Back to the Future: Beyond Nostalgia? – Blaine Grimes

Posted: June 12, 2014 by jperritt in Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Tags: , ,



back-to-the-futureI was introduced to Back to the Future when I was about nine or ten years old. I loved that movie; and for a two or three month stretch, I watched it at least once a week. It is no surprise, then, that Back to the Future is one of my all-time favorite films, with my appreciation of it increasing over the years. Incredibly intricate, yet virtually free of plot holes, Back to the Future—thanks to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale—boasts one of the best screenplays ever written. Simply put, it is the Hollywood style narrative at its best. These stylistic and formal elements deserve to be written about, but that is not what I’m going to do in this post; nor am I going to discuss time travel, our desire to change the past, and the sovereignty of God (Brian Sorgenfrei has already written an excellent post on the latter topic, and I recommend it to you). Instead, I am going to briefly analyze the use of nostalgia in Back to the Future[1]. One of the many ways in which this film succeeds is in its ability to show the shortcomings and short-sightedness of an overly nostalgic worldview.

For a 90s kid watching an 80s movie centered in the 50s, Back to the Future is a quintessentially nostalgic experience. The film, for me, sparked an interest in all things Untitled 21950s—in soda shops, Coke in a bottle, classic cars, Chuck Berry, and like things. Of course, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wouldn’t have it any other way; they intended to invoke nostalgic feelings in the viewer. In the first act we are introduced to an old courthouse that houses a broken clock, which, as the lady from the Hill Valley Preservation Society tells Marty, is an important piece of history. It’s a reminder of the way things were back in the good ol’days. In addition, Marty’s mom, Lorraine, bemoans the state of the dating culture: “I think it’s terrible! Girls chasing boys. When I was your age I never chased a boy or called a boy or sat in a parked car with a Untitled 3boy.”All of this nostalgic reminiscing is contrasted with the Mayor’s initiative to replace the clock tower—erasing part of the town’s history—and the run-down Hill Valley High School, with its graffiti-stained exterior. According to the older characters in the film, things just aren’t the same anymore. There once was a time when everyone was an upstanding citizen, when the world was right; but now, it’s 1985, and everything has changed so much.

Untitled 4What follows is a series of brilliantly executed cinematic reversals in which Zemeckis and Gale overturn and destroy all of the nostalgic notions of the past that they worked so hard to establish in the first act. Marty learns that he and his dad both struggle with a fear of rejection. He learns that his ostensibly moralistic mother liked to drink and smoke in high school; and he is forced to face reality when his 1955 mother proudly declares, “it’s not like I’ve never parked before.”By spending a week in the past, Marty McFly realizes that although the times may have changed, the problems are fundamentally the same. He has a lot more in common with his parents than he cares to admit. In the end, it turns out that the past wasn’t as glorious as it was made out to be. The 1950s nostalgia was nothing more than a facade. Back to the Future does indeed give us a somewhat idyllic and romanticized version of the past—especially at first; but it Untitled 5does not stop there. Back to the Future takes us beyond nostalgia to a place where we can learn from the past.

I do not mean to imply in my analysis that society is incapable of decaying or getting worse; for clearly that is not the case. My point is not to encourage Reel Thinking readers to avoid reminiscing and purge all happy memories of the past. Collin Hansen is absolutely correct when he says that “[r]emembering the past is good and biblical.[2]”In other words, as Christians, we should think about the past. The life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ are historical events. The problem is not the past itself, but having an overly nostalgic conception of it. Consider Collin Hansen’s admonition:

[N]ostalgia is the enemy of faith. By lamenting the good ‘ole days, nostalgia tempts us to forsake the present day as beyond the scope of God’s redemption, out of reach from his intervention[3].

Don’t be like Lorraine, always touting the supremacy of bygone eras. Let us learn from brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us; let us learn not only from their successes but also from their sins and failures. This is exactly what Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to do. Yes, he points out that the Israelites “drank from the spiritual Rock [Christ],”but he also mentions that “God was not pleased”with many of them (1 Cor. 10:4,5). “[T]hese things,”Paul says under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did”(10:6). We must remember the past and think about it. We should acknowledge our heroes of the faith, but not idolize them. Let us learn from the successes and shortcomings of the “cloud of witnesses”(Hebrews 12:1). Back to the Future is just a small reminder that getting stuck in the past can be dangerous business.


[1] Oxford Dictionaries defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.”

[2] Collin Hansen:

[3] Ibid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s