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.