Great stories have great themes. Even if you aren’t consciously thinking about them like an English professor, they are there and they have something to say. A rich story has universal appeal because it says something about the human condition that speaks to all of us. Back to the Future is a great story, and while its overarching theme isn’t overtly stated, it’s readily on display: fate vs. free will.
This isn’t a groundbreaking observation, each movie addresses the idea that we control our future, that we aren’t fated to any one destiny, that the decisions we make influence what becomes of us. The final scene with Doc is a touching one that puts the final bow on what seems like the ultimate message of the entire trilogy.
“It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one. Both of you.”
This scene still gets me after all these years. This trilogy is really a redemption story, in some cases pre-redemption (predemption?), and Doc’s final message is one of the most sincere and inspirational in cinematic history. “Life is what you make off it, so make it a good life” is pretty damn powerful.
The only problem is that it might not be true for every character in the films, and if it isn’t true for all of them, is it true at all? Sure, Marty has changed his past, his present, and he controls his future, but what to make of his Uncle, Jailbird Joey?
We first hear about Lorraine’s brother Joey near the beginning of the first movie, when he won’t be making it home for a celebratory cake.
At first this just feels like more exposition about the entire McFly/Baines family, but Joey ends up being a running gag in the films. Later in part 1, when Marty sits down for dinner in 1955 with his grandparents, we actually meet one-year-old Joey. This is how we meet him:
Behind bars. White and black striped shirt. Then to throw some salt in the wound, Marty says, “”So, you’re my Uncle Joey. Better get used to these bars, kid.” Not only that, Marty’s grandmother has a few things to say about little Joey that are pretty funny, considering what we know about his future.
“Yes, Joey just loves being in his playpen. He cries whenever we take him out so we just leave him in there all the time.” These are meant to be funny lines, but from the little we learn about Joey in the rest of the trilogy, it shows that his preference for living behind bars extends to all futures and timelines.
In the alternate 1985 reality, the one where Biff is rich and all-powerful, he threatens to cut off Lorraine’s kids if she leaves him. “Maybe you’d like to have all three of your kids behind bars, just like your brother Joey. One big happy jailbird family.” Before you dismiss this as a criminal obviously ending up a criminal in a dystopian future, remember that Biff owns the police, and he just spent the moments prior to this complaining about taking care of Lorraine’s kids. Even when his brother-in-law owns the police, Joey is behind bars, and Lorraine doesn’t even have the pull to get him out.
The implication is that there is no reality, no timeline, no future, where Uncle Joey does not spend his life in jail. There is a deleted scene in part 2 from the 2015 family dinner scene where Marty says, “Now mom, before we throw anymore parties for Uncle Joey let’s wait to see if he makes parole.” We can’t treat a deleted scene as canon, but it certainly strengthens our inference that Joey spends most of his life behind bars*.
So here we have a character, as minor as he is, that genuinely seems fated from birth to end up in jail. It’s a joke when he is a baby, but nothing ever changes for him in sixty years. It’s as though the films are saying that this is Joey’s destiny, no matter the timeline he lives in.
It’s a pretty dark realization on its own, reading more like a Greek tragedy than the optimistic message the trilogy seems to celebrate throughout. So how can we reconcile Uncle Jailbird Joey’s lot in life with Doc’s final message? Doesn’t it undercut it? Quite the opposite actually.
Like many great stories, Back to the Future is deep and complex. It’s why the movies have become what they’ve become: iconic, cherished, and (fittingly) timeless. The truth of the film is that we cannot escape who we are, but we do control what we do. Uncle Joey is no more fated to be in jail than Marty is fated to ruin his life in a car accident racing Needles. Marty is a caring son who loves his family. He’s a good friend to Doc, and a loving boyfriend to Jennifer. Marty is a good person, and when the experiences of life teach him new lessons he grows with them and becomes a better person. Obviously the many lives and experiences, no matter how different, were not enough to make Uncle Joey make better decisions. He always ended up in jail because he never turned down the Needles of his life. That isn’t fate, that’s choice. Life will present us with choices, but it doesn’t make them for us.
Don’t race Needles. Stand up to Biff. We travel through time and the only thing we are assured of during our time here is that we will always be there, but we decide where we end up. That’s the message of Back to the Future.
“Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”
Doc was right, about Marty and Jennifer, about Uncle Joey, and about all of us.
*Also that the parole board really does not want to set him free. Is he a repeat criminal, or did he do something so horrible he is never getting out? Based on the alternate 1985 where even Biff has him in jail, I tend to think it’s a pretty nasty crime.
Images: Universal Pictures