The Future is Today

It has been a long time since I have seen any of the Back to the Future movies so I wasn’t aware of the significance of this date, October 21, 2015, until I happened to see articles about the classic trilogy in places like USA Today. This is the day in the future that Marty McFly travelled to from 1985 in the second movie. The future is today. Naturally, everyone seems interested in discussing what the thirty year old movies got right, and wrong, about 2015. I am not really so interested in how correct their speculations were myself, except that I really did want one of those flying cars. I am more interested in discussing how Marty McFly’s mission in the first movie is one that he had absolutely no chance of completing successfully.

BTTFIIdate

I trust by now the plot of the three Back to the Future movies is familiar enough that I need not rehash it in exacting detail. Suffice it to say that fifteen year old Marty McFly takes Doc Brown‘s time machine/DeLorean back to the year 1955 and accidentally prevents his parents from meeting and falling in love. This is a serious problem for McFly since if his parents never meet, he won’t exist so with the help of a younger Doc Brown, Marty spends the rest of the movie trying to get his parents together, a mission made more difficult by the fact that his father is a nerd who is being persecuted by the school bully, Biff Tannen and his mother has become infatuated with Marty. Of course, Marty succeeds in the end and even arranges for his father to stand up to the bully. He returns to 1985 and takes of his old life again.

The problem is that this is impossible. Marty has already interrupted the course of events that led to his conception and birth. Even though he managed to get his parents to fall in love with one another, the whole timeline in which they dated, got married, and conceived Marty has been changed. Even if by some miracle, Marty managed to arrange for his parents to have intercourse at the precise time and place he was originally conceived, it is still unlikely that he would be conceived. When a man ejaculates, he releases hundreds of millions of sperm cells. It is simply not possible for Marty to arrange for the precise same egg and sperm to unite to create Marty. No doubt his parents would have a child at about the same time as they did Marty in the original timeline and it may even be a boy they named Marty, but it wouldn’t be the same person as the original Marty McFly. It would be like a sibling

I want my flying car

I want my flying car

But even if Marty’s parents had a baby with the precise genes as the original Marty, it still wouldn’t be the same person. We are more than the genetic code we inherit at birth. The experiences we undergo as we grow up also shape us into being the person we are. At the end of the first movie, it was made clear that Marty’s intervention had changed the lives of his parents. By arranging for his father to stand up to Biff Tannen, he gave his father a confidence and self-esteem he lacked in the original timeline and instead of being a loser stuck in a dead-end job, Marty’s father was a successful science fiction writer. Obviously, Marty growing up in the home of a successful writer is going to have different experiences than the original Marty. For one thing, Marty’s relationship with the older Doc Brown might not have been the same. Brown was something of a substitute father for Marty and if his own father was more impressive, perhaps Marty would not have sought out Doc Brown’s company.

And Mr. Fusion

And Mr. Fusion

The most realistic end for the first Back to the Future movie then might have been for Marty McFly to get his parents together and then fade away as he realized that he didn’t exist in the new timeline, or maybe for Marty to get back to 1985 and find another Marty in his place with no one knowing anything about the original Marty. Or maybe the timeline presented at the end of Back to the Future was the real timeline and his parents had always been brought together by their son. In other words what the viewer sees as cause and effect is actually reversed. It is confusing paradoxes like that which lead most scientists to believe that time travel into the past is impossible.

Back to the Future is still a fun movie to watch, if you don’t think too much about it.

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