Movie of the Week: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

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Robert Zemeckis directs Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F Wilson in this alternate timeline spanning epic sequel to the Eighties box office smash. 

We didn’t care too much about spoilers back in 1989. Batman being a restrictive 12 certificate, Bond being for 15s and over (Licence to Kill indeed!), by default the return of Marty McFly was the big release of our summer. And we had been collecting the packs of Topps trading cards that came with ten images from the film and stick of fruity hard bubblegum for months before.

Our eternally incomplete collections gave us fragments of what was coming. We knew Marty was going to 2015, we knew something had gone wrong and that butthead Biff was in charge, we knew somehow we were going back to the first film too. Yet when Alan Silvestri’s score took over (it is reprised unmercifully throughout, rarely a scene ending without being punctuated by those airpunching horns, and this is exactly what I want from a great movie theme) we were swept along and how it all unfolded thrilled me and my 10 year old mates. I absolutely loved it.

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Back to the Future Part II is almost the perfect sequel. It remakes the first film in three seperate mini-adventures (future, alternative 1985, repeat 1955) while adding set pieces that up the stakes without copying them. Marty has to be chased around Hill Valley Square on a board… only this time it is dodging landing flying cars and on a hoverboard. He has to correct reality altering mistakes but instead of his own existence being under threat it is everyone else’s (no disappearing hand this time… we see the consequences of his temporal polluting with our own eyes and it is economic armageddon for his entire community). He has to chase around the finale of the last film, but instead of reuniting his parents and hitting a lightning bolt, he has to make sure he doesn’t disrupt any of these events from happening.

Like a bull in a china shop when one breakage means the end of all existence.

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A sequel, therefore, that delivers the familiar while subverting expectations, retreads old ground in a way that feels fresh and revolutionary. Compared to III, which is a more traditional adventure that transposes similar beats to a different setting, it feels like the black sheep of the trilogy.

If the set pieces themselves seem a little smaller in scale (one involves Marty hiding under a desk), it is because this is a film about exploring time travel itself rather than eras specifically. Both I and III spend time having larks with baby boomers and cowboys respectively, building action specific to that period / genre. Here Marty and the Doc are recklessly trying to keep everything else on track while stopping the worst anomalies from happening. How Reagan era Conservative of them. It opens the film up to a glimpse of next century for sure, but more importantly the complex improbability of weaving through time without causing harm.

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A maze where meeting yourself creates a system error that will unravel reality. A magazine getting into the wrong hands can kill your loved ones. Where being spotted by the bullies can make them an obstacle for another version of you. Marty hides under a desk, it is not exactly attacking the Death Star in an X-Wing, but we know being caught under that desk means failure, failure means chaos. A butterfly flaps its wings there’s a hurricane across the globe. Step on an insect in the past, mankind is destroyed. The wrong version of you gets knocked out by Biff and neither of you exists.

The 2015 setting was a selling point in the promotion. It had been our promised destination since the finale of the original 4 long years earlier. And we get the joy of seeing the familiar futurised. Nikes with automatic laces, wall screens with hundreds of simultaneous channels, the survival of the fax machine, and yes… flying cars and hoverboards.

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The FX work to achieve “2015” is complex but unflashy. There very rarely are shots gratuitously just there to showcase the miniature work and nascent CGI. Instead the bulk of the magic goes on in the background, as set dressing, unremarked upon and overwhelming, while the action, comedy, exposition and coincidences are acted out in the foreground.

The most revolutionary SFX involve make-up and frame cutting so that actors can interact with themselves fluidly. This is either played for laughs or, later, tension. The Amstrad 464 tie-in game had a puzzle level where you had to guide young Jennifer through her future house but you had to track the movements of others on the map. If she came face to face with herself or kids… GAME OVER. And that sums up the main risk the movie plays with. If you interact or interrupt yourself significantly in a different time period, then all is lost.

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Of course, Zemeckis took his ability to insert actors into shots who shouldn’t be there a little too far when Crispin Glover was replaced by an actor in a latex mask. Pay dispute… script dispute… yadda yadda yadda… Glover declined. So instead of writing him completely out or blatantly recasting, they obfuscated a stand-in George McFly. Effectively too, keeping him in reflective shades or the middle distance or upside down… all the time wearing a rubber Crispin Glover mask. But it does deprive us of Glover, one of the acting highlights of the first film (honours shared with Lloyd’s loveable mad scientist).

It is one of three inelegant compromises in a near perfect film. The other obvious one being the “problem” of Jennifer Parker. Recast again… but more openly and pleasingly as Elisabeth Shue… the first film ended with her getting in the Delorean with Marty and the Doc en route to the new millennium. She’s treated as an inconvenience in the first act and left asleep on a porch for the rest of the trilogy. Obviously Zemeckis would rather she hadn’t come on the adventure so creates a get-out hatch to eject her from the plot. Poor show. Why couldn’t she join in on the fun? Help make the reams of exposition less monologue-y? Hell, what if she had a skill more useful than being Marty’s fated bride? Those options being beyond the writers’ imaginations, I bet they are kicking themselves that George McFly didn’t get in the Delorean at the end of Part I instead. Imagine the sci-fi geek witnessing the colourful utopia of 30 years hence then meeting his teenage self… What coulda, shoulda been…

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After a Mission: Accomplished in the future we return to 1985. At first everything seems normal. We notice subtle changes… Bars on Jennifer’s house windows, litter on the street, graffiti on the Lyon Estates signs, a wail in the distance. Marty climbs into his bedroom window. But it isn’t the McFly household anymore. Instead an alarmed young black family share his former room and the Dad is swinging his bat at the intruder. Time has been altered. We walk through an alternate “present” where the high school is closed, drive-by shootings happen, George is long murdered, Doc has been committed, Biff is a billionaire, Lorraine is his beaten trophy wife, Hill Valley is a casino and chemical dump town popular with bikers and it is all Marty’s fault.

Cinematographer Dean Cudney described the alternate 1985 as “the Biff-Horrific period”. It probably is most people’s key memory when BTTFP2 is accused of being dark. Biff from the future has given his younger self a book full of betting outcomes, stealing Marty’s idea and Doc’s time machine. And the result is Biff has become a Donald Trump style figure, one who has seemingly bullied his entire hometown into being a dystopian hellscape. Although there isn’t a lot of humour or action in this middle section it proves a vicious worse case scenario for the heroes to resolve. An early draft had Marty and the Doc reuniting with Sixties hippy version of George, Lorraine and Biff. You get the feeling the franchise could have been endless episodes of the same actors and incidents in different genres and milieus. This shocking twist kicks that weak, easy idea into touch.

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A quick moment to celebrate the brilliant turn by Thomas F Wilson in the series. As a recurring villian, he is daft yet brutishly cynical. Even when we see him struggle to make threats and avoid manure, he is always an antagonist who you fear. He gets laughs and shocks and I doubt anyone would have said no to watching a Biff Tannen spin-off in the 1990s. Like Glover, he is a lost star from the franchise. Someone cast him in a blockbuster soon.

So we travel back to 1955 to stop the almanac from being used. These days Terminator: Genisys, Batman V Superman and Ready Player One have all had stand out sequences where an old scene from a familiar movie is revisited by new characters. Like Mary Poppins going on holiday in animation, seamlessly characters interact with old footage filmed from four years ago. It had never been done like this before. The thrill of seeing key moments from the first film from a different perspective, and Marty dodging around the first instalment’s plot while using the setting as a playground for his new adventure. This is what a time travel film should be about.

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It also gives us one of the trilogy’s sweetest moments. Doc meets the Doc incognito, discusses weather experiments, hands him the correct wrench he needs. It somehow means more than that. Somehow hope and nostalgia and magic is infererred in this simple interaction. Probably due to Silvestri’s wonderful score twinkling away in the background like a relentless stalker.

And that final action sequence, a heist involving a moving car, a windy night and a fully charged hover board. After 45 minutes of increasingly intense near misses, Marty has that almanac but is being chased down a long tunnel by the faster Biff… there’s no way he’d make that escape from the pursuing car. Even in a fantasy film we know Marty is a goner by the mid point of the tunnel. The final inelegant compromise then and one that has fuelled various fan theories around Marty’s death… if you fancy an hour exploring the more fanatical corners of the internet.

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For a film that visits three different periods, BTTF2 is an incredibly lean adventure. Clocking in at a mere 108 minutes. It moves like a bullet and has no crowbarred in action, the set pieces all occur organically within the plot or not at all. It gives you no room to doubt it or be any less than gripped.

Midway though our happy ending, the Doc gets hit by lightning. The Delorean disappears. Do we end on that shock cliffhanger… No, we get a trailer for Episode III. Sure, it renders the cliffhanger a little obsolete but if you have your final part already in production then why not showcase it to those most likely to buy a ticket next year. Parts II and III being filmed back to back mean lots of the big moments coming in the Wild West were foreshadowed or set up here subtly. “Nobody calls me chicken!” Fair enough, that’s a thing now.

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