Back to the Future Day
How John DeLorean's Belfast-built failure of the motoring industry became an icon of cinema and helped render a family franchise a timeless cultural phenomenon
In 1985, around about the time that Marty McFly was cheerily blasting his way back through the decades to the 1955 of his parents’ youth in sunny California, Northern Ireland was deep in the midst of its late unpleasantness.
Beyond chaos, there was little emerging from Ireland’s most troubled corner. This was a lost era marked by the type of economic stasis that characterises societies in conflict, yet, in spite of all the misery, there existed chinks in the blackness, slivers of invention that afforded a glimpse into a future most pined to witness.
The decision by charismatic businessman John DeLorean, in 1978, to locate the factory producing the DMC-12, his iconic gull-winged sports car, on a site in Dunmurry, west Belfast, proved as inspiring as it was slightly baffling.
DeLorean was a high-profile auto executive from Detroit, a man who had risen to the chrome-and-pine echelons of the General Motors Company, where his ability to sell and slippery negotiating skills were honed in that most American of workplaces. That he should select Northern Ireland as the centre of a new empire free from his GMC overlords seemed, given the times that were in it, a bizarre choice.
Looking at it another way, of course, the plan made a great deal of sense. In addition to the subsidies that he managed to charm out of the Callaghan administration in London, DeLorean’s labour base came with with significant pedigree.
For all his dapper stylings he had been born, raised and blooded on the vast shop floors of the Motor City. From the industrial heart of the United States to its erstwhile British equivalent, DeLorean recognised a place that knew how to make things, big things, things of substance.
His workforce, descendants in spirit, as well as in fact, of the men who built Titanic and those mighty ships that came after it, were willing to work, desperate even. They appreciated a spotlight trained on their talents instead of their trials.
Almost as quickly as it bloomed, however, the DeLorean experiment sputtered to its demise. By 1982, only four years after the Dunmurry facility broke ground, the company was $175 million in debt. The factory closed, the staff were laid off, the fruits of their labours unwanted in an American economy gripped by a vicious recession.
It was a grim end to an episode that might have faded into the background of history were it not for one Robert Lee Zemeckis. The Dunmurry production line had been silent for three years when Zemeckis’s Back to the Future appeared from relative obscurity to set a new standard for science-fiction filmmaking.
Gone were the space opera tropes of distant galaxies lousy with roguish heroes and devious villains. Instead, a uniquely contemporary tale of teenage aspirations played out against a backdrop gleefully riffing on a delightful twin conceit.
Mankind’s wider preoccupation with the theory of time travel formed one pillar. Beside it, a much humbler question took shape, just as fascinating: what were our parents like before we were around?
In the role of McFly, Michael J. Fox defined himself for eternity as the youngster whose adventures with erratic genius Dr Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd, never better) saw the pair transporting back and forth between the decades.
The attempts to even out those wrinkles in time caused by their initial jump into the brilliantly realised fifties — the junior partner’s interactions with his frisky mum (Lea Thompson) and fragile dad (Crispin Glover), both teenagers, make for especially delicious viewing — tested minds more than the typical mainstream blockbuster, though the height of the trilogy’s scientific theorising is Brown’s entirely implausible ‘flux capacitor’ device.
It was at this stage in actual history that the DeLorean came into its own, anchored forevermore in the zeitgeist. Zemeckis, directing from his own script, could have chosen any number of objects to serve as his time machine.
Tellingly, he settled on the Belfast-built DMC-12, a vehicle that has now come to be synonymous with the 1980s, that epoch where technological ambition strained against the upper reaches of achievability. With those graceful ascending doors and that powerful, boxy profile, the DeLorean reeked of tomorrow, a quality it retains to this day.
Past, present or future, the car carried a snarling effervescence that rendered it mythical, a central character in one of cinema’s finest sagas.
Today is, officially, Back to the Future Day. The furthest forward point that McFly and Brown reached was October 21 2015 (in Back to the Future Part II). The period depicted felt only slightly removed from that of Star Trek.
The improbable was real: flying cars zipped along unending skyways; kids rode hoverboards; the shark from Jaws 19 launched outwards from its billboard to devour passersby; the Chicago Cubs had just won the World Series.
Gimmicks they may have been, but such flourishes were indicative of the excitement generated by those possibilities sitting just beyond the horizon. Eyes cast ever outwards, innovators, DeLorean among them, had no interest in standing still.
What they might have made of 2015 as moulded by reality would be fascinating to hear. Global connectivity was unfathomable to all but a few; apps, not appliances, set the agenda now.
By the third instalment, the DMC-12, eventually a touchstone of certainty, was bruised but unbroken, jerry-rigged with train wheels and propelled by locomotion out of 1885 and the Old West. At the conclusion of film one, Brown, reflective wrap-arounds primed, engine growling proclaimed ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’
But he was going to need that car.
Back to the Future screens tonight at the Grand Opera House, Belfast and Brunswick Moviebowl, Derry as well as on October 27 at Belfast's Odyssey Cinema, along with a Q&A with film composer Alan Silvestri. For booking information see individual websites.