Retro Review – Back to the Future Part II
Happy Future Day…or if you’re reading this after then I hope you had a good Future Day. The day I published this article is the same day that Marty McFly, his girlfriend Jennifer, Doc Brown and his dog Einstein travelled into the year 2015 in Back to the Future Part II. The date being October 21st and the arrival time is 4:29pm which makes it 12:29am the next day in UK time so does that make Future Day the 22nd of October in any time zone where it crosses into the next day? I’m going to stick with October 21st personally. I don’t know the precise second they arrived but I think that would be a little too sad even for me.
I mentioned in my review of the first one that it has science fiction elements without them taking over the story. This film is the exact opposite with the character drama in the background and the science fiction elements taking the central focus. It gets away with it because all of the characters were established in the first film so it makes it easier to accept them launched into a more outlandish story. It was a bold change to make giving the sequel a more science fiction feel and throwing in more complex concepts to mull over but that’s what makes it so great to me.
The first film hints at the potential of time travel as a storytelling device and this film jumps right in and starts to really explore all of that potential. In the space of a single film we see a possible future, an alternate reality and the past without it feeling bogged down in too many ideas. That really takes skill and returning writing duo Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale more than have the talent to pull that off.
Interestingly the first film was made without the intention of doing a sequel. It’s commonly reported that the final scene that hints at further adventures was done as a joke but the popularity of the film meant that a sequel was inevitable. I wonder how much of an irritation it was to have to craft a story for a sequel that would somehow involve Marty and Jennifer’s kids.
It should be noted that using the ending of the first film as a springboard for the sequel proved a little problematic when Claudia Wells didn’t return as Jennifer meaning that the sequence had to be re-shot with Elizabeth Shue taking on the role. The opportunity was used well with some changes to the dialogue, angles, Doc Brown’s reactions and the addition of Biff seeing the DeLorean take off, something that would become very important to the film. On the subject of Doc’s slightly different reactions my favourite has to be when Marty asks him what happens in the future, wondering if he and Jennifer become assholes and the Doc hesitates as he looks like he is thinking about it before confirming that they turn out fine. It’s a wonderfully subtle moment and showcases the boundless comic talents of Christopher Lloyd.
The story that we get works as long as you don’t scrutinise it too heavily. Doc Brown takes them to the year 2015 to prevent their son from being arrested and starting a chain reaction that destroys the family but surely that could easily have been prevented by warning Marty and Jennifer to not make certain choices.
As I said, as long as you don’t scrutinise it too heavily then it’s fine and keeps with the comedic tone set by the first film. The future -or our present- is presented as a series of jokes that would conceivably never happen. Technology like hoverboards, flying cars, self lacing shoes and automatically drying size adjusting jackets would seem laughable even for the time it was made and looking back on it they seem even more ridiculous.
Of course it’s 2015 and we have none of those things though apparently hoverboards and flying cars exist but aren’t economical to produce so that’s why we don’t have them. Let’s look at what was correctly predicted, don’t worry the list isn’t extensive.
Now before you say anything, everyone knows that there are no Jaws movies after the fourth one -be thankful for small mercies- so obviously there is no Jaws 19 but if you strip away the film itself and take it as a representation of what it is i.e. the latest in a long procession of sequels then it starts to look pretty accurate. The Hollywood of today is obsessed with franchising and sequels so Jaws 19 doesn’t seem so outlandish when you look at it like that. Also, it’s in 3D and while our version of the technology is a lot different I’m going to go ahead and count it as an accurate prediction
Controller Free Gaming
We don’t actually see this in practice during any of the scenes but when young Elijah Wood and his friend complain
that using your hands makes it “like a baby’s toy” the implication is that using a controller of some kind to control video games is something that is long dead. For us it’s still an integral part of gaming and for some, the only way to do it. We do have technology like the Nintendo Wii, XBox Kinect or Playstation Move that remove the need for a controller from the gaming so again, accurate prediction.
After Griff and co crash through the clock tower an old man approaches Marty asking him to donate some money to save it. He has in his hand a tablet of some kind so that Marty could press his thumb to it and donate money. So that’s two things, tablets and fingerprint scanners available for public consumption.
An Insane Amount of Channels
In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly Jr. uses a TV to watch a scary number of different channels at once and can somehow follow all of them despite the fact that it seems like white noise to us. We can do that now but it is typically used for sports. I suppose you could use it for anything but why would you? The sheer number of channels available is pretty bang on as well
Wall Mounted Wide Screen TVs
This is pretty self explanatory as we all have one or know someone who does. It’s a convenient way to have your TV be a part of your life without it taking up some of that coveted floor space. It also seems to be a SMART TV so that can get 2 points if indeed this was a scoring system…which it isn’t
Ever used Skype or Facetime? Need I say more? Fine, I will. The idea of talking to someone in real time visually is so old hat to us now that we can use our phones and watches to do it. It has revolutionised the way global business works and marks another accurate prediction for this film.
Well, that was fun but I should really talk about the film in general. To my mind this is the best film in the trilogy and it’s sort of hard to articulate why. I think a lot of it has to do with my childhood memories of how cool it all is. Seeing the future is cool, the flying DeLorean is cool and very heavily featured and there are so many entertaining scenes. The first film has most of those things too but there’s something about this one that makes it edge in front.
I do really admire the science fiction focus of the story in this film and I always have. I was 2 years old when this film came out so as you might imagine I had many opportunities to watch it growing up and if I bothered to think about it I could probably pinpoint how I responded to it at different stages of my life. Assuming I first saw it when I was 5 years old -I don’t actually know when I first saw it- then the complex time travel mechanics would have gone over my head as would pretty much the rest of the story but that’s where the cool imagery comes in.
A flying car is always going to capture the imagination of a young nerd like I was back then. Also, the Doc looks funny and shouts a lot so that’s got to be funny to young people. It’s not until I get older that I start to understand what he’s shouting about and piece together what’s actually going on. What we have here is a film that appeals to kids on a very primal visual level enough to make a lasting impression that prompts various re-watches later in life when the brain is better developed to understand things. I suppose it’s a form of brainwashing but when I’m brainwashed into loving this film I don’t actually mind.
One thing this film does really well is dumbing down the complex ideas without assuming the audience is stupid. Marty is the audience avatar being taken on this wild ride and is a little confused by the whole thing so has to constantly ask what’s going on. Naturally the Doc is all too happy to explain, sometimes even with chalkboards so there’s really no danger of being confused as things happen.
Not having it explained upfront turns out to be a good thing because it puts you completely in Marty’s self lacing shoes. A good example of that is when he spends some time on his own in the dark alternate 1985 and struggles to get his head around what he is seeing. Much of the audience will be able to relate to that and are put a bit at ease when Doc Brown explains exactly what’s wrong and what is involved in fixing it. The film works with the audience and treats the viewer with respect rather than talking down to them about what it feels that you should understand.
Marty and Doc Brown are immensely entertaining in this film as their friendship deepens over the course of the story. Marty respects the Doc and Doc Brown has a lot of respect for him. He forgives Marty’s mistake with the almanac easily because he can see that he wants to set it right and acknowledges that he’s only a young man who is bound to make mistakes especially with the temptation of knowing the future. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd bounce off each other perfectly and have several scenes where the comedy just pops because of their performance. They are truly one of the best double acts ever put to film.
The connecting hook in this film is Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff who becomes problematic in all 3 time periods. In the future Marty buys a book containing 50 years of sports statistics to give him the holy financial grail when he returns to his own time. Doc Brown disapproves and carelessly disposes of it giving Biff the prime opportunity to make use of Marty’s idea. He overhears everything about the time machine because Doc has no inside voice and takes the almanac back in time to give to himself as a teenager.
Biff’s intervention creates the alternate 1985 where he is pretty much Donald Trump on steroids and rules over pretty much everything. Back in the past he’s pretty much the same as in the first film. Thankfully he uses the word “butthead” no matter when we see him. It would be a shame to see such a great insult be lost to time.
The great thing about Biff is that he’s consistent. He’s set up as being an idiot in 1955 and this carries all through is life. He seems a bit smarter when he’s old but compared to his grandson Griff (also played by Wilson) a rock looks intelligent. Some of the lines he has such as “make like a tree and get outta here” or “that’s about as funny as a screen door on a battleship” are absolutely priceless and show how much of an idiot he is. He’s the guy you think of when you think of cinematic bullies. Big, dumb and needlessly violent and cruel.
His 1985 persona is the one that I always found to be a bit of a tough sell. He admits to Marty that he murdered his father George so that he could marry Lorraine but as mean as the guy is I think becoming a murderer is a bit of a stretch for him. It’s not made a big deal of as the reveal comes just before that timeline is fixed out of existence but it still bothers me a little. I also wonder how he managed to build such a global empire since he hasn’t gotten any smarter. His funniest line in the 1985 scenes is when he insists that he doesn’t see any resemblance between himself and the “distant relative” that turns out to be him from the future. There’s just endless entertainment that comes from this guy.
We also see in this film how talented an actor Thomas F. Wilson really is as he plays very different incarnations of the same character. The 1985 Biff at the start of the film is only in one scene but he’s sort of a nice guy who is eager to please but a bit lazy, the alternate 1985 Biff is an unhinged sociopath who never fails to intimidate and the 2015 Biff is an angry bitter old man who seems to really hate his life. Lastly the 1955 Biff is violent and obnoxious. It’s impressive that such a relatively 1 dimensional character from the first film could have all this depth to him. I guess that’s what comes with seeing him at very different points in his life. He also plays Biff’s grandson Griff who is a lot like 1955 Biff but taken to the extreme. Wilson is such a talented guy, it’s a shame that he’s not in more.
Outside of Biff we also get to see how Marty McFly turns out in the year 2015 when poor Jennifer gets stuck in her future home. Life hasn’t turned out as planned for Marty who was in a car accident that caused him to break his hand and give up on his music. As such he’s stuck in a dead end job that not even his parents can see the positive side to, lives in a house in a rough neighbourhood and has a daughter who looks like him if he dressed like a woman. Seriously, the daughter Marlene McFly is terrifying. Why couldn’t Elizabeth Shue have pulled double duty on that one? It would have worked as Michael J. Fox plays Marty McFly Jr.
The accident that started Marty’s downfall happened because he was challenged to a drag race and accepted after being called chicken. It becomes a running gag in this film and the next one that Marty can’t stand being called that though in the next film it extends to any sort of coward related insult. This is a character trait that comes out of nowhere as it was never established in the first one but I can’t complain too much as it does have a suitable pay-off by the end of the next film and signifies personal growth for the character. In this film he gets fired after agreeing to do something illegal after being called chicken and it gets faxed to every fax machine outlet in his house. There are so many of them which seems like an odd thing to have all around your house.
It’s interesting that Marty manages to grow as a person without the intervention of future knowledge. He never finds out what he’s like in 2015 so has no real motivation to prevent it from happening. Old Biff does tell him that he flushed his life down the toilet but he never hears the details. It would have been really easy for him to see his future and make a conscious decision to be a better man. Jennifer learns a lot though and we’ll never really know how heavily she is influenced by it.
I’ve said about as much as I need to about the alternate 1985 as it’s a fun yet horrifying diversion showing how bad things can get if the ability to travel through time falls into the wrong hands but the end of the film back in 1955 has a lot more to it.
It’s really cleverly put together seeing key moments from the first film from different perspectives. Marty runs around trying to get the almanac while the first film is happening in the background and there’s a lot of great comedy based around Marty and the Doc trying to stay out of the events they are already part of. The attention to detail in these scenes is absolutely staggering as everything matches up perfectly.
The sheer number of near misses as Marty tries to get a hold of the almanac really build the tension and still leave me holding my breath to see if he’ll succeed even though I know that he does. Seeing him lose the almanac after finally getting it is particularly frustrating but in a good way. There’s also a really tense scene as Marty makes his final attempt to grab the book from Biff in his car. So much about that sequence is just right from the music, the slow build as Marty inches his way along the car and the suspense created by hoping that Biff won’t spot him. There’s even a triumphant moment at the end as Biff is again covered in manure which makes two incidents for him in as many days. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I’ve said it before, Zemeckis really is a master of these sorts of scenes as all 3 of these films will attest to.
When everything seems like it has been wrapped up nicely and it’s time to go home the film throws a curve ball as the DeLorean is struck by lightning which seems to disintegrate it as well as the Doc. Marty doesn’t have to grieve for long as a mysterious man from Western Union shows up with a letter that they have had in their possession for decades. Of course it’s from the Doc who reveals that he’s safe in 1885 which matches up with what he said earlier about wanting to visit the Old West. It seems that he likes it so much that he decides to stay there but to find out more about that we’ll have to wait until Part III.
People have different views on this film because of the ending. Both of the Back to the Future sequels were filmed back to back and form two halves of a single story. It could be seen that the whole thing is a bit of a cheat as the second one is only really half a film with the third one finishing it off but I don’t see it that way at all. It has an ending that doesn’t close the story off sure but everything about it still works on its own merits. Structurally it’s the story of the present being screwed up and then fixed which all gets resolved in the film. The cliffhanger ending is just that, a cliffhanger that will be resolved in the next one. Whether that film is successful is up for debate but as a standalone story this one still completely counts as far as I’m concerned.
It’s also a very successful sequel as it expands the mythology and furthers the characters while delivering something new. Even visual homages like the hoverboard chase being similar to the skateboard chase in the first film has enough additions to make it feel fresh. Biff even calls the scene out on the similarities by pointing out that it feels familiar. The film challenges you to remember the scene from the first one and notice how it has been enhanced in many ways.