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Sorcha Ní Fhlainn’s collection offers a dozen critical essays on the Back to the Future film trilogy (1985–90) by scholars from several fields in the humanities and the arts. The essays are fruitful both in their individual interpretations of the films and collectively as a demonstration of the range of strategies that a critical reader of popular culture might bring to bear upon a paradigmatic mainstream object.
As several of the contributors in this collection point out, the trilogy has not previously received much attention from academic critics, despite having achieved, as Ní Fhlainn writes in her detailed and informative introduction, ‘a cultural status that precious few other 1980s films could claim’ (1). Indeed, to date, Andrew Gordon’s fine psychoanalytic reading, which opens the collection and is the only essay to have appeared elsewhere, is one of the few serious academic treatments of Back to the Future (Zemeckis US 1985); as such, it is cited by several of the other contributors. Given this dearth, Ní Fhlainn’s goal for the book is pointedly corrective, as she implies with her introduction’s punning title, ‘It’s About Time’ (Back to the Future has of course been a prolific [End Page 140] begetter of puns). She aims to ‘provide a multi-focal representation of the trilogy from differing and interdisciplinary perspectives’ and to ‘widen the scope of academic writing on’ it (3). The collection largely achieves this goal, levying upon the Future trilogy an unprecedented measure of theoretical attention and exegetical precision. However – and I wish to be clear that I consider this a laudable aspect of the collection, not a flaw – the contributors as a group seem unsure whether the Back to the Future franchise represents a uniquely rich and significant cultural landmark or an entirely typical and symptomatic incarnation of the cultural milieu that spawned it. Such uncertainty is fitting. Back to the Future should probably be viewed as an amalgam of both contraries – say, a ‘uniquely representative’ document of the Reagan era and its legacy in American thinking and imagery.
In keeping with such a constructive ambivalence, more than half the essays (including Ní Fhlainn’s introduction) choose to read Back to the Future’s ‘innate and problematic … conservatism’ (49) as an instrument for examining the peculiar backward-looking futurism of 1980s American politics. Specifically, this is the 1980s of mainstream Reaganism, for which, as Elizabeth McCarthy puts it, ‘complicated social problems will be magically solved by some external source’ (146). In the realm of politics, magical thinking takes the form of oversimplification and reduction, and as a demonstration of its practical effects or constraints on popular narrative, all of the Back to the Future films (but especially the first one) are exemplary. Even the cute juxtaposition of 1980s and 1950s life – instantaneously achieved with the famous DeLorean time machine and therefore ‘as easy … as changing channels on your television set or pressing rewind or fast forward on your VCR remote’ (221) – is both the symptom and the exploitation of a fantasy at the core of Reaganism: that contemporary culture might be immediately revitalised by some kind of return to the 1950s, of which a repurified 1980s would be the natural consequence. Of course, ‘1950s’ here can mean only a thoroughly fantastical apparition of that decade, ‘idyllic and unspoiled’ (136) by such nuisances as racism, sexism, war, and mass-cultural delusion; at best, these films invoke ‘signifiers that suggest meaning but which resist plenitude’, in Stephen Matterson’s nice phrase (65). More precisely, as both Matterson and McCarthy astutely argue, the time-travelling ‘return’ of Back to the Future – in whichever direction it is pursued in a given scene, from the future to the past or back again to the future – ‘determinedly ignor[es]’ the 1960s (71). Indeed, it ignores the entire ‘post-1955 landscape’ (65), which is implicitly cast as that ‘wrong turn in American history’ (137) that included the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, second-wave feminism, and any number of...