is the climactic clocktower set piece.  CineFix in an Art of the Scene piece from a few years ago does a wonderful job of breaking down the nuts and bolts of how one of the most iconic scenes of the 1980s came to life.  What’s probably most stunning is how much of the clocktower scene are practical effects.  In an age when CGI has taken a lot of the ingenuity out of F/X work, you don’t see this kind of brilliance anymore.  Back to the Future worked so well because it blended a great script, a great director, Michael J. Fox in his breakout role, and old-fashioned movie wizardry to tell a time-traveling tale that has, over the decades, become timeless.

9 thoughts on “My Favorite Scene: Back to the Future (1985) “The Clocktower””

  1. We know that film is a collaborative art, and that sometimes directors are given too much credit when they’re singled out as the authors of thier movies. I’ve noticed that the best of the best tend to play up thier collaborators in interviews, etc, BTW. It’s one way to spot the true talents.

    Zemekis was successful as hell, and famous as hell, and as he rode that wave, exerting total control over his movies, the masterful storytelling never faltered. Therefore I am forced to conclude that the man is a storyteller right down to his bones.

    I love the entire Back To the Future trilogy. I love the way the films interconnect, the way we get the history of the town. Biff is a deceptivley great villain; we never know the depths of what some people would be capable of, if circumstances were rearranged.

    Even BTTF and Roger Rabbit had weighty themes. Most movies today are just trying to distract everyone from the emptiness they feel. Our species finally has some free time on its hands, people finally aren’t slaving in the fields from birth to death, but the problem is, there isn’t QUITE enough time for us to better ourselves. Or at least, that’s the way it feels. All we are doing is distracting ourselves, with shortsighted, short-term pursuits, from day to day. And the people trying to sell us things, from Hollywood to Apple to Washington DC, get it. That is why they are spending money on special effects instead of scripts. They are trying to distract us from the emptiness. They don’t want us to find meaning or fulfillment. We make better consumers when we have no attention spans or discernment.

    We have to be aware of this, and always push against it.

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    1. Zemeckis is a director to whom I always pay attention. He may stumble every now and again (and I still don’t get his animation style), but the number of original triumphs is up there with any other working director.

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      1. I actually don’t mind his detour into the uncanny valley. I can’t pretend I think that Beowulf and A Christmas Carol should have been made, but his mo-cap obsession came at the right, logical time in film history, it helped move film technology along, and he dropped it when circumstances dictated it was time.

        As fixations go, it was pretty reasonable. And Jim Carrey was a LOT less dead-eyed as Scrooge than Tom Hanks was two short movies before.

        Zemekis is like an edgier, flashier Spielberg. I’ve always loved his style.

        You can feel the effort that goes into his movies… the technical stuff is not invisible, it’s in your face, all the hard work is palpable. And yet it does not detract, the films stay lighthearted and magical. I wish I had been a little kid when I experienced the Polar Express for the first time, because for all the (valid) talk about waxworks, the film really did feel completely, utterly NEW.

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  2. Sorry, I hope that did not sound too off the beam. I just think our current society is creating a perfect storm of existential despair, and the devices are addictive, and the franchises are numbing. We are all in escape mode.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The good news is this: there are still good movies, and I think it will be a long time before real life takes a page from Farenheight 451. Zemekis’s new film, for example, looks wonderful. Hollywood people cannot live on money alone. They crave prestige the way that lice crave blood. There will always be good movies that are not parts of franchises. To Peter you listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Zemekis to remake the Witches for WB with GDT producing. Feels wrong. The Nicholas Roeg version is overrated… people think it’s better than it is because of the astonishing Henson mouse-and-witch work, and because it’s so bravely disturbing. And of course Angelica Huston. But there is so much room for improvement, especially when it comes to that ending. For years I had hoped that GDT would get his version made, even if it wasn’t stop motion as originally planned, but GDT and Zemekis… the concept feels like oil and water. They clash. And Zemekis has his own style, and is probobly still a MUCH bigger fish. GDT won’t be the guiding light anymore. Also, I can’t picture a Zemekis version topping the weird disturbing-ness of the Roeg one.

    I wanted to see the modern master of gothic horror re-conceptualize Roald Dahl. I waited for years. Zemekis is a filmmaking god, but this just feels wrong. Notice I have restrained myself, and not even brought up mo-cap. Knock on wood.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. See, THAT is the correct answer.

        I accept the filmmaking god as a reasonable choice for a replacement director.

        Like

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