‘Back to the Future’: What the critics said in 1985

“Back to the Future” has become beloved by people of all generations in the 30 years since its release. It”s a favorite, fun, feel-good movie that we turn to again and again on TV or on DVD. The film has made its way into movie-making history books and into Hollywood legend. Some movies do that slowly over their first three decades or with new popularity thanks to DVD releases. “Back to the Future” isn”t one of those movies. It was a hit from the start.

“Back to the Future,” which opened in theaters 30 years ago today, was the blockbuster king of 1985. The movie was #1 at the box office for 11 weekends and went on to make more than any other film in 1985.

Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. 

At least most of them did.

The biggest slam came for the scene at the end of the film in which Marty McFly gets his Toyota 4×4, and George McFly has a BMW. The Los Angeles Times wrote that this moment rang “hollow and materialistic.” Save your own existence? You get a car! A number of critics said similar, and Crispin Glover (who played George) is known to have complained to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale about that ending. Seems as though they were already in tune with what would get the 1980s later recognized as a decade of materialism. Zemeckis has said that if the film were made today, the ending would likely be different, but Gale defends the scene, contending that it shows that George is a successful and confident person in this altered timeline.

The praise, though, was heaped on “Back to the Future.” Critics called it “terrific,” “witty,” “giddy,” “imaginative,” “clever,” “wildly pleasurable.”

Read on for what critics had to say about the movie upon its release in 1985.

The Washington Post
“It's a wildly pleasurable sci-fi comedy, filled with enchantment and sweetness and zip as only a bona fide summer hit can be….Zemeckis brings energy to every scene — the way he brings the world right up against short, distorting lenses makes the screen seem like a windshield, and he has a flair for big-canvas cliffhangers.”

Los Angeles Times
“It's big, cartoonish and empty, with an interesting premise that is underdeveloped and overproduced…. There aren't enough bits of lovely inventiveness to pad out the gimmick that McFly is accidentally sent back 30 years in the professor's time-warp car.”

New York Times
“Mr. Zemeckis is able both to keep the story moving and to keep it from going too far. He handles 'Back to the Future' with the kind of inventiveness that indicates he will be spinning funny, whimsical tall tales for a long time to come.”

Peter Travers, for People Magazine
“Consistently compelling, witty and imaginative, this time-travel fantasy offers more rapturous fun than a gaggle of goonies…. Fox is smashing. He can reduce an audience to convulsive laughter simply by trying to convince a nonplussed citizen of the '50s that Ronald Reagan occupies the White House in 1985.”

The Seattle Times
“‘Back to the Future” is a Steven Spielberg time-travel comedy that”s so busy being clever that it trips over its own ingenuity. Even so, it might have been passable with a charming actor in the leading role. Unfortunately, the movie stars Michael J. Fox of television”s ‘Family Ties,” and he gives a television performance. He reads his lines, he doesn”t bump into the furniture, he isn”t embarrassing (except when he plays to the camera), but he is utterly unengaging.”

Gene Siskel, for the Chicago Tribune
“‘Back to the Future” has one unfortunate scene, a scene of violence involving a Libyan terrorist. That scene regrettably snaps us back to the present, but it doesn”t last long enough to disturb what is an otherwise jewel of an entertainment, a throwback to the classic Hollywood scripts of 40 or more years ago.”

The Boston Globe
“An uplifting reminder that Hollywood can still provide truly great entertainment. A faultless, exquisitely developed script and a perfect cast.”

Orlando Sentinel
“It's a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine whose parts connect in audacious, witty ways…. The stylization of Back to the Future is carried through in the film's flamboyant acting. As Marty, Michael J. Fox gives essentially the same sort of precisely calibrated performance he does on TV's ‘Family Ties.” A slightly airier portrayal might have been preferable (Marty's last name is McFly, after all), but Fox's work is effective and reliable.”

Leonard Maltin, for Entertainment Tonight
“‘Back to the Future” is a high energy film full of great ideas and good spirits…. ‘Back to the Future” takes a while to get going, but it actually gets better as it goes along, and the finale is a wow.”

San Francisco Chronicle
“A great deal of the film”s appeal is in the fresh-faced all-American boy look and charm of Michael J. Fox, a quality familiar to fans of his TV series, ‘Family Ties.” I just don”t know how all this sweetness will go down with a teenaged movie audience presumably gung-ho with ‘Rambo” – especially now that he”s got the presidential seal of approval. And that”s no joke, son!”

“The central winning elements in the scenario are twofold; hurtling the audience back to 1955, which allows for lots of comparative, pop culture humor, and delivering a 1985 teenager (Michael J. Fox) at the doorstep of his future parents when they were 17-year-old kids…. [The] film is also sharply anchored by zestful byplay between Fox”s Arthurian knight figure and Christopher Lloyd”s Merlin-like, crazed scientist.”

Roger Ebert, for the Chicago Sun-Times
“[Zemeckis] shows not only a fine comic touch but also some of the lighthearted humanism of a Frank Capra. The movie, in fact, resembles Capra”s ‘It”s a Wonderful Life” more than other, conventional time-travel movies.”

As a bonus, enjoy this Siskel & Ebert chat about “Back to the Future”:

For more of HitFix”s coverage commemorating the 30th anniversary of “Back to the Future,” set your time circuits to right on over here.