The Great Scenes: “The Punch” from BACK TO THE FUTURE

The Movie: Back to the Future (1985)

Spoiler Level: VERY High

The Setup: Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) carefully laid plans to stage a romantic meet cute for his future parents, thereby assuring his own existence, have gone awry thanks to über-bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson). Now instead of finding a play-acting Marty in the car with Lorraine (Lea Thompson), George McFly (Crispin Glover) swings open the door to find his much-larger and very hostile archnemesis waiting for him.

Why It’s Great: As the scene begins, George is already dealing with frayed nerves and isn’t sure if he’s going to be able to pull off his mock-heroics. But something happens on George’s face right around the 30 second mark of the clip. His fear washes away and the genuine courage that’s always been hiding within him starts to come out, as such things always do in moments of crisis. George’s original destiny was to fall into Lorraine’s lap, winning her over with sympathy and pity. But Marty’s tampering with the space-time continuum has opened up an opportunity for things to emerge in George that may never have otherwise.

Alan Sylvestri’s horror-esque cue at :51 highlights the incredible danger George has thrust himself into. He is meddling in territory that perhaps destiny never intended for him. But the ideas of destiny and predetermined futures are questioned and challenged throughout Back to the Future and here George takes the ultimate stand not just against Biff but against the cosmic forces of fate that seemed to be conspiring against him his whole life. George’s defiantly clenched fist at 1:25 marks the first time that a character in the film stops intentionally trying to re-create the way things have always been and instead take destiny into their own hands.

Everyone is stunned, Biff, Marty, Lorraine, even George. Everything we’ve been told by Doc Brown, Principle Strickland and our experience in the original 1985 has just been thrown out the window. We know from Doc Brown’s expository speeches that with that punch, George has not just changed the course of his life. He has changed, in some small way, the entirety of the space-time continuum. Sylvestri’s musical cue at 1:58 reflects that this moment is both a crucial personal moment for the two characters but also a seismic, cosmically relevant event. Similar themes were explored recently by no less than Terrence Malick in the sometimes impenetrable Tree of Life, but here Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s beautiful, economical screenplay are able to convey that theme in an action entertainment film. The idea that everyone and everything we do matters at least in a tiny way on a grand scale is a comforting thought. It reassures us that we are more than dots on a rock floating through the universe. We each have a purpose in life and what Back to the Future suggests is that while our destiny may appear set in stone, we have it within us all to determine our own purpose.