No. 19: BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A RETRO NOSTALGIA BINGE AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
Most 'normal' people consider this to be the least worthy film in Robert Zemeckis' whimsical time travel trilogy, but it really connected with me. Much like The Empire Strikes Back, it's an overextended second act, and (even more so than that film) it was a shapeless experience that seemed like it would never end. Sometimes that's a bad thing, but by the end of this film I felt as if I had just watched ten movies in a row. I remember saying to my friend that I couldn't remember the last time I felt like I had gotten that much out of my admission money. I also remember that I locked my keys in my classic 70s Plymouth Satellite, and had to wait for the cops to come and let me in.
BTTF II starts off with a frenzy, and picks up right where the previous film ended, with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer (recast here as Elizabeth Shue) being harangued by a manic Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc ignores their questions about the future and insists that they fly with him in his time traveling DeLorean into an uncertain timeline in which their children are in grave danger. The fact that this film does delve into that timeline delighted me to no extent, and the filmmakers did a great job creating a futuristic spin on the first film's town square, complete with great flying car effects. (It also earns kudos from me for liberally using laserdiscs as props).
Come to find out, the future isn't as rosy as it should be, as Marty's destiny (or density) as a musician has been somehow smashed. He now lives as a television-addicted schlub (keep an eye out for the great animated short film Jack Mack and Rad Boy on one of his many screens) on the verge of being fired thanks to his 'friend' Needles (played with unctuous glee by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass player Flea). Fox does quadruple duty as just about every member of the family (including a teenaged daughter), but it's his namesake Marty McFly Jr. who is about to damage history by engaging in an ill-advised hoverboard duel with the offspring of perpetual McFly family nemesis Biff.
This leads to a showdown in a local diner (cleverly designed in a 'retro' 80s motif, with Max-Headroom style TV visages of Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah acting as waiters). This introduces the heretofore unmentioned McFly weakness of never being able to withstand the taunt of 'Chicken!'. (Amusingly, one member of Biff Jr.'s posse has a ‘clucking' sample-generator at his waist). Other gimmicky laughs come from the hologram advertisement for Jaws 23 and Roger Rabbit's Charles Fleischer as a Cubs fan who reveals that the team finally wins the World Series in 2015.
This leads to the subplot in which Marty encounters a vintage 2000 sports almanac and realizes that he can use it to bet on games in the past and become a millionaire. Doc chafes at the notion, and dumps it in a garbage can where none other than grizzled old Biff himself discovers it. You see, at the beginning of Part II he happened to watch the gang fly off into nothingness and has been haunted by the image of the flying car ever since. With the knowledge that the DeLorean is a time traveling device, he sneaks into it and uses it to travel back into the 50s to give the book to his older self.
So when Marty and Doc fly back home to the wonderful eighties, it's a nightmarish Biff-centric Vegas-meets-Compton hellscape they encounter. In this world, Marty's mom has dumped George McFly for Biff (and some oversized implants) while Marty has been sent off to boarding school in Switzerland. The Doc's alternate present is another dark affair, and once he reconnects with Marty they decide that they must travel back to the '50s to undo Biff's wrongdoings.
This section is remarkably well done, as now yet another 'set' of Marty and Doc skirt around the events well-established in the previous film. By this point I was blown away by the intricately clever script, and when the film finally ended, I wasn't expecting it. I really was thinking that it would keep going and going and going. Which I wouldn't have minded, since I was having such a great cinematic ride. The ensuing Western-based finale (which was shot back to back with Part II in an attempt to help reduce the window between release dates) was a fun affair, but I couldn't help but be slightly disappointed after the classic serial adventure feel of this film.
Shortly after its release I ran across an incredible article in Starlog magazine that tried to unravel the numerous paradoxes and problems inherent in the time-travel storytelling of the series, and it blew my mind. It pointed out the fact that BTTF II doesn't follow its own rules (the main rule being that every new action in another time creatures a 'splinter' or 'alternate' timeline), so it should have been impossible for Biff to steal the Delorean, go back to 50's and change time, and then fly back to the original unchanged time line. It also makes no sense that Doc and Marty travel from the original unchanged future and somehow find themselves in the splintered alternate 80's timeline. The author of the article comes up with a convoluted explanation that involves a car crash fusing the multiple timelines, and created a very creative solution to some very sloppy storytelling.Even with the film's lack of attention to all the details of time travel, I still love it, and on a gut level enjoy it even more than the wonderful first film in the series. You could say it tapped into my own personal zeitgeist at the time, and it's great to savor those moments when they happen. Now if only I can find a self-drying jacket to go with my piles of futuristic laserdiscs.