The Fear of Rejection in ‘Back to the Future’

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Featured, Media and Culture, Movie & TV Reviews by Impact Admin

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” So goes the classic quote that ends Back to the Future, one of the most enduringly popular movies of all time. Released in 1985, its story of a likable high school “slacker” who gets transported back in time to the 1950s and accidentally stops his parents from meeting each other is all at once funny, exciting, and heartfelt. While it may seem like nothing more than a lightheartedly entertaining piece of escapism, it actually possesses several poignant themes at its core, particularly in regards to father-son relationships, the fear of rejection, and the natural desire we all have for our elders to be good role models.

Back to the Future’s protagonist, the teenaged Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), does not feel like he fits in at all with his awkward family. He is particularly ashamed of his wimpy father George (Crispin Glover), who consistently lets people walk all over him. When he gets sent back to the 1950s in the time-traveling DeLorean of his mad scientist-buddy Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), he disappointedly sees that his father was even more awkward and wimpy in high school. While Marty initially maintains his smug opinion that he is so much better and cooler than his dad, he begins to see his own soul reflected in George when he sits down with him in the high school cafeteria.

Marty notices that his dad is writing something in a notebook at the lunch table and curiously asks what it is. George replies, “Stories. Science fiction stories about visitors coming down from other planets.” A songwriter and musician himself, Marty is quite surprised, as he never knew that his father shared his creative spirit. He then asks George if he ever shows his stories to anyone, to which George replies that he has not, explaining, “What if they didn’t like them, what if they told me I was no good. I don’t know if I could take that kind of rejection.” These words pierce Marty’s heart, as he himself struggles to share his music with others because of this same fear of rejection. He realizes that he is more similar to his vulnerable father than he ever thought before, and he touchingly gains a new appreciation for him.

The fear of rejection that both Marty and his dad struggle with is a common theme throughout the movie and is one that we can probably all relate to. Earlier on in the film, Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) tells him that he should send a tape recording of his music to a record company, to which he replies, “What if they don’t like it? What if they say, ‘Get out of here, kid, you’ve got no future.’ I just don’t think I could take that kind of rejection.” While Marty knows that this fear of rejection is not a healthy thing, he does not realize how incredibly damaging it can really be until he sees that it is at the root of his father’s pathetic wimpiness. George McFly lets himself get pushed around by the vicious bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) precisely because there is nothing he fears more than rejection. If he just does what Biff says and suppresses his own true feelings and convictions, he will not experience the pain of rejection, but he will also not lead a very happy life. Marty sees this fatal flaw in his father and skillfully helps him overcome it in order to bravely stand up for his future wife near the climax of the film (“Hey, you, get your damn hands off her!”) and win her affection. While Marty himself still possesses a strong fear of rejection, helping his father overcome it gives him the bright hope that he can do the same.

Another relevant theme in Back to the Future is that of the natural desire we all have for there to be virtuous role models in our lives. At the beginning of the film, Marty is rather annoyed with his seemingly prudish mother, who lectures him, “When I was your age, I never chased a boy, or called a boy, or sat in a parked car with a boy.” However, when Marty travels back in time and meets his teenaged mother, he is quite shocked and frankly appalled by how flirtatiously frivolous and irresponsible she actually was. Not only does she chase boys (she chases after him, in fact), but she also drinks, smokes, and is quite willing to have casual sex in the backseat of a car. While Marty himself is not entirely innocent of these vices, he expected more from his mother and is quite disappointed with her.

We all desire for there to be people in our lives who we can look up to and aspire to be like. Marty expected his mother to be such a person, but she failed to live up to this expectation. Perhaps he himself made an inner resolution to set a better example for his own kids in the future. Either way, his disappointment at his mother ought to be a reminder to all of us that we need to strive towards virtue in our daily lives, for there will always be people looking up to us.

Back to the Future is a well-crafted and highly-entertaining film that also bears much thematic depth. It poignantly addresses the themes of sons struggling to relate to their fathers, people’s unhealthy fear of rejection, and the need that we each have for role models in our lives. Over thirty years later, it is still a film worth watching time and time again.

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.