“Back to the Future,” the classic 1985 science fiction film directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a great example of a well-structured narrative in cinema. Here’s a breakdown of its key structural elements:
Setup (Act 1):
Introduction of Characters and Setting: The film introduces Marty McFly, a typical American teenager, his family, and the eccentric scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Doc).
Inciting Incident: The key event that sets the story in motion is Doc Brown’s unveiling of the time-traveling DeLorean. When Marty accidentally activates it, he is transported from 1985 to 1955.
Confrontation (Act 2):
Marty’s Challenges in the Past: Marty must navigate the unfamiliar world of 1955. His presence alters history, accidentally preventing his parents from meeting and falling in love, thereby jeopardizing his own existence.
Marty’s Goals: His primary goal becomes ensuring his parents meet and fall in love. Additionally, he needs to find a way back to 1985.
Rising Action: The film builds tension through Marty’s struggles to engineer his parents’ romance and his interactions with the younger version of Doc Brown to repair the timeline and return to the future.
Key Turning Point: The climax occurs at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance, where Marty ensures his parents’ romance is rekindled. Simultaneously, he must race to the clock tower where Doc is orchestrating a plan to harness a lightning strike to power the DeLorean’s time-travel.
Resolution (Act 3):
Marty’s Return: Marty successfully returns to 1985, finding that his actions in the past have positively altered his present life.
Closing Scenes: The film closes with hints of further adventures when Doc arrives from the future, telling Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer that they need to address an issue concerning their future children.
This structure is a classic example of the “Hero’s Journey” narrative archetype, where a protagonist is thrust into a series of challenges in an unfamiliar world, overcomes obstacles, and emerges transformed. “Back to the Future” combines this narrative structure with the unique twists of time travel, creating a compelling and memorable story.
The Hero’s Journey, explained
The “Hero’s Journey,” also known as the monomyth, is a narrative template identified by mythologist Joseph Campbell. It describes a hero who goes on an adventure, faces a crisis, wins a victory, and then returns home transformed. This structure has been widely used in storytelling, including in many popular films. Here are some notable examples:
Star Wars (particularly “A New Hope”): Perhaps the most famous example, it follows Luke Skywalker’s journey from a farm boy to a galactic hero. He receives a call to adventure, encounters mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi, faces trials, and ultimately confronts Darth Vader.
The Matrix: Neo’s journey from a regular software engineer to ‘The One’ follows the Hero’s Journey structure closely. He is called to adventure by Morpheus, crosses the threshold into the Matrix, and undergoes numerous trials.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Frodo Baggins’ journey from the Shire to Mordor to destroy the One Ring embodies many elements of the Hero’s Journey, including the call to adventure, supernatural aid, trials, and transformation.
Harry Potter Series: Harry’s journey from an ordinary boy to a skilled wizard who confronts and defeats Voldemort follows the Hero’s Journey template, with elements like the call to adventure, mentors like Dumbledore, and various trials and tribulations.
The Lion King: Simba’s journey, which includes exile from his homeland following his father’s death and his eventual return to reclaim his place as king, is a classic Hero’s Journey, complete with a mentor (Rafiki), trials, and transformation.
Moana: This Disney film follows Moana as she sets off on a daring mission to save her people. Along her journey, she meets the once-mighty demigod Maui, who guides her in her quest.
Black Panther: T’Challa’s journey to becoming the King of Wakanda and the Black Panther is marked by trials, including challenges to his throne, that fit the Hero’s Journey archetype.
Wonder Woman: Diana’s journey from a sheltered life on Themyscira to becoming a hero during World War I encompasses the elements of a Hero’s Journey, including leaving her home, facing trials, and returning transformed.
These films illustrate how the Hero’s Journey provides a versatile and engaging framework for storytelling, resonating across different genres and cultural contexts.