Last week, a nation in the throes of '80s nostalgia breathed a collective sigh of relief as a major cinematic mystery was suddenly -- and shockingly -- solved. Finally, after more than a quarter century of speculation, we now know exactly why Marty McFly originally became friends with Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown. The secret was nonchalantly revealed by "Back to the Future" co-writer Bob Gale, who wrote on Mental Floss's blog that it all spawned from Marty's childhood fascination with the town's illustrious weirdo.
"Marty was told that Doc Brown was dangerous, a crackpot, a lunatic," wrote Gale. "So, being a red-blooded American teenage boy, age 13 or 14, he decided to find out just why this guy was so dangerous. Marty snuck into Doc's lab, and was fascinated by all the cool stuff that was there. when Doc found him there, he was delighted to find that Marty thought he was cool and accepted him for what he was... Doc gave Marty a part-time job to help with experiments, tend to the lab, tend to the dog, etc."
Noting that the roots of the Doc-Marty relationship was a major point of geek hypothesizing for years, Slate points out that this revelation undermines early drafts of the original script that had Doc hire Marty to do household chores and Doc and Marty working together on a video-pirating business.
As someone who can probably recite every single line of "Back to the Future," I for one, feel a sense of major relief that this controversy has finally been put to rest. But it reminds me that many other similar questions from the 1980s remain -- questions that must finally be asked. And so I feel it's my responsibility as a proud '80s obsessive to muster some courage, enter the breach and publicly stand up for all of us who want answers.
Here are ten key lingering questions about 1980s film classics -- and my theories about what their answers might be.
Unanswered Question: Why are the McFlys still friends with Biff after Biff tried to rape Lorraine?
What remains unknown: Only a few minutes of screenplay separate Biff's sexual assault of Lorraine in 1955 from George and Lorraine bantering with Biff as he washes their car in 1985. And yet, bizarrely, most people who watch "Back to the Future" never wonder how it is that the McFlys and Biff are on speaking terms, much less in a friendly customer-client relationship.
Theories: Since Biff's sexual assault happened in an era that typically looked the other way when it came to sexual crimes, Biff's actions were never considered "sexual assault" -- they were just seen as "making a pass." And since only George and Lorraine really knew what Biff did, they just let it go and slowly became friends. Alternately, Lorraine pressed charges against Biff, and a creative judge, predating "Seinfeld's" butler pilot, sentenced Biff to some form of lifetime indentured servitude to Lorraine. By 1985, with Biff owning his own car detailing service, this meant free carwashes for the McFlys, which included at least two coats of wax. Biff obsequiously calls George "Mr. McFly" because he's afraid that George will call the authorities and report him for not fulfilling his sentencing requirements.
Unanswered Question: How did the Ghostbusters have proton packs, but not the military or police?
What remains unknown: In "Back to the Future," Doc Brown has to secretly steal plutonium from a foreign government's military in order to power the flux capacitor. This makes logical sense -- as Doc notes, such high-powered nuclear material "is a little hard to come by." Yet, in "Ghostbusters," the heroes are carrying "unlicensed nuclear accelerators" -- "proton packs" -- throughout New York City in their quest to put down an inter-dimensional terrorist attack. Even more preposterously, only they -- and not the police or Pentagon -- have these atomic weapons. This remains the case, mind you, even after the Ghostbusters become famous. Indeed, because they and only they have such equipment, the Ghostbusters are called in by a helpless government to stop the ghosts. Why, after Zoul's initial attacks, aren't police officers and soldiers also armed with proton packs?
Theory: The Ghostbusters were actually a joint DARPA/CIA unit assembled to create plausible deniability for the government. Thanks to ironclad intelligence and scientific evidence, politicians and military brass knew ghosts could be a national security threat, but they didn't want to openly finance a ghost-fighting project, for fear that they would be ridiculed by a public that doesn't believe in ghosts. So, using the intelligence community's hidden budget, the government secretly underwrote the seemingly private, for-profit entrepreneurs known as the Ghostbusters. That way if there never was a ghost attack, officials couldn't be accused of wasting money on a silly boondoggle, and if there was such an attack, the government would have a special unit ready to fight back. The Ghostbusters, therefore, are the only ones with the essential proton packs not because they built them in spite of the U.S. government, but because they built them with the help of that government -- and they only built a few, for fear of busting the budget and exposing the black-ops project.
Unanswered Question: How did Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye ever become friends?
What remains unknown: As I've written before, the Ferris-Cameron relationship in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" makes little sense at face value. Ferris is easily the most charismatic, popular guy in school, and Cameron is, ahem, not. In the cliquish culture of the modern American high-school, these two would almost certainly not be friends -- at least not through any natural process. Unlike in, say, "Lucas" where the Fairly Tale Bromance between the film's Ferris-ish quarterback (Charlie Sheen) and its Cameron-esque ultra-nerd (Corey Haim) is at least plausibly explained (the ultra-nerd helped the QB with his homework when the QB got sick), "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" provides no explanation whatsoever. Other than a vague reference to knowing each other in 5th grade, there are no mentions of earlier good times as younger kids or allusions to shared interests or hobbies. The audience is just asked to accept their implausible friendship without question.
Theories: The "Fight Club" theory of Ferris Bueller posits that Ferris is just a figment of Cameron's imagination a la Tyler Durden. Assuming that's not true and that Ferris is an actual person, an alternate theory is that Ferris and Cameron aren't really friends at all. Instead, Ferris just connives to use Cameron for things Cameron has that Ferris does not. This hypothesis is supported, of course, by Ferris's own self-acknowledged angst over not having the key instrument of teenage fun that Cameron has -- a car. Thus, Ferris doesn't consider Cameron much of a friend beyond his ability to allow himself to be a glorified chauffeur -- and once they part ways and go to college, they never speak to each other again.
Unanswered Question: How did Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago both avoid being tested for steroid use?
What remains unknown: The iconic picture of Ivan Drago facing Rocky Balboa in the center of the ring in "Rocky IV" is one of the most searing scenes for any child of the 1980s, and not just because of the oft-quoted "I must break you" line. The image is a cinematographic reminder of why professional sports organizations are supposed to test athletes for steroid use. These are not two merely well-trained boxers -- they look like cyborg-ish super-humans, and for good reason. Drago, we learn, was actually using steroids. And while the juxtaposition of the Russian behemoth's syringe and Rocky's intrepid mountain climbing is supposed to imply that the latter is drug free, we know now that Sylvester Stallone (the actor who played Rocky) has dabbled in steroids as well. Regardless of whether the Rocky character was supposed to have been doping, how could both of these guys look the way they did and have international boxing officials not opt for at least a basic drug test?
Theory: Because the Rocky/Drago fight was technically an exhibition match, international boxing authorities were not involved in overseeing the event. And because Drago's earlier killing of Apollo Creed created so much revenge-themed hype around the Rocky fight, the relatively few American and Russian government officials involved in setting up the fight didn't want to do anything to stop the event from happening. Thus, the fight became a real-world version of what Saturday Night Live would later harangue as an "All Drugs Olympics."
Unanswered Question: How did Roger Murtaugh avoid being fired and prosecuted for his cold-blooded killing of an unarmed diplomat?
What remains unknown: Though South African ambassador Arjen Rudd is clearly a bad dude abusing his privileged status for the purpose of running a drug cartel, he was completely unarmed when "Lethal Weapon II's" Sgt. Roger Murtaugh gunned him down at the Los Angeles pier. Murtaugh, of course, does immediately follow his cold-blooded murder of Rudd with a proud public declaration that he has the right to "revoke" Rudd's diplomatic immunities -- and by this, Murtaugh seems to imply that "revoking" said immunities authorizes him to put a bullet in the diplomat's forehead. However, these suppositions are absurd. A mid-level urban police officer does not have the legal power to decide on the spot to revoke a high-ranking diplomat's status, nor does that police officer have the legal right to gun the diplomat down when the diplomat is in the act of peaceably surrendering for arrest. It stands to reason, then, that the extrajudicial killing would have made international headlines, and Murtaugh would have found himself prosecuted and fired. Yet, there he is in "Lethal Weapon III," still doing his job with the LAPD. How?
Theory: The South African government, already facing international outrage over its apartheid ideology, petitioned U.S. prosecutors to drop all charges against Murtaugh before they could ever be filed. Rather than demand justice for one of their own, the South Africans instead wanted the whole thing to just go away, fearing that the episode would place their other ambassadors under undue suspicion at a time when they needed all the diplomatic support they could get. Because the South African regime was so tight with the Reagan administration, their pleas to U.S. prosecutors were successful. Murtaugh, therefore, was never charged.
Unanswered Question: How did a wolfman manage to attend high school without media scrutiny and a political firestorm?
What remains unknown: When during a basketball scrum "Teen Wolf's" Scott Howard shows himself to be a wolfman, there is a collective gasp in the gymnasium. But, with almost no fanfare, he is subsequently permitted to continue attending his high school as a proud canine. Somehow, his small town isn't the scene of angry mobs at school board or PTA meetings trying to stop a potentially dangerous animal from attending the local high school. This seems especially odd considering American folklore's longtime obsession with scary wolfmen.
Theory: The school board, at the urging of the school's wolf-hating vice principal Rusty Thorne, briefly considered banning Scott from school. However, Scott's father, Harold -- who had faced similar persecution during his teenage years -- was already ready with a federal lawsuit against such a move. In a closed-door meeting immediately after Scott outs himself, Harold threatens the school board with a long drawn out court battle over civil rights statues and the "equal protection" clause of the constitution. The school board quickly relents, citing budget deficits. As for picketing and protests, the parents who are most outraged at a wolfman in their school are also the most frightened of wolfmen, meaning they are too afraid to publicly protest for fear of retribution by the the Howards.
Unanswered Question: Was David Lightman prosecuted?
What remains unknown: After breaking into the WOPR super computer and almost inadvertently starting a nuclear war, teen hacker David Lightman helped defuse the crisis he created. Though earlier in "War Games" he had been arrested for his actions, he was congratulated for his heroics by relieved generals and military police in the situation room at NORAD. However, for all the backslapping and cheering, the fact remains that David illegally broke into the Pentagon's computer network. Was he eventually prosecuted for the crimes he was initially arrested for?
Theory: The Pentagon refuses to drop the charges against David, however, because of his age and his belated heroics, military brass offer him a plea bargain -- in exchange for an admission of guilt, David gets a suspended sentence on the condition that he agrees to work for three years as the apprentice of Dr. McKittrick, helping him plug the clearly huge security holes in the WOPR.
Unanswered Question: Why didn't David Lopan die when Jack Burton hit him with his truck?
What remains unknown: The first time Jack Burton sees David Lopan in "Big Trouble In Little China," he runs him down with his truck during a gang battle in a Chinatown alleyway. Lopan, of course, remains completely unharmed, suggesting that he is some sort of deity who cannot be killed through standard blunt force trauma. Yet, at the end of the same movie, Jack kills Lopan in the basement of the Wing Kong Exchange by throwing a hunting knife into Lopan's forehead. Granted, running someone over with a truck and penetrating their skull with a blade are two different forms of bodily harm -- but they both fall under the rubric of standard physical violence. How could Lopan be killed by one but not the other?
Theory: Unbeknownst to anyone, David Lopan's baby soft spot never fully closed when he was first born 2,000 years ago. This was always his hidden weakness, but even Wang and Egg Shen, who are familiar with the Lopan mythology, never knew it. Jack, therefore, got incredibly lucky to hit Lopan in precisely the place that could kill him. Unfortunately, though, Lopan's soft spot was not hit when Jack first ran him down with his truck. (UPDATE: Somehow, I forgot the fact that, even though it's true that Lopan never completed the wedding necessary to become fully mortal and all-powerful at the same time, he did finish enough of the ceremony to become partially mortal, and therefore he was, in fact, killable at the end. My bad - mystery solved!)
Unanswered Question: What happens to Del Griffith after he moves in with Neil Page?
What remains unknown: Unlike most John Hughes movies, which tend to end with everything neatly tied up in a "happily ever after" package, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" ends rather abruptly -- and with no real resolution. All we learn is that traveling shower-curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith has no home, and that his wife died years ago. Upon finding this out, ad executive Neal Page appears to ask Del to live with him and his sprawling family in suburban Chicago (this request isn't stated, but it seems clear Neal is asking Del over for more than just one Thanksgiving meal). But since we know Neal and Del have serious problems being together for long stretches, can we really believe that this arrangement actually works out and that Del isn't kicked in a matter of days?
Theory: No, we can't actually believe that, as much as the happy music at the end asks us to. On the contrary, Del lasts about two weeks at the Page house, before being thrown out on the street. Neal wanted to let Del stay, he really did. But Del was Del -- he smoked in the house, he left his dirty underwear and socks in the bathroom and he wouldn't stop yakking when it was time for everyone to go to bed. This grated on the family, but they tried to tolerate it. However, when he pulled an exact reprise of his antics at the Braidwood Inn, first spilling beer all over the guest room and then loudly unclogging his eustachian tubes, Neal snapped and told Del he had to leave. This was a monumental crossroads in Del's life, and he decided to take radical action. He shaved his mustache, got an apartment in downtown Chicago, applied for a sales job at a local tire dealer and changed his name to Buck Russell. Though he vowed never to return to the north shore of Chicago, his estranged brother unexpectedly called him up two years after the Page affair and asked him to take care of his nieces and nephews. Hence, the the anti-hero Uncle Buck was born.
Unanswered Question: Why was Maverick investigated for Goose's death, but not the defense contractor that built their plane?
What remains unknown: During the official "Top Gun" inquiry into Goose's death, only Maverick was potentially to blame. But watch the tape -- Goose dies not because of Maverick's maneuver, but because his body is ejected into the cockpit door that should have been fully open and out of the way. And yet, in the film, we are led to believe that only Maverick is being questioned in the tragic accident -- but not executives at the defense contracting firm that built the plane. How is this possible?
Theory: The facts of this case were really clear: If Maverick ejected and survived, Goose should have survived, too. But the Military-Industrial Complex doesn't like bad publicity. So in a backroom deal, top Navy officials inform the contractor that they need to quietly fix all the doors on the planes, and in exchange, the military will sweep the whole inquiry under the rug. Maverick is quickly exonerated, but because he doesn't know this deal has been cut, he has a lot of trouble getting his flying confidence back. While we are led to believe he's still shaken by Goose's death, what really haunts him -- and hampers his flying abilities -- is his belief that the planes he's being asked to continue piloting are flying Pintos. For weeks, he is wracked by guilt knowing he could have pulled a Ralph Nader and blown the whistle. Only when Viper pulls him aside and tells him of the deal does Maverick finally regain his confidence -- luckily, right before he is needed to save Ice Man and Slider from an intense MiG dogfight.