Sunday 18 February 2018

Back to the Future Day: What did iconic film get right about 2015?

It's October 21, 2015. Marty and Doc will be arriving in their DeLorean any moment. We examine if the reality lives up to the 1980s time-travel flick

Michael J Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future II, holding his hoverboard.
Michael J Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future II, holding his hoverboard.
Michael J Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future II, holding his hoverboard.
Nike's Air Mag, with its self-tying shoelaces.

Cole Moreton

Where's my flying car? The skies are meant to be full of them. Where are the hoverboards? Why are we still tying our own shoelaces.

"Great Scott! There must be a disturbance in the space-time continuum!" If you have no idea what I'm talking about, then you are either living in a parallel universe or have somehow escaped all the hype, because today is Back to the Future Day. This is the date to which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel in the enormously popular 1980s movie Back To The Future II: October 21, 2015.

"The day is coming. We are living in the future they predicted," says television presenter Jason Bradbury, one of the many Futureheads around the world who is celebrating today. There's even a website that has been counting down to the exact moment.

What's all the fuss about? Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were great as Marty and Doc but this was still a cheesy 1980s sci-fi flick.

What did it get right and what did it get wrong about the future we now live in? And why does it mean so much to people?

There is nobody better to ask than a man who presents The Gadget Show on the UK's Channel 5, wears daft glasses and has spent a great deal of his own money building a super-accurate replica of the nuclear DeLorean used as a time machine in the film.

Bradbury bought a mint-condition DMC-12 from an owner in Belfast, where the cars were made before DeLorean went bust in 1982. Then he took it to a manufacturing firm called KMF in Stoke, England where it worked wonders to create a vintage version of new technology.

Now strange things happen when he punches a date from the past into the LED display on the dashboard and cranks the DeLorean up to exactly 88 miles per hour (the speed at which time travel is achieved in the film).

"The Flux Capacitor starts to pulse. There's a huge noise generated by the 800-watt speaker system I have put in there and the flux bands on the outside of the car start to glow as if you are passing through time. The display leaps forward to the here and now."

Speed cops would have their minds blown, if they ever saw it.

"I have only done it once on the open road," says Bradbury sheepishly. "It was in the middle of the night on the way from Stoke to Lincolnshire, on the M6. I picked a stretch of motorway where there were no cameras."

That's probably just as well. "People's reactions are incredible. They hang out of their car windows whilst they are going along, trying to get a selfie with it. I can't think of a cultural object that has the same powerful effect on people, apart from the Batmobile."

Then there's the hoverboard. Lexus unveiled one earlier in the year, but it only worked on a hidden track. Now a company in California has made a board using powerful electromagnets to hover and move freely across a metal floor.

The Hendo 2 has been designed by skate champion Tony Hawks to look like a skateboard. The launch is today, of course.

Marty McFly, however, would also be amused by the fans who are likely to turn up at screenings across the world today dressed in copies of the self-drying jacket from the film (advances in waterproofing mean we don't really need those, but I did once see a man in the gents trying to improvise with a Dyson Blade). This week we will have to endure a tsunami of promotions from the super-brands involved in the Back to the Future series, the best - or worst - example of product placement in the movies, ever.

Pepsi is bringing out a limited edition version of the Pepsi Perfect soda in the film; and Nike is promising to finally deliver on a pair of Mag hi-top sneakers with motors so the laces tie themselves, for those who are just too cool to bend down.

All this fuss for a cartoonish romp through time and space. Think of a sentimental - but rampantly commercial - American version of a 1980s Doctor Who with Doc as the Doc and Marty as the idiotic but cute sidekick and you are pretty much there, although it is also fun. And to some people it means far more than just a movie, as Jason Bradbury tries to explain.

"I've been obsessing about this since I was 16, when I saw Back to the Future at the cinema. For a teenager, the only New Romantic in the village, it was quite a revelation," says Bradbury.

The film came out long before the internet. There were no smartphones back then. Tablets were what you swallowed with jam, and apples were still things that grew on trees.

"We had almost no consumer technology at all in those days." But here was a movie that predicted a world of wonders.

"Back to the Future II connected with me on a visceral level. So many of the things they predicted in that movie came true," Bradbury adds.

For a start, there are screens absolutely everywhere in their version of 2015. We all know they got that right. The movie shows Marty getting fired by his boss over what looks very like Skype or FaceTime, on the kind of wall-mounted flat screen that used to be a fantasy but can now be found piled high at a landfill site near you. They pay with thumbprint recognition identical to that used on the iPhone 6. Doc looks through a handheld device that is the spitting image of an iPhone, giving him ­information about the things he can see. ­Augmented reality is ­available with many apps now.

But he's not using a phone, says the screenwriter and co-producer of the trilogy, Bob Gale; the smartphone "is the Swiss army knife of today. The fact that everyone can have one device that's a computer, that's a camera, that's a recording device, that's a calculator, that's a flashlight... we didn't think of that."

Quite where the information on Doc's device comes from is not explained. They did not predict the internet - but let's be generous and say there is an unspoken theory of electronic connectivity in the film, from the curtains to the car. Scientists and gadget-makers are working on that today and call it the Internet of Everything.

Doc also wears a visor with augmented reality, comparable to Google Glass. It looks about as unsociable as Google glasses too.

Marty gets spooked by a giant hologram of a shark that is an advertisement for Jaws 19. Meanwhile, in the real world, Universal has just released a fake trailer for that same movie, promising it will be better than Jaws 17: Fifty Scales of Grey.

Meanwhile, Japanese researchers are using superfast lasers to create plasma holograms you can touch and move; and the 3D movies that seemed so amazing have become passé.

Doc Brown predicts the modern cosmetic surgery industry when he says in the movie: "I went to a rejuvenation clinic and got an all-natural overhaul.

"They took out some wrinkles, did a hair repair, changed the blood, added a good 30 to 40 years to my life. They also replaced my spleen and colon. What do you think?"

Gee Doc, I think you're gonna love the Italian neuroscientist Sergio Canavero who says he will carry out the first head transplant in China in 2017.

But there is a poignancy about that scene, given that a rejuvenation clinic would really help Michael J Fox right now. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991.

He has faced the disease of the nervous system with grace and determination but his appearances alongside his younger self in this anniversary year have been a reminder of the toll it takes.

His comic touch remains though, as shown in a short new film clip in which he and Lloyd sit in a diner discussing the movie. "Can you believe we said fax machines would still be around?"

This being Back to the Future, it's an ad for Toyota.

We haven't got dog-walking robots yet, as Fox points out, but drones are everywhere. They blow up villages in Afghanistan. Using them to walk dogs would be better.

The writer Robert ­Zemeckis was wary of being trapped by his predictions: "The ­problem with doing movies in the future is that you always are wrong. You underestimate it. We just figured out a way to make it all into jokes."

They also, accidentally, created a film that had a cultural and personal impact way beyond their imagining. For one thing, it told teenagers terrified by the prospect of nuclear holocaust at the time that it was OK, they would still be able to fall in love in future.

"For people in their forties, Back to the Future represents a good time in our lives. The film gave positive messages about the future," says Bradbury, who has a deeply personal attachment to the DeLorean project as much as the movie.

"My father thought he was presiding over the end of manufacturing when he ran a plastics factory. He's dead now, bless him. I wish he was alive to see this, because KMF are an example of a real renaissance in engineering."

But most of all, he says, Back To The Future II serves to demonstrate the huge changes in technology and lifestyle that some of us have lived through, which we don't get to talk about often.

"Not only did we see it coming, but we worked hard at making it happen," says Bradbury. "We are often made to feel old or less relevant because we grew up in a world without computers, but we have come through a great change and that is worthy of respect. Back to the Future gives us a way of expressing that."

So the dial has reached ­October 21, 2015 then Doc, we're coming home. Even if it's not in a flying car.

Irish Independent

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