‘Back to the Future’, or ‘The Modern Oedipus’

It probably isn’t true to say that everybody loves Back to the Future (1985), but it should be.  Imagine the sort of person who could actively dislike it, and feel a shiver run down your spine.  The film’s theatrical re-release for its twenty-fifth anniversary was a real gift, allowing long-time fans to see the film with greater clarity than ever before.  For me this was true not only of the film’s wonderfully enhanced picture but its plot, an in-depth examination of which I have long been distracted from by mindless, childlike enjoyment.  Getting right to the point, Back to the Future is the story of a young man who travels back in time and almost fucks his own mother.  That premise is not a comic subplot but the main dramatic thrust of the film, the central narrative obstacle to be overcome.  While we can recognise even as children that this scenario has a distinctly un-Hollywood flavour, a Wikipedia-grade knowledge of psychoanalytic theory reveals a surprisingly complete alternate reading of the film (stay with me) as a science fiction literalisation of Sigmund Freud’s infamous theories surrounding the ‘Oedipus complex’.

© Freud Museum London

Still here?  No?  Oh well, must bash on.  We can assume the connection must have occurred to every viewer at least in passing, as for the last hundred-odd years the very concept of mother-son hanky panky has been practically trademarked by everyone’s favourite misogynistic, megalomaniacal psychotherapist.  If you surveyed a random selection of schoolchildren they would tell you that Darwin invented evolution, Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, and Freud invented people wanting to fuck their own mothers.  It’s his thing.  Freud himself certainly saw it as one of his most earth-shaking ‘discoveries’, theorising that repressed sexual feelings for one’s parents lay at the root of almost all adult neurosis.  As early as his Interpretation of Dreams (1899) he proclaimed it inevitable that each male infant would fixate on the mother as an object of possessive jealousy, secretly wishing to destroy its father and take his place in her affections.  The theory is named from a classical tragedy of the 1st millenium BC in which an oblivious king actually manages to pull it off, paying for his victory with blindness and exile.


Freud saw the play and its enduring popularity as confirmation that these secret desires have run deep in human thought at least since ancient times.  Admittedly Back to the Future has only been around for twenty-five years but, on the other hand, when did you last hear someone name Oedipus Rex as one of their top ten films of all time?  The film establishes its own focus on sexuality in the opening scenes, as radical teen Marty skateboards to the hyper-confident synth anthem The Power of Love, pausing only to wave lustily at an aerobics class of nubile, lycra-clad women.  Later he and his girlfriend Jennifer plan a camping trip “under the stars”.  As a child this seemed perfectly innocent to me, but now that I’m old enough to shave and drink too much for no reason, I can see that their secretive excitement suggests this trip will be the long-awaited physical consummation of their love.  The bouncing aerobics girls are glimpsed once again as Marty’s girlfriend bends to write her number in his lap, a reverse-shot aptly framing his face against an X-rated cinema marquee advertising ORGY AMERICAN STYLE (1975).

When our hero arrives home the film abruptly dumps a bucket of cold water in its own lap with the introduction of his nightmarishly inadequate parents.  Marty’s sexual ambitions are indirectly thwarted by his father, an uncharismatic figure completely bereft of authority who has allowed a belligerent work colleague to wreck the family car and figuratively cut his balls off.  He is thereby complicit in the emasculation of his son, who mourns his dashed ‘camping’ plans with telling passion: “Do you have any idea how important this was to me, d’you have any clue?”.  The other obstacle to Marty’s maturation is naturally his mother, a sexually repressed alcoholic who is oddly disapproving of a girlfriend whom she seems to barely know.  In their first scene together he remains almost totally silent, addressing his mother only indirectly, and only once.


Their relationship changes as dramatically as her appearance once Marty is thrown back into the past and unwittingly takes his father’s place in the story of their courtship.  Watching the film as an adult it’s easy to see why Disney might have hesitated to pick the film up – the erotic tension in their scenes together becomes steadily more intense throughout, thanks to Lea Thompson’s utterly convincing portrayal of adolescent, ‘dog-in-heat’ infatuation.  Lorraine’s breathless adoration, pursuit and physical groping of her son is of course played mostly for laughs, but mature audiences can’t help responding in the customary ways to the sight of two attractive young people circling each other on screen.  Thompson’s performance is undeniably seductive, and beneath Marty’s attempts to redirect her affections and escape being unconvincingly cross-faded into oblivion lurks an even darker threat – that he might succumb to temptation and return them.

Apparently the viewer’s perverse fascination with this dilemma was considered the film’s chief selling-point by its advertisers.  In a Making of.. documentary Robert Zemeckis reveals that every “single marketing piece of material had that one line of Michael Fox’s in there where he said ‘Are you telling me that my mother has got the hots for me?!’…Seeing Michael J. Fox say that was the whole campaign”. (Making the Trilogy: Chapter 1).  Paradoxically the film seems to counter the supposed wish fulfilment of an oedipal fantasy, Marty desperately attempting to reunite his mother and father.  However, his efforts actually heighten his mother’s feelings for him while his father quietly retreats from every planned encounter, even more of a non-presence than before.  It is necessary of course that Marty’s oedipal triumph should be depicted as unintentional, and the viewer’s identification with him preserved, by transferring the shameful desires it fulfills onto a handy substitute.

© Freud Museum London

Biff Tannen is a menacing presence throughout the film, who seems to exist and keep cropping up just to provide it with an antagonist.  He really serves to embody two very specific and highly potent urges: a savagely possessive, unrestrained lust for Marty’s mother, and a corresponding determination to dominate and destroy his father.  Biff is the shadow cast by Marty’s weightless innocence, representing the dark urges he can neither acknowledge nor escape.  This is why each of their combative encounters throughout the film must be interrupted, whether by Strickland the school bulldog, a truck-full of manure, or our hero simply being carried off and locked in a trunk.  In classical Freudian theory, the male Oedipus complex is overcome by relinquishing unhealthy attachments to the mother, and identifying with the father as a positive role-model.  In accordance with this the monstrous golem of Marty’s oedipal rage can only be defeated when he gives up centre-stage to his father, who decks Biff himself and is thus transformed into a figure worthy of respect.


Guided home by the ever-present ‘Doctor’ Brown, whose eccentric but ingenious theories were what made this therapeutic trip into the past possible, Marty finds that every aspect of his life seems improved.  While Biff has been reduced to a harmlessly lingering trace of feelings which have now been confronted and overcome, the blissfully intimate elder McFlys watch fondly as Marty and Jennifer continue their own love story.  Although Doc’s return interrupts their kiss he also tells us where it will lead – “Something’s gotta be done about your kids!” he exclaims, confirming that somewhere beyond the bounds of a PG rating that much-delayed ‘camping trip’ is going to take place after all.

If Oedipus Rex is a cautionary tale, ending with its hero lost in a nightmare of his own making, then Back to the Future presents the best-case-scenario of a successfully resolved complex. With the right kind of help Marty is able to free himself from the constraints of the past, literally as well as psychologically.  The other entries in the trilogy will never be more than the enjoyable sequels to a truly great film, but in the third Doc Brown neatly sums up its overall message of optimism: “Your future is whatever you make it – so make it a good one”.  If Sigmund Freud had possessed unnatural long-life and a DVD player, I like to think he would have concurred.  He wouldn’t have gone for Blu-Ray, I’m almost sure of it.

By Tim Kelleher


One response to “‘Back to the Future’, or ‘The Modern Oedipus’

  1. This was interesting and entertaining. Thanks.

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