One of the joys of Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) is that it transplants the sensibilities of the 1980s to the 1950s. One of the joys of Back to the Future Part II is that it transplants those same sensibilities into what it imagined 2015 would be like. (At the time the film was made, of course, 2015 was more than 25 years away.) The film’s vision of the twenty-first century is embellished by many outlandish inventions, from huge holographic sharks that advertise the opening of the eighteenth sequel to Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) to re-hydratable pizzas and self-drying jackets. But none of them delights us like the hoverboard.
The hoverboard was a perfect piece of science fiction design. It took the skateboard, a low-tech 1980s staple of – depending on your generational allegiance – carefree recreation or teenage delinquency, and freed it from the surly bonds of Earth to create the coolest toy the movies had ever seen. From the moment Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly purloined one to escape the band of bullies who molest the McFly family across successive generations, the hoverboard was an indelible entry in cinema’s history of the future.
There are many explanations for its resonance with audiences. One is that it foretold a time when gadgets (to which the 1980s had made us addicted) would be slight and simple, the opposite of enormous arcade machines and boom boxes that were only just small enough to carry. But the chief reason for the hoverboard’s appeal – and why it is more attractive than film’s most powerful spaceships, time machines and supercomputers – is the simplest: it is so much fun. Regardless of their potential to expand the frontiers of human knowledge, it is not technology’s most sophisticated scientific equipment that truly interests and excites us but the latest lifestyle-enhancing gadgets we can enjoy at home or carry around with us. We need not be expert students of human behaviour to know what most people would honestly pick given their choice of control over cold fusion, mastery of perpetual motion or a flying skateboard.