A dog’s eye review of the Back to the Future trilogy, Robert Zemeckis (dir), starring Tiger (Part I), Freddie (Parts II and III), Foster (Part III), Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F Wilson, and Lea Thompson.
This week I watched not just one but three movies. Because this week I went back to the future and back again and back again and back again and back again!
The Back to the Future trilogy is about a dog who is the world’s first time traveller. Einstein (aka Einy and played by Tiger) travels in time but tricks all his humans into thinking he is living in the moment. Yes, Back to the Future is about one of the biggest bits of nonsense propaganda so often proclaimed about canine intelligence and human exceptionalism – dogs live in the moment. And when it comes to moments, please note that this review contains lots of spoiler ones, so watch the movies first if you haven’t seen them before and don’t want to know too much about your future before it happens.
Living in the moment
I’ve written about the notion of “living in the moment” before. Living in the moment is an odd idea because it sounds like a positive but it really is all about human exceptionalism and setting up animals to sound stupid. And it totally underestimates us. Animals are smarter than humans can understand.
One day, when Howard was doing his Dogglebox, we all watched Vet on the Hill. In this episode the owner had a dog who was very lame and something was obviously very seriously wrong. It turned out that the dog had a torn cruciate ligament and was putting all her weight on the other leg, that had a broken patella. The owner said, “I feel sorry for her, but I shouldn’t feel sorry for her, because animals live in the moment.” This statement astonished us all. She seemed to think her dog was living through some sort of anterograde amnesia, permanently trapped in the present. It was so ridiculous we didn’t know what to think.
And this idea of human exceptionalism is something that runs all the way through the Back to the Future trilogy: Marty cannot stand being called chicken; Biff hates being called “Mad Dog” in the third film; and Marty is warned, “You’d better run, squirrel” when he gets Biff “Mad Dog” angry.
The trilogy shows ultimately that this artificial distinction between human and non-human intelligence is a weakness of humans, not animals, and that it is no measure of animal intelligence. In the third instalment, Marty overcomes his anxiety about being a chicken and accepts his shared values with poultry.
Back to the Future (1985)
So, when I watched Back to the Future, I got very excited about what it was saying about the canine mind. Einstein is the world’s first time traveller, but he appears to be trapped in that moment in the present. But is Einstein (the dog … who, by the way, looks a lot like me) really trapped in the present, that one moment that Doc Brown always talks about? Or does the movie do something much more interesting than that. In fact, is Einstein the only one travelling in time?
What do I mean? Well. Does Einstein make plans for the future? Does Einstein think about the past? Does Einstein remember the past and plan for the future? Does Einstein’s past write his future? How much does Einstein’s planning for his future actually re-write his past? In other words, how does it change the way he remembers the past?
In fact, rather than Einstein being trapped in the moment, it is the humans in Back to the Future that are trapped. All the humans are preoccupied simply with restoring that one moment, the one to which they return, time and time again. The irony is that in thinking about the future, all the time, the moment is lost.
In a minute
And living in the present is such an unthinkable idea anyway. As the movies shows us, the present is always already out of reach. In a moment it’s already gone.
When Einstein goes exactly one minute into the future, the scene is set for a journey towards a clearer understanding of canine cognitive ability. Dogs learn from the past. Dogs think about the future. Dogs have goals. So we need a new refrain. We are not living in the moment. We are living for the moment! And we definitely plan for it. So, back to the future …
Einstein is a dog who is very active in the scientific community. His human, Doc Brown, is a scientist and Doc and Einstein are both friends with a high school student, Marty McFly. Marty McFly lives in a modest house on an estate in Hill Dale with his brother, sister, and parents, George and Lorraine McFly.
The film opens with a nod to animal time-keeping. Immediately we know that it will challenge the assumptions made about animals and memories. Three of the many clocks in Doc’s room full of clocks are a cat, an owl, and a dog. And the film pauses on each one, affirming that this is about the relationship between memory, time-keeping, goals, and intelligence. And the gargoyles guarding the clock in the famous Clock Tower are also animals (they are cougars). Animals keep time. And animals plan for the future.
When Einstein travels into the future, exactly one minute later he returns, and his clock is exactly one minute behind Doc Brown’s. Doc says, “He’s fine and he’s completely unaware anything’s happened. As far as he’s concerned the trip was instantaneous.” This moment plays with the idea of Einstein “living in the moment,” but the reality is that Einstein is now in the future (as his clock suggests). “One minute into the future, to be exact.” And it is Doc and Marty who are “frozen” in time.
This is also clear when the humans find themselves in a perilous situation. It is Einstein who alerts them to the Kombi Van full of terrorists who want to shoot Doc Brown for stealing their plutonium. And when Doc is shot, Marty escapes in the time machine. Only Einstein is left in the van, dealing with the consequences, preparing for the future. Only Einstein is the original time traveller. All the humans are preoccupied with remembering that one moment … 26 October, 1985. They are going nowhere.
Hello and goodbye
After escaping in the time machine, Marty arrives in 1955, and the references to memory and dreaming are clear (in fact, there are lots of jokes about dreaming through the whole trilogy; even Marty himself “is an absolute dream” according to Lorraine). As Marty
explores his main street, “Mr Sandman” plays in the background, and he pauses at the window of “Roy’s Records.” Each time Marty visits a new time, time is marked by the measure of technology in the windows on the main street. In the window there is a dog (I think it is a bit like the HMV dog), once again reminding us that a dog is the true intelligence behind this whole experience. (Howard said the dog was very realistic as he gave a little bark and then jumped up to check him out.) Beside the dog is “The World’s Smallest Radio”, and there are several albums featured in the window: Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” (memory), Patti Page’s “In the Land of Hi Fi” (technology), and Eydie Gormé’s “Eydie in Dixie Land.” This album included the “Bye Bye Blues” (coming and going, hello and goodbye).
This window is fascinating, and not just because Howard thought the dog was very convincing. Here we have the three threads that run through all three films – memory, technology, and coming and going. Einstein says hello, but does he ever say goodbye?
Marty eventually tracks down the Doc and we meet, for the first time, Copernicus. Copernicus is another dog who looks like me. He’s smaller than Einstein, but just as charismatic. He doesn’t have a huge role in the first film, other than to make clear that the family and kinship of dogs, linked through memories, is a key interest of the film. And this all becomes clear in the last film in the trilogy.
The future, all the time
Doc helps Marty make sure his parents meet at the “Enchanted Under the Sea” dance (and that Lorraine stops thinking of him as “an absolute dream”). And before he leaves to go back to 1985, Marty wants to warn Doc about the future. Doc refuses to hear it and says, “If I know too much about my own future, I’ll endanger my own existence.” Even Marty himself laments this preoccupation with the future in the third film, “I think about it all the time.” In other words, humans tend to get so preoccupied with mortality that it is impossible to live for the moment, it squeezes out all other time, it takes up “all the time”.
So Marty writes a letter, which he says to open in 1985, warning the Doc about the shooting. He hands the letter to the Doc, but the Doc tears it up without reading it, and Marty goes back to the future. But that’s where Einstein’s wisdom comes to bear. It turns out the Doc sticks the note back together, wears some body armour, and survives the shooting. Marty asks, “What about all that talk about screwing up the space-time continuum?” Doc lives “for” the moment and answers, “What the hell!?”
Dog is my co-pilot!
At the end of the first one, Doc arrives in 1985 in what is now a flying time-machine, with Einstein in the back seat. We know straight away that the back seat of a jet is either the instructor or the navigator and bombardier. So, once again, Einstein is clearly the essential wisdom of time travel. As the saying goes, “Dog is my co-pilot!”
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Back to the Future Part II opens with a new Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue) and a new Einstein (Freddie, as Tiger had retired) but we are right back in 1985. Doc picks up Marty and Jennifer, with his co-pilot Einstein, and away to 2015 they go. When Marty arrives in 2015 and explores the main street we see that Jaws 19 is playing (correctly predicting that the movie franchise business model would take over culture) and the 2015 shop window is all about nostalgia. There are antique coins, an antique computer, and of course the Sports Almanac (containing all the sports statistics for 1950-2000) that causes all the drama and the tangent in the space-time continuum in the second film.
Human exceptionalism and canine culture
Like the rest of the trilogy, Back to the Future Part II is all about canine intelligence and culture. In 2015, with all the advances in technology, a Great Dane is being walked by a drone. But after Biff misuses the Almanac, social decay is felt equally by the dogs of Hill Dale.
Biff steals the Almanac and gives it to his younger self to use to become a billionaire. But as he does so, he warns himself that a wild-eyed scientist might come looking for it. We assume the wild-eyed scientist is Doc. But what we have is the dichotomy that plagues studies of dog behaviour: ignorance versus science; animals versus humans; wild versus civilised, nature versus culture. And Back to the Future skillfully dismantles all of them. Is our wild-eyed scientist Doc? Or is he actually Einstein?
With the help of the Almanac, Biff becomes a billionaire, and the dystopic 1985 shows an uncivilised world where dogs are abandoned to fend for themselves on the streets, such as when three dogs run past the gate of the Lyon Estates. Very clearly the film shows that it is a human failure and a sign of social decay for people to abandon dogs.
And Einstein is the Doc’s co-pilot throughout the second film. He helps find Jennifer when the police take her home to her future self. He braces himself for temporal displacement. He helps Doc find Marty in the cemetery. And his scene with his bed, overturned and displaced, is a crucial point of the film, indicating the disruption of social values. As Doc says, as he hurries to fix the bed, “I’m sorry Einy, the lab is in an awful, awful mess.” Yes it is.
Take care of Einstein for me!
When they manage to get the Almanac back and destroy it, lightning strikes the De Lorean and the Doc is zapped away to an uncertain future. Marty is standing in the rain, wondering what to do, when a man from Western Union delivers a letter to him, explaining that the letter had been with them for 70 years waiting for this precise moment to be delivered. The Doc had been zapped back to 1885 and had been living as a blacksmith for 8 months. Marty tracks down the Doc in 1955, explains that he is back from the future, and the scene is set for the third instalment.
Back to the Future III (1990)
Back to the Future Part III completes this incredible journey through canine intelligence and empathy, and it rounds out the whole trilogy, showing us clearly that it is all about saying goodbye and hello to Einstein. It is all about human-dog communication.
The film opens with everyone asleep beside the fireplace in the Doc’s house – Marty, the Doc, and Copernicus. And we are returned to the question of hello and goodbye with, “It’s Howdy Doody Time! It’s Howdy Doody Time!” repeating on the television and waking everyone up. Great Scott! Is that the time? It’s time for hello!
Your friend in time
The Doc reads his letter from 1885, while Copernicus plays chess in the background (after all, he’s named after, or maybe before, a famous mathematician). The letter closes with “Please take care of Einstein for me,” and is signed off, “Your friend in time.”
The letter tells them where to find the De Lorean in an old disused mine shaft at the cemetery. Copernicus wears a helmet and light and leads the search. The search reminds the Doc of stories by his favourite author, Jules Verne, and his favourite book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (enchanted under the sea, perhaps?) and how reading that book made him realise he must devote his life to science. The Doc then wonders if he can go to the library and look himself up in the old newspaper archives, and read about his past. Marty refers to this as destiny (destiny, and density, come up again and again throughout the film). And this is curious, to speak of the past as destiny.
But maybe the past is a kind of destiny? What is interesting here is that the past and the memories are a kind of inheritance, a kind of kinship, that writes our futures. Copernicus is part of Einstein’s future and vice versa. They know each other, are related to each other, are alike each other, even though they never meet. They are family in time.
Just as they are about to leave the cemetery, Copernicus is sitting whimpering and scratching at a gravestone and Marty goes over to ask him what’s wrong. He is horrified to see that the gravestone is the Doc’s and he was shot in 1885 by Buford Tanner. “What kind of a future do you call that?” Once again, we are reminded that the original time-travellers are the thinking, feeling, loving dogs in these films.
Animals and destiny
So, obviously, Marty goes back to 1885. The Doc and Marty go to the Pohatchee Drive-In Theatre to fetch some “western” clothes for Marty, including some boots. And they use the empty drive-in for the runway for the time-machine. But Marty doesn’t change into the boots and instead drops them as he runs away from a bear shortly after arriving in 1885, leaving his footprints all over the space-time continuum.
Marty is rescued by his great-great grandparents, Seamus McFly (obviously, his father’s family) and Maggie McFly (who looks like Marty’s mother … so now I am getting worried that there isn’t enough out-crossing in this family … but I digress). Once there, he adopts the name, Clint Eastwood, and goes to the saloon, where he meets Buford Tannen, offends him by calling him “Mad Dog”, and is warned, “You’d better run, squirrel.”
While Marty and the Doc are planning how to get back to 1985, Clara Clayton (the new school teacher) goes hurtling past in a runaway wagon, after a snake spooks her horses. Doc saves her and it is love at first sight. Clara actually says that she is so glad the snake spooked her horses otherwise they might never have met. Animals plan the future.
Later in their short courtship, Clara and the Doc are star-gazing, and they identify Copernicus, “The one that’s out there all by itself, like a starburst”, and we are reminded that the intelligence behind this time travel is canine. Clara then asks the Doc whether he thinks humans will ever be able to travel to the moon, and the Doc says yes and then quotes Jules Verne. They then discuss their shared love of Jules Verne. Jules Verne, himself a dog lover (his own dog was called Follet), also featured dogs in his stories, including “From the Earth to the Moon.” Dogs are never far from anyone’s thoughts.
Interestingly, this is the only time when the Doc doesn’t have a dog. Or does he? After some back and forth in the romance department for the Doc and Clara, Marty manages to defeat Biff, and the Doc and Marty hijack a train and push the time-machine to 88 miles per hour so he can escape by flying off a ravine. But just before the critical speed is reached, Clara gallops up on her horse, jumps on the train, falls and gets her dress stuck, Marty throws them the hoverboard, and Clara and the Doc are saved but end up stuck in 1885 as Marty and the De Lorean are zapped back to 1985.
I had to come back for Einstein!
Marty narrowly escapes an actual train as he lands in 1985, the time-machine is destroyed (as the Doc wanted). But just as Marty and Jennifer (who he has retrieved from her one minute sleep on her front porch) are feeling sad that they will never see the Doc again, he arrives in the train that he has converted into a new time-machine. And with him are Clara, their children (Jules and Verne) and … of course … Einstein! As the Doc says, “I had to come back for Einstein,” and so he stopped by to say hello and goodbye.
Back to the Future is a wonderful exploration of memory and what it means for animal intelligence. So much of the history of scientific enquiry has focused on the distinction between animals and humans. But it is almost always an imaginative difference. As so many ethologists and scientists are showing us now, animals are our “friends in time.”
What Einstein (the sheepdog, not the physicist) has to say about our future is very important. Just like the Doc says, “Your future hasn’t been written yet.” And just like Einstein shows us, how we learn and remember our past is through later experiences. When it comes to rescue and rehabilitation, dogs are always thinking about the future. And the kind of future you can give a dog will rewrite the representations of the past, not because dogs live in the moment, but because dogs are intelligent, thinking, planning beings who are willing to learn.
And that’s how we get back to the future from a troubled past.
Categories: Aubrey's Causeries