“There’s something very familiar about all this”: generic play and performance in the Back to the Future trilogy (Robert Zemeckis, 1985, 1989, 1990)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The Back to the Future Trilogy incorporates several different generic elements, including aspects of the fifties teen movie, science fiction, comedy and the western. These different modes playfully intertwine with each other creating a complex world of repetitions, echoes and modulations. This essay seeks to interrogate the construction of generic elements and the play between them through a close analysis of a repeated performance. Genre is signalled through various strategies employed within the construction of mise-en-scène, a significant portion of this, as I would like to argue, is transmitted through performance. The material detail of a performance – incorporating gesture, movement, voice, and even surrounding elements such as costume – as well as the way it its presented within a film is key to the establishment, invocation and coherence of genre. Furthermore, attention to the complexity of performance details, particularly in the manner in which they reverberate across texts, demonstrates the intricacy of genre and its inherent mutability. The Back to the Future trilogy represents a specific interest in the flexibility of genre. Within each film, and especially across all three, aspects of various genres are interlaced through both visual and narrative detail, thus constructing a dense layer of references both within and without the texts. To explore this patterning in more detail I will interrogate the contribution of performance to generic play through close analysis of Thomas F. Wilson’s performance of Biff/Griff/Burford Tannen and his central encounter with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in each film. These moments take place in a fifties diner, a 1980s retro diner and a saloon respectively, each space contributing the similarities and differences in each repetition. Close attention to Wilson’s performance of each related character, which contains both modulations and repetitions used specifically to place each film’s central generic theme, demonstrates how embedded the play between genres and their flexibility is within the trilogy.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Worlds of Back to the Future
EditorsSorcha Ni Fhlainn
Number of pages90
ISBN (Print)9780786444002
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • Back to the Future
  • Film genre
  • Film Performance
  • Thomas F. Wilson
  • Michael J. Fox
  • western
  • science fiction


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