Today is October 21st 2014. That means in 365 days it will be October 21st 2015. A date of immense significance, at least in terms of fictional future narratives, as it is that date on which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) arrives in a future Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II.
The Back to the Future films continue to cast a long popular culture shadow, the kind of mainstream family-friendly adventure comedy that only really exists nowadays in animated form or as long as a superhero is involved, Guardians of the Galaxy probably the closest example (and it can’t have escaped studios that a large part of its success was down to finally releasing a film that was actually ‘fun’). As a cornerstone of nostalgic entertainment among the current generation, it’s only parallel is probably Ghostbusters in terms of popularity. And while BTTF2 is generally considered the weakest of the trilogy, its reputation is unfair considering just how much it manages to cover in its running time – including an alternative present (technically past at the time of release) and a clever intricate return to the 1955 stomping grounds of the first film.
But it is in its depiction of a future 30 years from Marty’s time that the film remains most memorable. Indeed, it’s arguably the most popular segment of all three films, and a large part of the success of the section, and the trilogy as a whole, can be put down to that date. In the past couple of years, a spate of memes circulated, tricking people into thinking that today’s date was the day Marty arrived in the future. There are even websites set up specifically to both generate your own hoax-date or to countdown to the actual date that appears in the film, while istodaythedaymartymcflyarriveswhenhetravelstothefuture.com is pretty self-explanatory.
However, I’m not so much interested in this being one year before the events of BTTF2, or to demand where my hoverboard is, or wonder how we’re possibly going to squeeze in 15 Jaws films within 12 months. Rather, my interests lie in asking: why this date? Why is it so important to us?
Other pop culture properties mention key dates and would have been ripe for jokey anticipation. In Terminator 2, Judgment Day is set for August 28th, 1997. But there wasn’t so much hoo-ha when that came and went, perhaps because while a fictional SkyNet should’ve been waging war against mankind, our own internet access wasn’t quite as extensive, and meme culture was hardly widespread. Besides, it was all superseded by the very real (okay, not so real) threat of Y2K.
And once 2015 has been and gone, we still have the world of Blade Runner (November 2019) to look forward to. But we don’t get endless Shortlist articles asking when we can expect to have our own ESPERs, or when off-world colonies will be set up, or synthetic owls will be available to the rich and powerful.
These are more adult examples obviously, but that’s not to say that fascination with the future of BTTF2 is purely an exercise in nostalgia. Yesterday’s kids may be the grown-ups of today, and so they bring with them their own childhood experiences and interests. But I was already working out I would be 30 by the time BTTF2 rolled around when I first saw it, about 4 or 5 years old. The anticipation for that future was an instantaneous one, not something that has happened as it has gotten closer, at least for me. Then again, I once got my Dad to drive at 88mph on the motorway in the hope we would travel back in time (of course, forgetting we didn’t even have a flux capacitor). Even still, will kids count the days until the events of their favourite films are set to take place? Do films set in the future even have dates now? I must admit I have stopped paying attention. A generic THE FUTURE or 20XX may suffice, but there is something about having a specific date that both maintains interest in the run up to calendars aligning, as well as seems kind of cute in retrospect. If sci-fi films of the 90s, 80s, 70s and earlier are to be believed, the world should have ended/been invaded/turned into a maximum security prison several times over by now (something retro-futuro parody game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon plays on with its tagline: “The year is 2007. It is the future”). 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey carry with them a potency in their titles, even after the titular years have long passed, as they represent something about the time in which they written, as well as suggesting a milestone as part of a wider framework, the greater progress of civilisation and mankind’s journey.
Maybe it’s because none of these future visions are quite as much fun and optimistic as Hill Valley, 2015. It’s highly unlikely that Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale would’ve expected the fanciful creations of BTTF2 would come to pass in the timeframe allotted (though an 80’s revival and hands free videogaming are totally things right now). Flying cars and rehydrating pizza machines and self-tying Nikes are pure wish fulfilment, whereas the near-futures seen in the likes of Blade Runner and Children of Men, while even more vivid and detailed, are hardly happy and hopeful.
All this though is probably missing the key point, in that the Back to the Future films are all about time-travel. The dates are more than just a nominal background setting or arbitrary dressing, but foregrounded and essential to the narrative. The closest equivalent I can think of when it comes to time-travel comedy adventures of the period are probably the Bill and Ted films, and while the San Dimas of 2691 A.D. as depicted in the start of Bogus Journey is amusing in its dayglo aesthetic, it’s just not as intrinsic to the story nor is enough time spent in that period to really make an impact. Plus, 600 years into the future is just not as tangible. Watching BTTF2 as a kid, knowing that, all things being well, I would experience that date in my lifetime, fired off more sparks in my imagination. I won’t even be around to see the establishment of Bill and Ted University (2425 A.D. if you must know).
And so, in just one year’s time, that burning sense of anticipation, of childhood wonder, will have been extinguished by the cold hard wind of reality. But hey, let’s not end on a downer! Let me know what’s the next future date to look forward to. What might I have missed?