A Fundamental Interpretation of The Back to the Future Trilogy
by G. Ranseen
March 1st, 2022
All throughout my childhood, I must confess, I likely watched the Back to the Future1 trilogy on VHS tapes dozens and dozens of times – among many other VHS tapes. Back to the Future is still a great and enjoyable film and firmly remains one of my all time sentimental favorites. The film unites multiple generations as it not only revisits the 1950’s but it also imagines the Future and even takes further back in time to the 19th century at the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
As I’ve grown into adulthood however, I began to view the journey that both Marty McFly and also his father, George McFly go through in the fictional universe of the films in different ways. I realized recently that Marty and his father George’s struggles overlapped and paralleled with one another in ways that I am not entirely sure have been verbalized or, mentioned explicitly before – specifically as it relates to earning one’s Manhood.
In my interpretation, Marty must resolve the problems that his father did not resolve in his own lifetime and in this way, earn his Manhood for his Father before he can even begin to live his own life and earn his own Manhood!
EARNING ONE’S MANHOOD – THE HERO’S JOURNEY
First, we must understand that any story or, journey is about how the primary character ‘transforms’ or, changes to become something else. Usually, for male characters who have been the traditional protagonists in most culture’s stories or, epics – the journey involves triumphing over adversity or, obstacles such as one’s fears or, personal demons – in order to become a Man or, a Hero! When BTTF Part One opens, Marty is still clearly a boy, he is skipping school and playing hooky and does not appear to take his life seriously. Marty, like many adolescents, spends his time doing what he enjoys and in Marty’s case, it is spending time working on his music (jamming out) and also spending time with his girlfriend, Jennifer. It is unclear whether Marty and Jennifer have consummated their relationship or, whether Marty, like many teenagers are still trying to score or, lose his virginity – in other words, earn his Manhood!
What is odd about this dynamic is that Marty spends time with Doctor Emmett Brown, who appears somewhat like a reclusive individual who does not have a wife and is possibly a virgin himself. The fact that Doc Brown might be a Virgin is not a far fetched idea – consider how Dr. Brown states in Part 3 of the series that he still wishes to shift his focus over to learning about the other mystery of the Universe : Women! This would infer that Doc Brown has not been intimate with a female even though he might be in his 50’s, 60’s or, 70’s! To those who think this is unusual, we must remember that in older times many of the greatest minds in history: saints, monks, prophets and even philosopher’s or, scientists who lived within the confines of a religious tradition and may have been life long virgins themselves.
However, to return to Marty in the first part of the trilogy – we see Marty is attempting to grow into a Man – as he plans to buy a truck to take his girlfriend on a camping trip, place sleeping bags in the back of the truck and one would naturally assume – become sexually intimate with and consummate his relationship with Jennifer.
Let us consider how the story develops in the first Part of the Film Trilogy: When Marty comes home after the first full day we see him in school – trying out to be a Performer for the School Dance but not making the cut , trying to make plans to become intimate with Jennifer but this might be in jeopardy now! In short, he feels dejected and dispirited.
To make things worse, Marty comes home to see his father being ‘taken advantage of’ and ‘bullied’ by Biff, a bully who has terrorized Marty’s father, George for his entire life. Marty hears even more bad news: the family car owned by George McFly has been wrecked by Biff and now Biff has convinced George to pay for the costs. This news crushes Marty. Once again, Marty must see his father humiliated and lose his respect as a Man and also – in turn – lose his chance at earning his manhood by not being able to take the family car on his camping trip with Jennifer.
A GENERATIONAL CURSE
A Generation is sometimes considered to span 20 years. However, 30 years might be more appropriate considering that the number 30 is often equated with the Circle and also that twelve months times 30 years equals 360 months – which is also representative of a Full Cycle or, Revolution. The number 30 is integral to the BTTF Trilogy as Marty and Doc first go back to 1955 (30 Years in the past) and then, 2015, 30 years in to the future.
Back to the Story – In my view, it is no coincidence that Marty’s problems are all put on full display to the viewer on the first full day covered in the film and just before Marty is to wake up at night to go to the Twin Pines Mall. The fact that this part of the story begins after Marty wakes up in the middle of the night might be intentionally placed into the story by the screenwriters to imply that this part of the story might be a “Dream“. Many filmmakers and going back even further, Novelists and Playwrights have long used this Sleep or, Dream Metaphor or, literary device to open up this possibility to the viewer, reader. Note how Marty’s girlfriend is often waking up and being put back to sleep throughout the trilogy – and even more importantly how Marty is always waking up to see his mother taking care of him in some other variation of time and form.
However, for the sake of simplifying my argument, let us consider the events to be literal and linear – even though they are not. What is essential to see is how Marty ‘dreams’ or even goes through a ‘Nightmare’ of living in the past – which his Father clearly has not gotten over or, overcome. As a result, it is in line with the theme of warring or, battling to earn his Manhood, that Marty ends up going back in time to figure out what Trauma George McFly might have suffered. This is no different than what human beings or, children might have to go through on their own in life in general. I am firm believer that what one does not overcome or, resolve in their lifetime – is passed onto the next generation – and this is even more specific and apparent when one has children. In a strange way, we must understand our own family backgrounds’ trauma or, weaknesses and even sins in order to overcome them.
I believe that in cases in which the parents or, fathers resolve less for themselves and their families – this failure leads one to dump these potential resolutions – as weight on their children or, the next generation. A Lesson unlearned can become a Curse but a Lesson learned can become a Blessing.
THE OEDIPUS COMPLEX
Consider how dangerously close Marty comes to not only becoming intimate with his mother in a sexual way but also taking this role or, position away from his father – retroactively! This is a strange occurrence that repeats itself in all three time periods in one form or, another – that is – the concept of Marty sexualizing his own mother or, some varied image of his own mother.
I must admit that this is a bizarre storyline in a family film to even present this idea to the public. Yet, we cannot forget that in term of 20th century Psychology (The field of Psychology in my view is a modern re-interpretation and amalgamation of ancient and historical Philosophical principles and ideas) through Sigmund Freud’s work on Psycho-analysis – that until a boy earns his own manhood or, finds a women he can replace the idealized image of his own mother with – according to Freud – a boy subconsciously wishes to possess his own mother. Freud takes this idea to different extremes by asserting or, writing that a young boy might wish to secretly sleep with his own mother. Freud states regarding Oedipus:
“His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so.2”
This idea was first symbolically and philosophically embedded within the classic play by Sophocles titled, Oedipus Rex and written and performed in approximately 429 B.C in Ancient Greece. In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus’ realizing that he has slept with his own mother, stabs out his own eyes – which is symbolic of going blind or, going backwards! Personally, I believe the simplest way to understand this dilemma is that a mother typically will possess her own children – in a protective way – until it is time for them to grow up and live their own lives. Until a child or, in this case a boy can step out of this dual need or, this interdependent relationship with his mother by merging with and creating a family with another woman – it may be argued that a boy has not achieved manhood.
REGRESSION VS PROGRESSION
Let us not forget that in order to even begin living his own life, Marty must somehow go back and understand his father’s trauma and possibly resolve it. Ironically, when Marty goes back in time, he does so to act as a Father to his own Father – it is a kind of Role Reversal. In doing so, he comes dangerously close to attracting his own mother and further creating a massive Family Curse which would result in his own Death or, Destruction. The idea that one must go BACK is also symbolic of literal self destruction as well – since to not move forward with eyes open is to also – Go backwards in blindness. Consider the eyes being stabbed out in the Oedipus myth.
If Marty were to hypothetically allow his mother to not marry his father – he would cease to exist! In the end, Marty succeeds – with the help of Doctor Emmett Brown – and Marty not only gets his own truck but his father is a successful science fiction writer. All is right in the world – as Marty can now live his life ‘securely’ knowing that his father has earned his manhood and this gives him the confidence to become his own man as well!
DESTINY IS IN YOUR HANDS – WRITE YOUR OWN HISTORY
If we examine the remaining two films. We see the same trend play out in different ways. Someone must earn their stripes or, manhood in order to set an example for their children or, future generations and in this way bring order to the world.
I will be expanding this Essay / Blog Post as there are many more symbolic aspects of the Back to the Future series. Including Doc Brown’s image paralleling the Dr. Faustus archetype – the isolated man with a dog and an assistant (compare Wagner to Marty McFly) which also shares meaning with homoeroticism and a possible attraction of Doc to Marty. Also, In Part 2, we see an older Biff terrorize the McFly family bloodline (DNA) even further – and an alternate history elapses – an Alternate 1985 in which Lorraine, Marty’s mother – marries Biff after George McFly commits suicide (actually murdered by Biff) in 1973. In Part 3, we see Doc earn his manhood as well. Also, flux capacitor appears like a Vagina or, a Gateway / Womb! Doc’s work is seeking Immortality – the Philosopher’s Stone. More to come soon!
- Back to the Future. 1985. Zemeckis, Robert. Gale, Bob. Universal Pictures
- Back to the Future — After Biff Wrecked the Family Car. August 15th, 2014. Channel Owner: Scifier939
- Freud, S. 2010. The Interpretation of Dreams. pp. 279-280. New York: Basic Books. 978-0465019779.