Thirty years after the film franchise launched, Back to the Future was yesterday's biggest news story thanks to one afterthought of a plot detail in Back to the Future II. October 21, 2015, was the day Doc and Marty went to in the future in BTTFII, and it was such an unavoidable talking point that even President Obama had to post about it on Twitter to distract us from the Benghazi hearings.
Like all major cultural touchstones, real or fictive, brands were trying to cash in left and right with tie-ins. Pepsi actually went and made a limited run of Pepsi Perfect that immediately sold out. Nike gave a pair of self-tying shoes to Michael J. Fox, who also reunited with Christopher Lloyd for a Toyota commercial. USA Today recreated the prop front page from the second movie. Carly Fiorina's Super PAC spent a lot of time creating an elaborate online parody. When everybody is trying to ride the coattails of a sequel that came out 26 years ago, you know you're dealing with a self-perpetuating pop-culture monster.
Nobody's really mocking the movie's predictions about the future, and for good reason: The series was never shooting for verisimilitude. It was an adventure-comedy so broad it begged you to imagine the theme-park ride and fast-food promotions that would go along with it. It used science as a slightly more grown-up word than "magic," sort of how a 50s B-movie would. It didn't try to get 2015 right; it didn't even try to get 1955 right. Time travel was just its hook for an absurdist roller coaster ride through American nostalgia.
Now the franchise itself is the subject of nostalgia, the type of ouroborosian irony the internet loves. But there's only one place where the online obsession manifested in meatspace: Los Angeles County, where the series was filmed.
Tons of movies film in LA, of course, but few blockbusters were so spiritually dominated by it. Look past everything that made it fun, and the Back to the Future series sold two ideas: how idyllic it was to be the product of America's easygoing suburban middle class, and unrepentant nostalgia. Walk around Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank for half an hour, and you'll see the place where both these ideas come home to roost. It's the picture postcard of 1950s Americana. Back to the Future may as well have been made by the city's board of tourism. So I decided to check out the scene where Back to the Future was actually made and see how this "holiday" was being celebrated in its own backyard.
First the obvious place: Marty McFly's house in Pacoima, a place with all the strip-mall amenities that identify a town as being part of the actual San Fernando Valley, where people work and live and probably aren't too invested in going out on auditions. Check-cashing places, a 7/11, discount cigarette stores, windows with lottery ads.
It seemed too intrusive to go anywhere near the McFly house. People in Pacoima have real lives and don't need stress from somebody with a camera trying to take an internet joke as far as humanly possible. I even parked one block over out of shame, pretending not to notice the barefoot guy in a lawn chair drinking a beer, presumably keeping an eye on tourists such as myself.
When I got to the house and saw three or four people with cameras not talking to each other, it felt lurid, like we were true-crime fans who got too obsessive about a murderer who lived there once. The cardboard box in the yard with the words "Please stay off!!" didn't help. I felt shady, voyeuristic, and ridiculous. And that was before three 30-something dudes in Back to the Future shirts piled out of a Mustang to get their picture in front of the garage.
One woman said she had come all the way from Arizona to drive out to all the filming locations. She mentioned the Puente Hills Mall as "the place to be," so I headed there next. It was clear across the county, 40 miles away in the City of Industry, and while it seemed vaguely illegal to be near the house, a public mall was like Back to the Future Day's Disneyland.
There were news crews getting crowd footage and conducting interviews, during which excited fans said things like, "It's really a movie about hope, about getting the chance to do it all over again." The mall had been modestly redecorated. Doc Brown's van was in the parking lot, and somebody put up a "Twin Pines Mall" sign, which had people lining up into the street for photo ops. The biggest fans brought vests and makeshift hoverboards. There was no nerdy side-eyeing to see whose costumes were superior, just a bunch of people excited that something cool was going on in a mall parking lot.
Then I went on to Doc Brown's house, which is actually the Gamble House in Pasadena. It's renowned by architects for being big and beautiful, and surrounded by the nicest neighborhood you've ever seen, where the houses are so tasteful and livable you'd have to be a Columbo villain of the week to afford living there. It was very low-key. Somebody set up a booth to sell T-shirts. A tour van ushered a few people out and then back in.
Stunningly, given that I was in LA, where every ridiculous car is still on the road, I had yet to see Back to the Future's third-biggest star—an actual DeLorean.
Then the last stop. The most routine 1980s location of the entire series: the Burger King Marty skateboards past on his way to Doc's house, on Victory Boulevard in Burbank. Not much of the movie was shot there, but Burbank, with its quaint nostalgic strip malls and humble but staggeringly expensive houses in which to raise your anachronistic nuclear family, is the birthplace of Marty McFly and Walt Disney's mythic middle class.
The whole street looks about like it did in the 80s, if a little more ragged. The Toys "R" Us is still there, and the Burger King, although it's closed for remodeling. Lots of people were gathered there for the "Million McFly March," where you could wear vests for Parkinson's research. A few were even dressed up like Doc and Marty. Two were outfitted with cardboard DeLoreans. One guy was distributing Re-Elect Mayor "Goldie" Wilson fliers.
The fact that people were earnestly still excited about this movie speaks to its insane staying power. This is a series that, by courting nostalgia for America's postcard past, inspires it in fans, even though it ended 25 years ago and will never come back barring some hellish, ill-advised reboot featuring Justin Bieber riding around on an IO Hawk.
What fans are buying, of course, is total escapism. The Back to the Future franchise was not made by Disney, but it might as well have been. It's unabashed boomer sentimentalism. It's a Reagan-era take on 50s nostalgia, an unsustainably prosperous country getting misty-eyed about its equally prosperous apple-pie-on-the-windowsill past. With Back to the Future's last burst of international prominence now over, after years of slow-burning internet hype, we can admit that it's a dated suburban fairytale and revels in a kind of middle-class leisure that is going away fast.
But it does it with so much damn joy. Sure, there's the idea of danger, but there's no dramatic tension at all—you know that in 90 minutes you'll get off and be alive. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd have unrivaled, Laurel and Hardy level put-it-in-the-books chemistry. And the movies they made will make people forget their doom long after the last boomer shuffles off the planet. That's gotta be worth something.
See more photos from Back to the Future Day below.
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