The 20 Best Summer Blockbusters of All Time: 'Back to the Future'

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Image Credit: Ralph Nelson

Imagine a twisted world in which Back to the Future, a zany fable starring Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly and John Lithgow as Doc Brown — a mad scientist with a pet chimpanzee — is released by Disney in May 1985. The film ends with Marty traveling to a nuclear test site in Nevada and escaping the past via time-traveling refrigerator.

Not to mix our references, but this would indeed be the darkest timeline.

Thankfully, script rewrites, casting changes, and the power of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment combined to transform that possible Back to the Future into the one that was actually released in July 1985 — featuring the pitch-perfect pair of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, as well as just the right mix of delightful sci-fi mumbo-jumbo (1.21 gigawatts of electricity!), instantly quotable dialogue (“So, why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here?”), and squicky edge (“You’re my ma….? But you’re so h… so… thin!“). From its clock-filled opening title sequence to that chills-inducing final frame — one of the best sequel setups of all time — Back to the Future is thoroughly enjoyable. But as a truly original popcorn flick with substance and style to spare? It’s damn near perfect.

So fasten your seat belts, folks, and prepare to be dazzled: Today, EW’s Summer Blockbuster Month continues with Robert Zemeckis’ magnum opus. And be careful — if my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious sh–.

Rank: 15

Release Date: July 3, 1985

Box Office: $210.6 million domestic ($11.2 million opening weekend), $381.1 million worldwide

Nothing could stop Doc Brown’s DeLorean in 1985, not even Sylvester Stallone — though he tried, twice, with both Rambo: First Blood Part II (the year’s second-highest grossing film) and Rocky IV (the year’s third-place finisher). Still, BttF easily slayed the competition, outearning Rambo alone by over $60 million. Look at the nitty-gritty numbers, and you’ll see just how much audiences loved this movie — its returned dropped by less than 10 percent each week for nearly a month, and on Labor Day Weekend (after a full two months in theaters), its returns actually increased from the previous week. That performance is even more impressive when you consider the film’s meager production budget — just $19 million. (Or $4.7 million, if we’re talking 1955 dollars.)

The Competition: Perhaps Back to the Future caught fire so quickly in part because it faced few direct threats. The only new flicks opening that same weekend were the environmentally-driven drama The Emerald Forest and Red Sonja, also known as the worst Schwarzenegger movie ever made. (Know who agrees? Arnold Schwarzenegger, that’s who.) The movie it pushed to the number 2 slot was Clint Eastwood’s western Pale Rider, a very different type of movie. Though Zemeckis’s masterpiece was kicked out of the number one spot three weeks later by European Vacation, the film regained its perch at the top of the charts the very next week — and remained there all the way until the weekend of Sept. 27-29, when Back to the Future was finally dethroned by Chuck Norris’ Invasion U.S.A. and the Jane Fonda melodrama Agnes of God, of all things. Bet America wishes it could travel back in time and fix that blunder.

What EW said: The magazine wouldn’t publish its first issue until 1990, so there’s no review for the franchise’s first film in our archives — though critic Owen Gleiberman did call the movie a “pop classic” in his (less-than-enthusiastic) review for Back to the Future Part III. But generally speaking, contemporary critics fawned over Back to the Future; it’s got a 96 percent “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, including strongly positive reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert (“charm, brains and a lot of laughter”) and Janet Maslin (“Back to the Future…takes this sweet, ingenious premise and really runs with it.”).

Cultural Impact Then: Lots of great summer blockbusters snag Oscar nominations in the technical categories — but Back to the Future actually managed to win one, taking home the statuette for Best Sound Effects Editing. What’s more, it was nominated for three additional Oscars: Best Song (“The Power of Love,” a smash hit that gave ’80s icons Huey Lewis and the News their first number one on the Billboard Hot 100), Best Sound Mixing, and, most encouragingly of all, Best Original Screenplay — setting apart BttF as the rare popcorn flick that’s not only visually spectacular but also ingeniously written.

Back to the Future also transformed Michael J. Fox from a phenomenally popular TV actor to a bona fide movie star. (Let’s put it this way: Without it, there’s no way Teen Wolf would have debuted at no. 2 in August of 1985.) Additionally, it helped launch the careers of Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson — and re-popularized skateboarding, at least according to producer and co-writer Bob Gale. Nothing speaks more to its popularity, though, than the shoutout BttF got in the 1986 State of the Union address from actor President Ronald Reagan himself: “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, ‘where we’re going, we don’t need roads.'”

Cultural Staying Power: I mean, Marty McFly invented rock and roll. How much more influential can you get?!

But seriously, folks: Due to Back to the Future‘s deserved success, it’s now impossible to see (much less write) a time travel story without having Doc Brown and Marty’s adventures in the back of your brain. And though each Back to the Future sequel had diminishing returns, the franchise is still beloved enough to provoke an online frenzy when, say, a hoax video briefly convinces the public that hoverboards (first seen in Back to the Future Part II) are real, or  when Twitter starts buzzing that today is the date that Marty visits the future (also in Part II. For future reference: The undoctored date is Oct. 21, 2015, so we’ve still got a ways to go). Beyond the movies, Back to the Future is a valuable brand that’s spawned everything from an animated TV series to a gaggle of video games to theme park ride to, of all things, a stage musical, set to debut sometime in 2015. (Might we suggest Oct. 21?)

Look past the literal, though, and you can see Back to the Future‘s wry mark on every brainy blockbuster comedy that followed in its wake. Would high-concept hits like Big or Beetlejuice exist without Bttf? Possibly — but it’s tough to deny that this film paved the way for clever, original fare that never underestimates the intelligence of its audience. And that, in the end, is the real reason Back to the Future won’t fade out of the pop culture picture anytime soon.


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