WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
COMPANY: Cinemanaut Becca, who I’ve made a special deal with for today’s viewing.
Cinemanaut Bill: As you should hopefully know by now, I’m required by science to watch Back to the Future once every week of 2013. Cinemanaut Becca is part of the same experiment, but her required weekly intake of film is a dose of The NeverEnding Story. Since both films are reality-warping Campbellian heroic journeys that were released in the 1980s and feature young male protagonists, or, alternately, just for funsies, we decided to watch them back-to-back and discuss any themes they have in common. Woo-hoo! Say hello, Becca.
Cinemanaut Becca: Hello! First off, let me say that I was mightily relieved to have someone to tag along on my viewing, especially someone that I didn’t have to explain the experiment to. There are some obvious similarities between Back to the Future and The NeverEnding Story, but watching the two films alongside each other just highlighted how much they have in common, right, Bill?
Bill: So much, Becca! But where to start? Should we dive headfirst into mommy issues?
Becca: Freud would be proud if we did. Bastian just wants his mother back. Her absence has left a sizable void in his life. I’ve written about Bastian’s mother before. The Neverending Story appears and the Childlike Empress gets to play surrogate mom. For Bastian, saving Fantasia is his chance to save the Empress where he could do nothing to save his real mom. It’s equal parts creepy and endearing.
Bill: Well, I’ve got a guy whose mom wants to hump him, which I think we can agree isn’t creepy in the slightest. Something I noticed about Marty and Bastian’s mommy problems, though, is that they’re centered around either sex or death. As Woody Allen notes in Sleeper, your favorite film, sex and death are all that matter in life. When you add your mom to the equation, it’s a recipe for fear. These films revolve around two things you never want to see: your mother dying or your mother fucking.
Becca: Or your mother getting sexually assaulted by your father’s lifelong bully.
Bill: Yeah, Bastian’s attempt to save his mom still ends with the same net result of “dead mom,” whereas Marty’s meddling actually makes things worse for his mother. In terms of a protagonist’s worth as a hero, Marty pretty much just helps out Doc and his dad. Bastian, on the other hand, is the savior of an entire world. Hey, wait a minute, if Bastian can wish to make a bunch of real world bullies shit their pants via luck dragon flyby, why can’t he wish for his mom back?
Becca: Exactly! Bastian has ultimate power at his fingertips, but never thinks of raising the dead, only sightseeing. Which makes me think of Marty, who has the ability to go to any time he wants, but chooses 10 minutes before Doc gets riddled with Libyan bullets.
Bill: Um, he actually types 11 minutes, and touché. Honestly, though, I don’t think Bastian and Marty are a one-to-one ratio when it comes to main characters. Marty’s the hip skateboarder type. Bastian’s a nerdy kid who’s always getting picked on by bullies and has an active imagination due to all the wild stories he reads. That, my friend, is George McFly. What’s worse, both of them have gone through unbelievable but true experiences that would make them seem insane if they told anybody; Bastian traveled into a fantasy world, and George was instructed to bang his future wife by a supposed extraterrestrial. One read a non-realistic fiction book and it entered into his life, the other turned his life into a non-realistic fiction book.
Becca: I agree that Bastian is more like George, just like Atreyu is more like Marty. Both films have protagonists who are foils to the other protagonist. Not confusing at all, right? Basically Atreyu and Marty are the “cool” heroes while Bastian and George are the underdogs who learn to stand up and do what they dream. Marty would fade out of existence and Fantasia would be gone if not for the cool kids taking the nerds under their wings.
Bill: Be confident. If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. Like bully revenge! For two rather uplifting and positive movies, they still go out on making those bullies pay.
Becca: True. The ’80s were when bullies were at their prime in films. I will say that George’s revenge on Biff seems much more plausible than wishing for a luck dragon to scare the shit out of a trio of 12-year-olds. George finally finds something worth defending: Lorraine. He gains true self-confidence when he punches Biff into oblivion. Bastian gains nothing through his revenge since it’s, y’know, revenge. He just learns to find a bigger bully.
Bill: Might makes right, right? Of course, the real display of power in both films is the ability to change your universe, which we see in two very different forms: time travel and meta magic. And for some reason, these cosmic forces are in the hands of kooky old men who befriend kids.
Becca: I do believe that you’re referring to Mr. Koreander and Dr. Brown.
Bill: No, I was referring to Kirstie Alley and a turnip.
Becca: Way to block, Bill. Fine, I’ll take this one down. Doc and Koreander are the “Supernatural Aid,” if we want to look at some Campbellian monomyth. Instead of the traditional talismans, like a gem or a sword, our two gentlemen give their heroes a magic book and a time-travelling DeLorean. I think Marty gets the better deal.
Bill: If you’re going to send a kid to Fantasia, why not do it with some style? Alright, I’m running out of notes that aren’t just doofy coincidences, but I did want to talk about how both movies seem to contain contradictory messages about luck and fate. In the case of The NeverEnding Story, Atreyu’s quest seems fated to happen, which you’ve pointed out before when talking about the fresco room scene. And yet, his best bud is a dragon who relies purely on luck. Meanwhile, over in Back to the Future, George and Lorraine seem destined to be together (which some take away as the real plot of the movie), and the birth of Marty and his siblings must be written in the goddamn stars to beat those astronomical reproductive odds. And yet, the basic premise of the movie is to show how changing just one event can create a radically different future, suggesting our entire lives are governed by luck. Are they telling us that luck and fate are the same thing? Maybe fate is just hyper-luck? Have I forgotten what the words mean because I’ve said them too many times?
Becca: I think the reason you’re having so much trouble is because we’re dealing with two different genres. Back to the Future is science fiction and The NeverEnding Story is fantasy. Marty is dealing with time travel while Bastian contends with a meta crisis. A fantasy story can contain luck and fate at the same time because magic covers up any plot holes or contradictions. Science fiction can do the same as long as the established “rules” are followed.
Bill: I feel like both genres are about hope for the human race, but sci-fi gets it from the head and fantasy gets it from the heart. Luckily (or fatefully?), Back to the Future also has a lot of heart and there’s quite a lot of brains behind The NeverEnding Story.
Becca: Well put. Both films manage to find a balance within their genre. Back to the Future isn’t filled with pew-pew lasers and The NeverEnding Story isn’t bogged down with swish-and-flick wizardry. It’s like Robert Zemeckis and Wolfgang Petersen were trying to make films that were well-crafted.
Bill: That’s good news for us, since we’re bound by blog law to watch them every week. It’s as though you constantly relive an epic myth in a neverending cycle, and I travel back in time to watch the same events play out all over again…
Becca: It’s a strange life we live.
Bill: Alright, I’ll end it with a squee-off: George and Lorraine’s first kiss or Bastian’s first wish?
Becca: Curses! Romantic triumph or fantasy triumph? I may be a bit biased, but I have to go with Bastian’s first wish. Nothing really beats getting to fly on a luck dragon.
Bill: You’re right, love is stupid. Good night, everybody!