A Father, A Son, Identity and Back to the Future 3
A 30th Anniversary screening of Back to the Future leads a writer to confront his identity and his dad.
Back to the Future 3 places me into an odd mindset 30 years later. In its innate nostalgia for the western, Back to the Future 3 took me to a place of examining the things that my father embraced as a young man, the kinds of things I thought that I had rejected in creating a personality separate from my father. In this review/essay, Back to the Future 3 will be the vehicle with which I will examine maturity, childhood, identity and my relationship with my father, abstractly of course, I would need a therapist to tackle the subject directly.
Let’s establish the plot for context before we dig into the more esoteric aims of this essay. Back to the Future 3 is the third film in one of the most beloved comedy franchises in history. Say what you will about the overall quality of the three Back to the Future films, each created and directed by Robert Zemeckis, they’re undoubtedly beloved among a large swath of the pop culture fandom. The names Doc Brown and Marty McFly are etched into the collective memories of millions of people.
Back to the Future takes the time traveling fun of Back to the Future 1 & 2 even further into the past. The third movie is set in the old west with all of the classic tropes of saloons, gunfights and school marms on display. At the end of Back to the Future 2, the heroic Doc Brown found his Delorean struck by lightning which sent him careening back to the old west where he’s become trapped as he has no parts to repair the time machine.
Because he’s a genius, Doc hatches the plan to write a letter to his friend Marty McFly that arrives moments after Marty saw Doc struck by lightning. In the letter is the location of the Delorean in the past, locked away in an old mine shaft. Marty, trapped in 1955, races back to the moment of the ending of the first Back to the Future, the old clock tower where Doc Brown has just sent him back to the future, 1985.
Marty needs Doc’s help to retrieve the Delorean from the mine-shaft, fix it up and make it travel through time again. Marty intends on going to the old west to save Doc who we find out is going to be killed less than a week into his time in the old west by the legendary gunfighter, Buford Tannen, Biff’s long ago relative. The plan works but the Delorean is damaged and Doc and Marty must come up with a modern tech plan using what’s on hand in the old west, all while dodging the Buford Tannen gang.
For years, I convinced myself that I didn’t like Back to the Future 3. I created a portion of my identity based specifically on rejecting the nostalgia of the old west. Nostalgia for the old west, from my perspective, as a much younger man, was the nostalgia of my father’s generation. They had afternoon TV filled with The Lone Ranger and trips to the local dime ticket theater to watch endless loops of Roy Rogers and Trigger.
The old west is the nostalgia point of my father’s generation and I defined myself by rejecting the things my father has nostalgia for. That’s not me making any groundbreaking statement. Most kids define themselves by rejecting the things that their parents embraced. My dad loves to Golf and when I courted his approval at a young age, I liked golf. When I wanted to define myself apart from him, I quit playing golf.
This type of mental association of a thing with another thing can be conscious or subconscious. In the case of both westerns and golf, it took becoming a more mature and thoughtful adult for me to realize that I had rejected these things not because there was anything inherently wrong with golf or westerns, they were associated with my father, a person I was eager to have distance from for many complicated and not so complicated reasons.
All children will find something that they associate with their parents and even if that child loves their parents and considers them a positive force in their life, they will use signifiers such as pop culture ephemera that mom and dad enjoyed and specifically reject it. It’s the same growth process that goes with liking things you know your parents won’t enjoy, all children whether with intent or not, seek ways in which to create themselves separate from their parents.
It’s the search for identity. It can be expressed in a manner of dress, love for a style of music or in choosing opposing political or religious ideals. Whether you know it or not, you’ve done this in your own life as you created the person you are today. For me, it was rejecting golf, westerns, The History Channel and the Green Bay Packers. For you it could be an embrace of Donald Trump as a reaction to your parents being Clinton Democrats. The point is, we all do it.
Back to the Future 3 brought me to this line of thought because I realize now how unnecessary such rejection is. I was always going to become my own man and define my life away from my parents. It was inevitable that I would embrace things that my parents would not. New things are created year after year, I was inevitably going to take to one of these newfangled fads and my parents were inevitably going to reject it or, more often than not, ignore my new fascination entirely. (Case in point, my father doesn’t know what the WWE is.)
In defining myself away from my father so specifically as to reject a genre of film he enjoyed, I closed myself off to the idea that I could enjoy westerns for years and convinced myself that Back to the Future 3 was the worst of that franchise solely for the old west setting. It wasn’t until I saw the movie Open Range in 2003, on assignment as a critic, that I realized I could like westerns. Open Range is a hell of a good movie and it somehow overcame the entirety of my anti-western bias in a single showing.
From there, the next big moment in my western evolution came when I saw 3:10 to Yuma, the modern remake from director James Mangold and starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. That film was one of my Top 10 favorite movies of 2007 and that movie led me to finally watch Unforgiven and High Noon and the barriers completely came down on the genre for me. I embraced the Eastwood western and even bonded with my father over Sergio Leone.
Back to the Future 3 is no real western of course but viewing it for the latest episode of the Everyone’s a Critic Podcast did bring down one final barrier in my evolution. Without consciously realizing it, I had kept up my disdain for Back to the Future 3 as a remnant of my past aversion to the genre. Watching it again was surprisingly emotional as I had the revelations that I am sharing with you in this essay.
After 30 years of pretending I didn’t like Back to the Future 3, I now realize the real reason why I’d never given the movie a chance. My desire to define myself away from my father and his generation kept me at an emotional distance from a movie that did not deserve that kind of weighty psychological barrier. Back to the Future 3 has many flaws but having it be a barrier between me and my father should not be a reason to reject it.
It turns out, if you confront your immature feelings and get to the heart of your issues you can open yourself up to things you did not expect. In this case, I’ve finally opened myself up to the joyful, humorous, genuinely exciting fun of Back to the Future 3. It turns out that this movie is a lot of fun if you’re not trying to hold it to an impossible standard of keeping you at a distance from your father.