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Back to the Future Part II


This first sequel deserves full credit for pushing concept to the foreground and in so doing making the frequent failing of a continuation – the essential dilemma of the original has been resolved – much less relevant to its success. On its initial release, I was even willing to credit Back to the Future Part II as being on a par with the first film, albeit an altogether different beast. It’s actually very far from that, but it is, on its own terms, one of the more fascinating and worthwhile sequels to come out of Hollywood. Do I think it should have been made? Probably, on balance, not, but what we have is one of the lead exhibits in the case that franchises don’t just have to consist of shallow retreads.

Ironically, there are those who look at the return to the first movie’s “Fish Under the Sea” dance and see it as exactly the reheat the picture is avoiding, rather than credit its meta weaving in, and commentary on, those preceding events. Obviously, with hindsight, this evidences that, divorced from the genuinely engaging idea Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had first time out, it was an opportunity for visual effects tricksiness that would gradually becoming the driving force of the former’s career. Certainly, this seems like a better decision to me than Gale’s initial idea of going back to a ’60s campus (likewise, the choice to have George dead in the alt-1985 may have been borne of “necessity” – if you want to call manoeuvring Crispin Glover out of returning and reconfiguring the part as little more than a mocking cameo that – but it ensures everyone isn’t simply being meted out equal measures of plot regardless, and that there are some stakes (George is dead!)

I don’t have much in the way of criticism of the back half of the picture. Indeed, once the first forty minutes are dealt with, Back to the Future Part II works like gangbusters. Which isn’t to say it still doesn’t carry a particularly unwieldy albatross of a plot device around its neck that points to the need for several more drafts, as it surely wouldn’t have been given a pass in the much more torturously honed first movie. Which is, likely as not, why it suddenly springs into existence here. Yes, the “Nobody calls me chicken” personality failing of Marty is desperately, desperately weak, and it’s quite shocking that, in a movie otherwise so verdant with ideas, one so utterly bereft of any value whatsoever should have been settled upon as acceptable. Its one saving grace – and I still don’t think it in any way justifies the greater crime – is that, on the last such (of three, I think) mentions, Marty gets a door slammed in his face, by himself, as if to say “Will you shut up about your lame-o hang-up? Your previous self didn’t have it. Look, here he is now”.

The other notable failing is that, while the 2015 sequence has the stops pulled out visually, with many amusing quirks and tics, its raison d’être is desperately thin, required as something to resolve the first movie’s cliffhanger but neither very successfully conjured in terms of Marty’s kids’ “pressing” problem(s) nor Zemeckis’ admitted disinterest in visiting somewhere that was “just the opinion of the writer” (er, so what does that make Contact, Bob?). 

In going there, and giving the kids issues – ones that aren’t really all that – the two Bobs end up having to make Doc Brown a liar (per the end of Part I), as Marty and Jennifer clearly do not turn out fine. Marty’s a failure and a washup (and presumably fired as a result of 1985 Marty and Doc’s butterfly-effect intervention? Since Doc goes forward in time – sufficiently so to know the kids’ fates – and doesn’t mention this had happened). Marty Jr’s an outright imbecile, while Martine gets about two minutes of screen time (Fox in drag, looking more feminine than Elizabeth Shue and suggesting the trans movement will be burgeoning by 2015. Who knew, right?) Which is about the same as Shue, who is so summarily discarded with abject lack of concern (twice!) you wonder why she thought the role was a good thing (I mean, she’d been the female lead in Cocktail the year before). Jonathan Rosenbaum cited this an example of the movie’s “rampant misogyny”, but there’s nothing like overstatement (Rosenbaum is generally a perceptive critic, however).

The lack of attention awarded Jennifer is almost inversely proportional when it comes to Biff. Not that it doesn’t make for some interesting results, but that they’re also on the odd side. So Biff’s a doormat in alt-85, until he sees a time machine, at which point, his inner thug/ grouch is summoned, and he “What the hells”, spends the next thirty years evidently developing a degree of intelligence alongside his (re-) burgeoning brute, such that when he sees the time machine again, he has an uncanny degree of competence and faculty that enables him to work out how to use it, how to change time to his advantage and so set in process conditions that result in an alternate timeline with remarkable – possibly even absurd – acumen. My tendency is to let the wrinkles go, as Thomas F Wilson’s performance(s) is so good, but like the “chicken”, it isn’t the most rigorously devised of character developments.

Back to the Future Part II also, as if it needs stating, given the end of the original, has its issues in dealing with the workings of time travel. Doc Brown uses a blackboard to set out the mechanics here, but he fails to note that they’ve already travelled from an alternate 1985 to 2015 (it’s just that he’s happy with that alternate 1985, as everyone is rich, and he ends up getting a facelift and new blood, the latter being a bit creepy, of course). 

At one point, Doc warns Marty about 1955 because there are alternates of themselves wandering around. Of course, there were in the alternate 1985 too, but one of them was committed and the other one was in Switzerland. Presumably, when they leave there, there are two Jennifers, but somehow, time is going to rearrange itself to iron out this kink (which suggests it is less time travelling than proximity to a time-travelling machine that allows one to retain awareness? What will Jennifer remember when she awakens?)

Additionally, shouldn’t an alt-2015 develop, sucking in Marty and the Doc, if the same is to happen to alt-1985 Jennifer? This is excused with the “ripple effect”, as I understand it, which is a fast-and-loose cop out, but time-travel movies absolutely need them to get by. You get the same thing with the alt-1985, which appears to preserve Doc and Marty from the original in a bubble, such that Marty has still travelled back to the original’s 1955. 

This is all a good reason for the kind of time-travel “rules” seen here abiding by the multiple co-existing timelines theory, as it’s the only really satisfying one under these circumstances. Like how Marty and Jennifer’s future selves are in 2015 when they aren’t. Yeah, yeah, because they go back to 1985 eventually. But they haven’t in that alt-2015 (you can find people in moviechat quoting Doc’s sop “You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally” which is a cute response to a lack of logical integrity). Zemeckis and Gale avoid the butterfly-effect implications of Biff betting repeatedly on sports events too (given the way sports is, or is accused of, being rigged, someone continually winning big would surely have an impact in all sorts of areas. Why hasn’t the Mob taken a hit out on him?) One might suggest that’s allowed for, as Biff (clearly quite bright after all: who knew?) branches out and begins to amass a fortune from straight investments.

Back to the Future Part II has bags of energy, like a clockwork toy that doesn’t need winding, so it’s odd that the opening titles are so incredibly lazy (do you remember them? I wouldn’t have. They’re clouds; IMDB has them as outtakes from Firefox, which is even worse, if true). The bright shiny “positive” and “optimistic” 2015 is deceptively so. Sure, there are cool clothes, hoverboards, Nike and Pepsi and flying cars, and retro Max Headroom-style talking heads. It certainly had the ’80s nostalgia thing right (albeit, that was arguably in evidence as far back as The Wedding Singer). 

But Japanese corporations appear to be in charge (more 1990s), every home has multiple fax machines, and the ozone count is 10.5 percent (little did they know ozone was a passing fad). Information overload is rife, such that there are wall screens in homes with six channels playing at once (including the Atrocity Channel – Eli Roth’s?) Lifestyles and fashions are simultaneously mad-keen on lycra (including female cops) and increasingly sedentary (“That’s like a baby’s toy”: kids having to use their hands). A positive future, but one where everyone is ID’d by thumb prints and “The justice system works swiftly in the future, now lawyers have been abolished”. There are also bionic implants, so transhumanism is rife. So at least a couple of aspects are legitimate. 

Mostly, the future is characterised by a lot of straining on Zemeckis’ part, since the riffs on the familiar-but-different are much less sprightly. An entire scene around the dinner table with hydrated pizza and multiple Michael Js surely inspired Eddie Murphy for the Klumps, but good as Fox is (especially as older Marty, while Jr is like Daniel Radcliffe if he could act), it’s frenetic rather than kinetic (the George substitute is simply feeble mugging, while Lea Thompson is stuck playing an old-lady cartoon, as opposed to the polished work of the first movie). The repeat of the hoverboard Chase sequence is a lot clunkier than the original’s counterpart, but it gets full marks for trying. 

Zemeckis is on much more solid ground with alt-1985, embracing the It’s a Wonderful Life-ness of it all. Evidently, this is a nice, simple view of the world, one where you can see a “Trump”-like figure as the source of all ills (there is no Elite, only Biff). One who can confidently announce “I own the police”. Mr Strickland is a particular winner here. We’re only there for about twenty minutes, but it’s crucial for informing the movie’s desperate edge. “Greed is bad” is much more serviceable than “chicken” as a plot device, and at least forms a kind of implicit rebuke of the first movie’s ending. 

The subsequent riffs on its 1955 are good too, although, once you notice the Glover stand-in, you can’t not. It’s a great cliffhanger ending, but I still recall how the attached trailer for Back to the Future Part III underwhelmed at the time. Which is still how I feel. It’s maximum pastiche, which is fine, but it’s far from shooting for the stars, which is what the series should have been doing, and in one way or another, both previous films could say they were. Fox is still light on his feet (“Oh la la!”) but only Thompson really comes out of this with additional lustre, since everyone else is either stuck on repeat or reduced to strained “bits”.

Pauline Kael called it “all manic and wacky. It’s all twists… I’ve never seen a movie in such a hurry or with so much shouting” before saying Who Framed Roger Rabbit was like this but a nightmare; “Back to the Future Part II isn’t nightmarish; it’s sort of fun. But there’s no real zest in it. it’s more like a board game – or a video game – than a movie”. It “smacks of the assembly line… The inventiveness seems to be on a treadmill in a void”. Crucially – I don’t disagree with her per se on those points, but I think she’s typically underserving it – she notes “Making the Marty of 2015 a business executive who’s a cringing loser goes against the grain of everything we’ve seen Fox do as the young Marty, and the movie seems rather offhand about making Marty’s son a wimpish twit”. Zemeckis and Gale essentially seem to be saying “We can do what we like as we know it will all be smoothed out in the end”. She finishes by suggesting “The inventiveness is fast and furious, but low in spirit. Inventiveness has become a formula. And yet the construction keeps you going – it’s a frenzied daydream that you don’t want to break off”.

Biff as Trump? According to GaleYeah. That’s what we were thinking about”. Of course, if the Crazy Days Crazy Nights blind piece is accurate, any shade any producer of Back to the Future is casting on anyone else is entirely suspect. Jay Dyer takes Gale up with “a very negative portrayal of Biff as Donald Trump as President” (the question here would be, if this is predictive programming, and Donald is a White Hat they didn’t suspect, at what point and where does this embed itself as predictive programming?) Biff isn’t President, of course, but let’s not let that derail the comparison. Time-travelling Donald Trump, though? Hmm, perhaps this is something to this.

Picking up on the Marty/Greys parallel from the first movie, if we posit Doc Brown as Nikola Tesla rather than Einstein, then he’s announcing the dangers of time travel require the device to be destroyed lest it falls into the wrong hands. Most would identify these hands as Biff/ Trump, but the original implication is humans from the future claiming to be aliens (Marty).

On the Dark Hollywood conspiracy side, the following casts a certain pall over proceedings – so no more or less than your average Spielberg production – and implicates Zemeckis and Gale too (so maybe Zemeckis hasn’t been making Zemeckis movies for the last few years). Here’s the blind item in full: 

Why didn’t he make it? One simple reason. He put his foot down and said he would call a press conference to tell the world what the producers were doing with the kids they were auditioning for no reason because the script didn’t actually call for any kids to be in the movie. Oh, sure, they invented a couple background walk on type roles for the kids to appear in to make sure the parents were assuaged. Yeah, sorry you didn’t know where your son was all day, but hey, good news he gets to be in the movie now.

This actor, who has never probably eclipsed B+ list was portrayed as a troublemaker for spreading the truth. He was effectively blacklisted by any and all people who were friends with the producers which was 75% of Hollywood. There was a group though who were not friends and they have kept the actor at least earning enough to make a living.

I can’t even watch the film any longer because of what I know what was happening on the set. The actor said the multiple bedrooms used in scenes in the movie would often smell of cigars and booze because that is often where the producers would take the boys after their “tour” of the set. Our actor also says that every other actor on that film set knew what was going on but they valued their careers more than the horrors taking place.

Only one other person on set was willing to sacrifice their career and this foreign-born actress did. When she walked out, she basically didn’t work again for almost two decades.

Glover hasn’t professed to any of this publicly, clearly, but he did write an essay alluding to Spielberg’s unhealthy interests (that the link is to News Punch, fond of making things up, is neither here nor there in this case, as they’re just reprinting it). But then again, he worked with Zemeckis on Beowulf two decades later. And, crediting the story as legitimate, for the sake of argument, if it isn’t referring to Back to the Future Part II, what movie is it? Claudia Wells was born in Malaysia, and she didn’t work again on TV for (actually more than) two decades. So all this was going on during Back to the Future, a Spielberg production. You know, like Poltergeist was (lots of nastiness there, in particular subsequently). And The Goonies (where Corey Feldman “jokingly” suggested he thought the director and producers were up to satanic rituals in their trailer). You’ve got to wonder about any and all Spielberg productions of the period (including Jurassic Park) by default. If the blind piece is confirmed as accurate, Back to the Future’s lasting appeal will be as shot as, well, probably the better portion of Hollywood movies when all the dirt comes out.

Elijah Wood was in the cast of Back to the Future Part II, lest we forget. Fortunately, he was scrupulously chaperoned. Perhaps the most predictive part of Back to the Future trilogy then, is that, rather than simply Marty and Jennifer’s, something’s got to be done about the kids. Everyone’s. Making it all the more appropriate that the series’ villain should be a Trump substitute; in the series’ inversions, the villain becomes the real-life hero, just as the “nice” future masks a deceptively totalitarian one.

Following the movie’s release, a Starlog article by Bruce Gordon, The Return of the Other Marty McFly, a follow up to a 1986 piece, made the case that Part III had to be about Biff’s redemption; the author evidenty had loftier, more coherent ideas in his head than the writers. Here it is:

There’s only one question whose answer must be for certain in this mixed-up universe of time travel. When all is said and done, and the universe is put back together, there can only be one character who turns out to be the hero.
No, it’s not Marty. It’s not Doc. It’s not Jennifer. Who’s left? It has to be Biff. The villain must be reformed.
If Biff never learns a thing from all of these adventures, if he never changes for the better, if he never grows as a person, if he never makes a sacrifice to help his fellow man, then all the
Back to the Future fireworks have been for naught.

He was disappointed by what he got in Back to the Future Part III, needless to say…

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