It would seem like this week was the perfect time to debut Back in Time, the crowdfunded documentary focused on the Back to the Future movies and their fans. Wednesday was “Back to the Future Day,” an occasion to celebrate the trilogy based on a significant date in the plot of the second installment (the day traveled to by the main characters in the then “future” year of 2015). And this doc, released digitally online on that date ahead of a theatrical tour next month, was a part of that celebration.
Unfortunately, it’s an unnecessary part, bringing nothing of value to the table, and like the rest of Back to the Future Day, it’s now a thing of the past, a fleeting party favor to be briefly excited about now to be left in the past. It’s disappointingly dated just days after its unveiling. And much of it was actually obsolete years before its making. Yet even if it did offer more than what you could easily know and see without its existence, the main problem of Back in Time isn’t its stale material. It’s that the film is all over the place with its attempt to touch all the bases of the Back to the Future legacy and phenomenon.
Divided into chapters as if that helps compartmentalize the broad scope of the film, Back in Time wants to be a history of the production of the Back to the Future movies, as well as its soundtrack; and a look at its fans and their nostalgic conventions and screening events; and a nod to its influence on and continued relevance to pop culture; and an exploration of the related interest in antique DeLorean DMC-12 cars; and a spotlight on The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research; and an update on technologies “promised” in Back to the Future Part II that are still not quite here in the actual 2015.
It’s that last segment, limited in its address of only flying cars and hoverboards, that dates the doc the most. We hear about recent efforts in hoverboard tech and plans to release real products inspired by those in the 1989 movie all the time, especially this year. In a matter of a few months, we’ll likely see more, which will make footage of skating legend Tony Hawk riding a Hendo hoverboard prototype — shot and initially seen by many in the fall of 2014 — even less exciting. And there’s no need to show anything calling itself a “flying car” today. Acknowledgement that the filmmakers knew they wouldn’t really exist by 2015 and an astute comment from actress Lea Thompson on the societal reason flying cars will never be a common part of our world is all that’s needed to stay on track with focus on the films and what keeps them feeling timeless.
With fandom docs, there’s always the argument that they’re critic proof, that they’re of interest to the fanbase regardless of their quality. That’s true to a degree. Back in Time, like others, doesn’t have to be a superbly crafted piece of cinematic art. It just needs to be about things that the fans like and want to see. But this is actually a glossy looking program, just not well-edited, and it has a lot that the fans won’t necessarily like or want to see. There’s a ton of filler that should have been cut, particularly during some of the long-winded and irrelevant tangents heard from interviewees discussing the making of the original Back to the Future movie.
There’s no need for it to seem that every word uttered out of screenwriter Bob Gale’s mouth while on camera made it into the finished film. Even if some of the extraneous trivia is of interest to some fans, all of it is certainly already out there in some capacity, given all the books, websites, DVD special features and more devoted to this property over the past 30 years. That’s great that director Jason Aron was able to lure in everyone from Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg to stars Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to minor cast members Claudia Wells and Jeffrey Weissman to famous fan Dan Harmon, but as is always the rule, you can’t just include the “gets” to include them, just because you got them. Every part of a film needs to be utterly essential to the whole.
What the whole is here is the big question, though, and there being no answer other than, quite generally, “it’s a doc about Back to the Future and its fandom” is the fault. Anything would seem to be relevant if not also necessary to such an unfocused production. There is no unifying theme, thesis, narrative or study, nor is there any truly exclusive content or experience to share with the viewer. Back in Time allows for points to be dug out of its mess, such as the hinted at special relationship between the people who made the Back to the Future trilogy and the people passionate about it, where they feed one another and share in the resultant mutual respect and satisfaction. Of course, that too could be better gleaned from the collective conception of and participation in Back to the Future Day.