WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Groggy. Didn’t get much sleep. Kinda moody. Eating Milano cookies.
Fact: your favorite movie has a scene you enjoy less than the others. You don’t necessarily hate it or find it irritating, and maybe you never realized it bothered you before, but it’s there. For me, it’s the amplifier scene in Back to the Future.
Ha. It’s big.
I know, it’s almost the very first scene. Ever since I was a kid, it just felt out of place for me. Marty turns the amplifier on, blows it up, and… enough cheesy ’80s shenanigans, let’s move our actual story along now. In such a tightly structured film with a ridiculous amount of setups and payoffs woven in, it feels like the only scene that never comes up again.
So, today’s mission: punch this puzzle piece into place. What is the amplifier’s significance in the story as a whole?
One thing that didn’t click with me for years is that the amplifier’s controls are a bit of a fake-out to audiences seeing the movie for the first time. They’ve just established that we’re in some kooky inventor’s home, there are clocks all over the walls and “future” is in the title… by the time you see all these switches and knobs, hell yeah, kid, fire up that time machine!
Just need to adjust the Bachman-Turner levels here…
Only after every single setting on the contraption is cranked to capacity does the camera finally pull back to reveal that it’s actually a huge amplifier, and, in fairness, it’s a fantastic tension build. But it’s all contained in that one scene, with no bearing on later events. Hey, wait a minute, did you catch that label?
Did the labelmaker jam or something?
For those of you who haven’t been buying books on director trademarks and cinematic Easter eggs since age nine, “CRM 114″ is a serial number that Stanley Kubrick likes to stick in his movies for no discernible reason. The number is on a bottle of serum (sound it out) in A Clockwork Orange, it’s supposedly on a pod in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it originated as the name of a radio device in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
What does this label tell us? That Stanley Kubrick secretly worked on this film? No, dropping a “114” into your movie has grown beyond a Kubrick trademark; you can find it in several films and TV shows, from Men in Black 3 to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Yes, I even spotted one in Top Gun last year. So it really only tells us that somebody involved in the production is a cheeky film buff. But go back to the serial number’s origins: Dr. Strangelove, a dark comedy about atomic war. While Back to the Future isn’t nearly as dark, a reference to Strangelove certainly adds to the pile of nuclear symbolism in the movie, especially after we’ve already seen a news broadcast about plutonium and a case of radioactive materials under Doc’s bed.
Of course, in the world of the movie, why did Doc label it “CRM 114,” and how does that affect the story? No idea, let’s blow this amp.
Hey, look, something Doc built put Marty in harm’s way. Imagine that. Well, at least it was kind of funny.
Honestly, though, doesn’t that one scene set the tone for the rest of the movie? This kid’s gonna get in trouble because he hangs out with a scientist who invents really powerful, really dangerous shit… but we’re gonna have a few laughs along the way, everybody, don’t you worry. Still, did it have to be a cartoonishly enormous, totally ’80s amplifier? Couldn’t it have been some other invention?
No, because the giant amplifier is a perfect symbol of Doc and Marty’s friendship.
The neighbors will complain about it until it dies?
From a storytelling standpoint, the amplifier doesn’t teach us anything about Doc and Marty that we don’t find out in other scenes. We’ve already witnessed all of the malfunctioning gadgets in Doc’s house, so we know he’s a crazy inventor with a high rate of failure. As for Marty, we see him compete in the Battle of the Bands a few scenes later, which establishes him as a guitarist who likes his rock loud and noisy. These character traits are conveyed early and are essential to the remainder of the story. So what’s the amp’s role in all of this?
Oh, it’s only just the reason Doc and Marty became friends.
Alright, I promise this isn’t getting into fanfic territory, but the origins of Doc and Marty’s relationship have been speculated on by fans and pedophilia joke enthusiasts for years. Co-writer Bob Gale has answered the question before on commentaries and in interviews… and his answers are usually something fairly boring. But how they met doesn’t matter as much as why they still hang out. And the answer, my friends… is the amp.
Think about it. It’s the perfect marriage of their interests: rock and science. Regardless of how they met, as soon as one of them suggests building an amp, the framework is set. Doc gets an interesting new project, Marty gets an awesome new piece of equipment to thrash around on, everybody wins. I’m sure Doc likes music and Marty likes science, but not enough to continually hang out with each other. The amplifier gives them something to collaborate on, to test out, to hone their skills together. And the symbolism doesn’t stop at their hobbies; it also embodies their personalities. It’s excessive, it’s ambitious, it’s over-the-top, it’s fun, it’s shoddy, it’s loud, it’s wild, it’s dangerous, and it does it all with style.
The amplifier is Doc and Marty.
So… I guess that scene isn’t so bad.