Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Film Appreciation - There's Something Very Familiar About All This

Film Appreciation looks forward to 2015 as Cody Hamman discusses Back to the Future Part II.

I was only a year and a half old when the first Back to the Future was released in the summer of 1985, so I missed out on that one, but by the time Back to the Future Part II reached theatres in November of 1989 I was almost six years old, and in the four years between movies I had become a Back to the Future fan. Thanks to VHS rentals and TV broadcasts, I was very familiar with the first movie by the end of '89, so I was hyped to see the sequel, which looked like it was going to be really cool. Even cooler than the futuristic tie-in sunglasses they were giving out at Pizza Hut. (I managed to score a couple of those at the time, but they were lost over the decades.) When I saw the movie I loved it, and my '89 theatrical viewing had such an impact that I still have some memories from it. 

The first Back to the Future is a perfect movie with one of the best scripts ever written, telling the wonderfully crafted story of 1985 teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) inadvertently going back in time to 1955 in a DeLorean that has been turned into a time machine by his pal Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and meeting his parents when they were in high school. The film ends with a silly moment where Marty, having gotten back to '85 after some struggles, being visited by Doc Brown in a flying DeLorean. Saying "something's gotta be done about your kids", Doc gets Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer (then played by Claudia Wells) into the DeLorean and they take off into the future. Roll credits. This was meant to just be a fun, amusing way to end the movie... but when Back to the Future turned out to be a massive hit, Universal had director Robert Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale make back-to-back sequels for them. And when they started plotting out the sequels, Zemeckis and Gale realized they had written themselves into a corner. They had to pick up from that ending, even though the idea makes no sense to pursue as a story.

Going into the future to fix the future is a nonsensical idea, and the fact that Doc is in a rush to get Marty into the future to do something about his kids is really goofy when they have a time machine and thus all the time in the world to go anywhere they want. So the first 20 minutes of Back to the Future Part II are nothing but an extended joke. Stuck with Jennifer (now played by Elisabeth Shue) in the flying DeLorean, Zemeckis and Gale quickly take her out of the equation by having Doc zap her with a "sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator" gadget. After that, Doc can get down the business he brings Marty to 2015 to handle: his son Marty Jr. (also played by Fox) is going to get mixed up in some criminal shenanigans with a gang headed up by Griff (Thomas F. Wilson), the grandson of the bully Marty and his dad had to contend with in 1955. Marty Jr. is going to be arrested, then his sister Marlene (Fox again) is going to try to break him out of jail and end up in prison as well. So Doc wants Marty to stand in for his look-alike son during an interaction with Griff and keep this bad chain of events from happening. This whole concept is as dopey as it gets, but it's how Zemeckis and Gale extract themselves from the jam the ending of the previous movie accidentally left them in.

But while Marty going to 2015 to keep his kids from being arrested is ridiculous, the fun thing about this is how Zemeckis and Gale envisioned the future. Flying cars, holographic movie billboards (promoting Jaws 19), self-tying shoes, auto-adjusting and self-drying clothes. Being so young when I first saw Back to the Future Part II, I could really believe that this is what 2015 might have in store for me. Some things the filmmakers got exactly right: flat screen TVs, video conferences, and the fact that we'd be obsessed with the '80s in this time period, like the '80s were nostalgic for the '50s. Marty's interaction with Griff leads up to a reimagining of the sequence in the first movie where Biff and his buddies chased Marty while he was on a skateboard. In 2015 they have hoverboards instead of skateboards, and my five year old self thought hoverboards were a real thing when I saw them on the big screen. I couldn't wait for them to hit the market.

It's astounding to me that we're now several years further into the future than Back to the Future Part II went. The future isn't nearly as neat as this movie made me think it would be.

Anyway, Griff and his gang go to jail instead of the McFly kids and then the real story of Back to the Future Part II can start. This is when the movie gets really interesting and the script improves, because it switches focus to an idea that makes more sense than going to the future to change the future: altering the future by changing the past. Marty buys an almanac with fifty years of sports statistics, 1950 to 2000, with the intention of using its information to bet on games when he gets back to the '80s. Doc puts the kibosh on that idea and throws the almanac away - but an elderly Biff (Thomas F. Wilson in old age makeup) overhears their conversation and manages to steal the DeLorean long enough to go back to 1955 and give that almanac to his younger self.

So when Marty, Doc, and Jennifer (unconscious for a second time) return to 1985, it's not the reality they knew. It's an alternate timeline in which Biff has become one of the richest and most powerful men in America through his sports betting. Their hometown of Hill Valley is a violence-plagued slum built around Biff's "Pleasure Paradise" hotel and casino, Doc has been declared legally insane, Marty's father is dead and his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is married to Biff. To keep this nightmarish '85 from happening and return things to their normal state, Marty and Doc have to go back to 1955 and get the almanac from Biff before he can do anything with it. And this is when Back to the Future Part II achieves brilliance.

Old Biff gave young Biff the almanac during the events of the previous film, in between scenes - so when Marty and Doc go back to 1955, their mission takes them in and around scenes from part 1, and they have to try to avoid themselves. Current Marty witnesses past Marty living out moments we saw in the first movie, current Doc crosses paths with past Doc. The 2015 stretch of the movie gets most of the attention, but the best stuff happens in 1955. The idea to make a sequel within its predecessor is incredibly clever and Zemeckis and Gale pulled it off very well.

There are a good number of fans who enjoy Back to the Future Part II even more than the first movie, but that has never been the case for me. I prefer the less complicated high school fun of the first one - plus, as I said, it's a perfect movie and has an amazing script. Part II is entertaining, but it has a lot of imperfections, starting off with the whole idea of the 2015 beginning. Doc is freaking out about the McFly kids going to jail, but while they're in 2015 it becomes clear that the McFly family has had issues for a long time before that - issues going back to 1985, in fact. If Doc wanted to improve things for them, all he had to do was warn Marty and Jennifer about an event that was coming up later that afternoon instead of taking them to the future. But that's a problem for Back to the Future Part III to take care of.

Since Part II and Part III were filmed back-to-back, not only was Part III able to reach theatres just six months after Part II, but Part II was even able to show viewers a trailer for Part III before the end credits started rolling. This is one of the moments I remember from my '89 theatrical viewing, when Part II reached its ending, "To Be Concluded" came up on the screen, and they rolled right into the trailer for Part III. It was one of the most thrilling movie-going moments of my life.

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