Review (mild spoilers): Secret Cinema Presents...Back to the Future

Tickets and details here.

Runs until 31 August. Hackney Wick. £53

RATING: ★★★★☆

After a week of delays, which The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw cunningly referred to as an “Eric Stoltz moment” (you’ll have to be a real Back to the Future fan to get the reference, but presumably if you are going to Secret Cinema, you are) Secret Cinema’s immersive screening based on the hit 1985 comedy finally launched on 31 July. This review is based on a visit paid to the site, which occupies a huge car park in Hackney Wick, on 8 August. Bear in mind that not every visit might be the same, the trip I made with my oldest schoolfriend and fellow BTTF nut, for example, featured a very special guest appearance before the film screened which might well not be repeated on other nights; though it is very possible other guests might be lined up.

Set destination time: November 5th, 1955: ticket holders wait to enter the Hackney Wick site

Set destination time: November 5th, 1955: ticket holders wait to enter the Hackney Wick site

No visit to the Secret Cinema event is likely to be the same, as aside from different special guests and events that can be switched around on each night, each guest will probably wander at different times, and at their own pace, into the different mini-narratives based on the film that actors in costume play out across the site before the screening. That unpredictability is part of the appeal of this form of immersive cinema event that mixes elements of immersive theatre such as that practised by Punchdrunk, the communal appeal of a pop-up cinema, and good old-fashioned fancy dress. 

For their Back to the Future season, Secret Cinema creator Fabien Riggel promised the most ambitious immersive event yet, with the film to be screened in a huge recreation of the famous twee little town of Hill Valley, which is the setting for the time-crossing adventures of the original film (and which was itself a complete Universal studios film set, talk about getting meta here). Audiences were encouraged, weeks before the event, to take the immersion to possibly exhausting levels by dressing up in 1955 era costumes (the film’s plot takes places across 1985 and 1955, but the event in terms of window dressing the event is focused, with some exceptions, on the 1955 period), acquiring via social media a Hill Valley 1955 identity, posting letters to other guests using the Hill Valley post office, and even visiting some off-site stores on Hackney Road that mimic stores seen in the film. Inevitably this led to calls of Icarus flying to close to the sun when the event failed to start on time, with various reasons thrown about by the show runners and fans ranging from fire safety issues to the clock tower structure not being finished, given the scale of it all.

Hill Valley's town square, complete with period costumes, cars, and Lou's Diner.

Hill Valley's town square, complete with period costumes, cars, and Lou's Diner.

Judging from the atmosphere I felt from the visit and the reviews I’ve read, these grumbles will soon be forgotten, though I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few non-London ticket buyers avoid buying in the first week for the next season given the teething troubles these larger scale projects might risk. I also wouldn’t recommend this kind of event for anyone not an ardent fan of the Back to the Future films. Even if you like the films ‘just fine’, that is probably not enough of a level of fan love to make the high ticket cost (£53) worth your time. You also need a GSOH. With an event like this, guests have to be prepared to meet Secret Cinema halfway when it comes to the immersion experience. Secret Cinema maintains a ‘never break the fourth wall’ approach, right down to trying to pass off the Facebook page for the event as the ‘Hill Valley social services bureau’ or something. If this kind of playful homage/play acting pisses you off, don’t bother even thinking of going. In terms of the physical site too, no amount of trickery can conceal the fact that it isn't exactly an immersive, wraparound experience. The meeting point for ticket holders is in Hackney Wick Overground station, and despite the efforts of ‘Hill Valley Fair’ sash wearing ushers, nothing can disguise the John Lewis, multi storey car parks, and office blocks that overshadow the site. You need to put the tongue in the cheek and play along.

The Hill Valley Town Square site itself is quite well-crafted, though no one should arrive expecting the entire Clock Tower or Hill Valley High School to be created life-size. The showrunners would be building the site until 2025 if so. What you get are more facades with immediately recognisable details that are designed to trigger a smile and a sense of comfort, and the crowds of costumed guests and actors (impossible to separate the two most of the time) are the essential glue. This is more an homage than an outright recreation, and you need to just go with it. As with other Secret Cinema events, various moments from the films are recreated via costumed actors at certain points, but with no warning. Given the size of the site and the crowds, these can be hard to spot, and often you end up walking into one scene halfway through before blundering into another and getting swept up in moving crowds of people. As for ourselves, we were grabbing a cheese burger in a recreation of Lou’s Diner when we heard a commotion, only to arrive at the far end of the cafe in time to see Marty McFly run out being chased by Biff Tannen and his gang. Before that, we had regularly run into cafe staff member Goldie Wilson, dutifully mopping down floors whilst taking the odd moment to greet guests and ask what they though of his chances of running for mayor.

The level of details extends to throwaway props like Hill Valley newspapers and flyers..

The level of details extends to throwaway props like Hill Valley newspapers and flyers..

Phones have to be left at the entrance (which is a bit frustrating as it means you can get lost from whoever you are with), and plenty of cash is needed: drinks and food are pricey with a burger costing an eye-watering £8. I would recommend eating before you go and saving the money for cans of Bud (£4) or milkshakes (£6) only. As this is 1955, flashing a Visa card will provoke a blank reaction from the actors working behind the bars, so paper money is back in fashion. It would've helped if it was made clearer that the Hill Valley Bank of America actually conceals working ATMs for those who’s cash is running low: it took us time to figure that out.

The real draw of the event ultimately for me was the sense of shared experience. There was no one there who was not a fanatic for the film, so there should be no risk of feeling like you might be too enthusiastic or stand out in anyway. My friend and I made a moderate effort with our costumes (I ended up looking like a confused beatnik as opposed to the Hill Valley High student I was tasked with), but plenty others went the extra mile, though not all obeyed the instructions to dress as per 1955 (there were plenty of Doc Brown lookalikes complete with white lab coats and shock-white wigs, and more than a few orange life preservers could be seen in honour of Marty McFly’s 1985 appearance). 

During the screening, as the film was projected onto the illuminated clock tower facade which looms suitably tall over the entire site, the audiences regularly erupted into deafening cheers. Whether it was Michael J. Fox’s first appearance complete with Nike red stripes and battered skateboard, the initial bars of Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love”, and the first on-screen appearance of the iconic DeLorean time machine, roars of approval were delivered every time. It is a safe, comforting feeling to see this kind of reaction, as well as a testament to how long this film has endured. A real-life storm made the last few hours a challenge, though weirdly that is in line with the film’s plotting in the final act where the famous Hill Valley storm offers Marty his return ticket to 1985. Guests should check the weather before going as there is no rain cover provided for the main square area in front of the screen.

Picture and sound quality were more than adequate for the film to be fully appreciated despite the crowd noise. The final icing on the cake came in the form of unheralded re-enactments around the town square site that mimicked (to a limited degree of course) the on screen events. It would be too spoilery to say anymore, but the crowd lapped it up and went home happy, lightening storm be damned. 

I will end with a warning to Secret Cinema though, despite this favourable review. There is an inherent snapping point whereby the scale of the event simply becomes so large that the immersion becomes impossible, where audiences end up laughing (and presumably feeling ripped off) at the lack of detail rather than simply sticking tongues in cheek and going along with the artifice. It was hard not to feel that with this stab at Back to the Future, this level might have been reached. The show creators tried to build an entire town square this time, and ran late doing so, so can and should they really go any further? A part of me missed the smaller, more intense, interior-set Secret Cinema events where there was no Stratford Marks and Spencer’s wandering into in my eyeline to ruin the feeling of falling into another world, where I didn't feel I had missed parts of the site because of the size, and where there was no danger of the weather getting in the way. I guess I wanted to go back to the past, despite enjoying Back to the Future.


Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.