‘Back to the Future’ Is Actually a Tragedy

The Big Picture

  • Back to the Future is a beloved “feel good” movie with lovable characters, intense action, thrilling music, and a cool car.
  • Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of Marty McFly turned him into a top movie star, but the happy ending is actually a tragedy.
  • Marty’s family is transformed by his actions in the past, but they are now strangers to him, and he is more alone than ever.

Ask people what their favorite “feel good” movies are and one of the names that will top any list no matter your age is 1985’s Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis‘ film is perfect from beginning to end, mixing in lovable characters, intense action, thrilling music, and a cool car into a fun story that is the ultimate soul food. Michael J. Fox was already a TV star thanks to Family Ties, but Back to the Future turned him into a top movie star as well, thanks to his portrayal of Marty McFly. He’s the embodiment of the nice but cool guy who overcomes the odds. He’s a good kid who only wants to live and get his family back. In the end, he gets just that, and with a family that’s better than he left them. This is played as a happy ending, but in actuality, it’s a tragedy. He doesn’t know these people and none of them know the real him. At the end of Back to the Future, Marty McFly is more alone than ever.

Image via Universal Pictures

Back to the Future

Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent 30 years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his close friend, the maverick scientist Doc Brown.

Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells


Main Genre

Adventure, Comedy, Family, Sci-Fi

Eric Stoltz Treated ‘Back to the Future’ More Seriously Than Others

As most people know, Michael J. Fox wasn’t the original Marty McFly. Eric Stoltz had been cast in the role and actually filmed most of Back to the Future before producer Stephen Spielberg and Zemeckis decided to fire him and replace him with Fox. Stoltz took the role too seriously, turning McFly into a dark and sadder character, while Fox was fun and lighthearted, which matched the tone of the film.

In a 2015 interview with Pop Goes the Culture, Lea Thompson, who played Marty’s mother, Lorraine, went into why Stoltz didn’t work as Marty. She talked about how method Stoltz was in his approach. He went so far as to not even answer to his real name. “You had to call him by his character name,” Thompson said, “which a lot of people find hard to do.” Not only that, but he grew his fingernails long since Marty played the guitar, and that’s what many guitar players do. Thompson said all of his quirks together didn’t go over well when he wanted to be a teen idol.

Thompson all spoke about an intriguing conversation with Eric Stoltz, one that didn’t help him keep his job, but with an interesting look at Back to the Future‘s ending that makes sense. During the very first table read, as everyone was laughing about how funny the script was, a serious Stoltz said, “I think it’s a tragedy, really… My entire family remembers a past, and I, Marty, remember a completely different past.” Thompson said he was right, but it wasn’t the right thing to say in front of everyone.

Marty McFly’s Family Are Better People When He Returns to 1985

In Back to the Future, when we meet Marty’s family, we meet a sad group of people. It’s hard to believe that Marty is related to them. His father, George (Crispin Glover), is a wimp who is bullied by his supervisor Biff (Thomas F. Wilson). He just takes it, never fighting back. His wife, a tired and bored-looking Lorraine, is an unhappy woman. Marty’s brother, Dave (Marc McClure), isn’t killing it at life, working at Burger King, and his sister, Linda (Wendie Jo Sperber), is a grump worried about boys. We don’t get to know Marty’s siblings very well, but it’s shown that they are not living up to their potential.

When Marty McFly accidentally travels back to 1955, his mother falls in love with him. Marty then spends the majority of the film trying to get his sad sack father to grow some courage and win Lorraine over. In the first timeline, George and Lorraine met when he was hit by the family car. Lorraine was so boy-crazy that she latched on to George, only to be disappointed by the person he truly was. In the second timeline, George learns to fight for her when Biff tries to take advantage of her thus earning her true love.

Marty McFly and His Family Are Strangers at the End of ‘Back to the Future’

When Marty McFly makes it back to 1985 in the final act of Back to the Future, he is reunited with his family, but they are different people now. His dad is a famous novelist, and his parents are smiling and happy, hanging on each other totally in love. Biff is also now the coward taking orders from a confident George. Meanwhile, Dave and Linda are dressed nicely, and eating breakfast, with Dave getting ready to go to his job at the office. Their confident and loving parents have created more confident children.

It’s a sweet ending, but when you stop to think about it, Back to the Future really is a tragedy. Marty is confused by their change, and that confusion is not going to go away after the end credits do. These people have lived a completely different life from the family Marty had. They might be better people, but they have different memories now. Everything Marty knows now never happened. That also means that the Marty they look at is a different person than the one they know. In this second timeline, Marty would have grown up with alternate parents, making him an alternate person from the Marty now standing in front of them. This family might be similar, they might be better people now, but it’s a lonely life for Marty, who now lives a life he was never part of.

Back to the Future is available to stream on Peacock in the U.S.

Watch on Peacock

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