|Drew Struzan's poster art|
Roger Ebert defined a sequel as "a filmed deal," and it's amazing how accurately the truly odd Back to the Future Part II (1989) reflects that cynical definition. The supplemental materials on the movie's DVD are surprisingly candid in laying out why the movie exists and why it took the form that it did.
When the first Back to the Future was released in 1985, it was anything but a sure thing. The film's star, Michael J. Fox, was not a household name yet, and the film's co-creators (Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale) had failed to attain mainstream success with their two previous films, I Want to Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. Worse yet, the Zemeckis/Gale-scripted 1941, directed by Steven Spielberg, had been a financial disaster for Universal Pictures. So another Zemeckis/Gale comedy with Spielberg as producer was a risky proposition. In fact, the film could easily have turned out to be another embarrassing boondoggle for Universal.
But, of course, the first film was a massive worldwide hit, the top-grossing American film of 1985. A sequel was inevitable, and Universal informed Zemeckis and Gale that one would happen whether they were involved or not. They decided, not unreasonably, to become involved. So the Bobs were now "locked in," so to speak, as were most of the members of the first film's cast. Strangely, though, it was the holdout of one of the supporting players, Crispin Glover, that provided the catalyst for the sequel's plot in which his character (loveable nerd George McFly) is mysteriously killed off, creating another "time travel" problem for the heroes, Doc and Marty, to solve.
Back to the Future, it should be noted, was not designed as the first film in a franchise. The original film's ending, with Doc Brown taking Marty and Jennifer to the future in his flying car as a "TO BE CONTINUED" caption flashes on the screen, was written strictly as a joke. In fact, it's one of my favorite ways to end a comedy -- the classic "here we go again!" bit. It's a very satisfying way to conclude a comedy/fantasy film, knowing that the heroes are not going to rest but are going to embark upon yet another madcap adventure. There was really no need, other than financial, to revisit these characters or the Hill Valley setting. But if you're contractually obligated to revisit them, what the heck do you do with them? Well, Zemeckis and Gale came up with three different, potentially intriguing answers to that question and devote roughly one act of the final film to each of them.
1. Put Doc and Marty in the actual future.
|Yes, that's Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the background. I don't know why either.|
Despite that pesky word "future" in the title, the Back to the Future trilogy is mainly about the past. The success of the first film all but single-handedly revived the "rock & roll nostalgia" sub-genre, which had been on the decline seven years after Grease (1978), and soon the multiplexes and video stores were again teeming with oldies-laden films set during the 1950s and 1960s, including Stand By Me and Hairspray. But the subgenre was again in decline by 1989, done in by another trend. That was the year Tim Burton's designed-to-be-dark Batman permanently changed what a "blockbuster fantasy movie" was supposed to be. Gentle whimsy, the original Future's stock in trade, was definitely out that year, which is perhaps why this sequel mainly plays as a harder-edged, more frantic action picture that barely takes time to pause and revel in its surroundings and instead zips from one calamity to the next.
In any event, BTTF2 devotes its first third to a thoroughly bizarre and somewhat off-putting sequence set in the Hill Valley of 2015. In the DVD supplements, Zemeckis admits that predicting the future is always a losing proposition -- even Stanley Kubrick was always wrong - so he and Gale mainly give this part of the film over to a variety of bizarre sight gags (hoverboards, self-lacing sneakers, double neckties, a 3D Jaws ad).
This is also where the film begins to reveal itself as an almost surrealist parody of its predecessor, giving us grotesque and/or upsetting parodies of familiar scenes from the first film. Example: remember that funny, old-timey Texaco station from the previous movie? Well, now it's staffed by sleek, vaguely threatening-looking robots! Zing! And remember that classic showdown with Biff in the diner? Well, now the diner is a gaudy 1980s-nostalgia-themed cafe where the "waiters" are Max-Headroom-ized versions of Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson! And Biff has a grandson, Griff, who looks and talks just like him, only much louder! Nutty, right? Overall, though, I was glad that the movie's version of the future is ostensibly cheerful, closer to Futurama than Blade Runner.
Unfortunately, the "future" part of the movie also spends some time at the depressing homestead of middle-aged Marty McFly and his grotesque family. These downtrodden characters mill around in ugly, unconvincing old-age makeup in a suburban home teeming with blatant product placement. The dialogue here is actually some of the movie's worst, as the characters work overtime to squeeze in crucial bits of plot exposition for us to overhear so we know what the hell is going on.
The main point of all this is gimmickry for its own sake: The filmmakers have cast Michael J. Fox in multiple roles so that we can watch him interact with various versions of himself on-camera. It's not surprising that some of this sequence, expensive and complicated as it is, wound up on the cutting room floor. Weirdly, the only thing I really enjoyed in this part of the film was the way Fox played the older Marty as a hoarse-voiced, washed-up loser who whimpers pathetically as he is fired from his job via a big-screen TV while the news of his dismissal spews from several gadgets at once. It's like the whole house is ganging up on Marty at that point.
Oh, and before we leave this part of the film, I want to give the movie some credit for taking baby steps toward gender equality. Like his ancestors, Griff has a gang of sycophantic thugs around him, but this time one of them is a girl. I liked that. But, anyway, on to the next section of the film.
2. Give us a nightmare version of the Hill Valley setting.
|Lea Thompson somehow makes this work.|
Again being surprisingly candid, Bob Gale admits on the BTTF2 DVD that taking the story into the future was a logical and narrative mistake. You don't have to travel into the future to change it. Our destinies are ostensibly under our control, so we just have to try to live our lives so that those terrible outcomes never come true. If one of the real underlying problems is Marty's insecurity -- he can't stand being called "chicken" -- maybe he should just get some counseling or something instead of scampering willy nilly through history , diddling with the space-time continuum to fix his and his relatives' various screw-ups. One could imagine an increasingly-lazy Marty relying on the DeLorean every time he goofed up. ("Damn. Forgot to DVR Shark Tank. Better fire up the Flux Capacitor.")
The middle of BTTF2 shows us the negative fallout of Doc and (especially) Marty's impetuousness. They return to 1985, only to find themselves in a hellish alternate reality (called "1985-A" by the filmmakers) in which Biff is a multi-millionaire mogul married to Marty's mother, Lorraine, while Marty's father, George, is dead, having been murdered in 1973.
This entire section of the film plays out like an extrapolation of the "Pottersville" sequence from It's a Wonderful Life. Like George Bailey, Marty has inadvertently created a dark parallel timeline in which a charming small town has basically been turned into a dystopian Las Vegas (Hill Valley instead of Bedford Falls), the corrupt villain is in charge and wields unlimited power (Biff instead of Mr. Potter), and the sweet but kooky sidekick guy has been committed (Doc Brown instead of Uncle Billy). Weirdly, Zemeckis even films Michael J. Fox the way Frank Capra filmed Jimmy Stewart. Both Stewart and Fox have a tendency to walk right up to the camera at crucial moments as they register how badly they've messed things up.
Again, the filmmakers use this sequence to give us weird parodies of scenes from the first film. Remember when Marty was waking up and heard his mother Lorraine's voice and thought he was back "home" again? Well, now Lorraine has huge fake breasts and looks like a beat-up old whore, and they all live in a place that looks like it was decorated personally by Tony Montana! Pow!
This second section of the film must've come as a shock to fans of the first film, as it more or less takes everything that was endearing about the original and vomits on it, but I admired it for its audacity and willingness to risk being offensive and alienating. There are some very funny things going on in the edges of the film as well. I enjoyed, for example, how Biff's gang from the 1950s has become his entourage in the 1980s, and how one of them (Billy Zane) has taken to wearing a cowboy hat as an affectation. And I laughed aloud -- for the only time during what is essentially a comedy -- during a scene that revisits Marty's old principal, Mr. Strickland, and finds him as a Rambo-like urban warrior taking on his hated "slackers" with a machine gun.
Getting back to the plot, though: Marty and Doc eventually realize the problems of "1985-A" can be traced back to the movie's main macguffin, Gray's Sports Almanac, a book of sports statistics that falls into Biff's clutches and allows him to become rich and powerful, thus destroying the future. So the film enters its final -- and, to its credit, best -- stage.
3. Revisit the first film from another angle.
During this portion of the film,
|Somehow, the leather jacket never caught on like the vest from the original did.|
Doc and Marty travel back to 1955 to prevent the 2015 Biff from giving the sports almanac to the 1955 Biff. If you could parse that previous sentence at all, it's a cinch that you've seen the first Back to the Future
. It should be mentioned that BTTF2
is a sequel that demands that its audience be thoroughly familiar with the plot of the original, not just the basic premise but the scenes and characters, too, down to fairly minute detail. Some sequels are completely comprehensible to newcomers; one needn't see every James Bond film to get the gist of that character and what his life is like. But a movie like BTTF2
relies very heavily on what the experts call "inter-textual dialogue," and never is this more true than in the third act, in which Doc and Marty are basically creeping around in the margins of the first film, trying to remain just out of sight while alternate versions of themselves are just a few feet away, wrapped up in what they think is the real storyline. I'm getting a bit dizzy just thinking about all of this.
|They must practice that spin. Don't you think?|
On the DVD, Zemeckis said it was this aspect of the story that interested him the most, and frankly it's what interested me
the most as well. For one thing, it allows the film to ditch the horrendous makeup prosthetics of the first two acts, and it gives us a chance to see some more of the 1955 Hill Valley that we hadn't seen before. I liked getting a glimpse of Biff's home life, where he lives with his truly awful grandmother and menaces the small children in his neighborhood. (God bless the filmmakers for not dressing Thomas F. Wilson up in drag and having him play "Grandma Biff.")
As noted previously, I'm always on board for more material with the mean principal, Mr. Strickland, so I was glad to have a scene of him drinking alone in his office during the famous Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, secretly drowning his misery in the sauce and oblivious to the fact that rock & roll, the ultimate slacker uprising, is being invented right next door.
Above all, I loved the way this section of the film reached its mysterious and almost spooky apex, with Doc Brown seemingly obliterated by a lightning bolt and a stranded Marty -- alone on a rainy night in the middle of nowhere -- being suddenly visited by a trenchcoat-wearing Joe Flaherty, a very odd deus ex machina
indeed. On the other hand, the film kind of fumbles the ball in the last few minutes by including a trailer for Part III
before the closing credits, but even here I appreciated the opportunity to watch the members of ZZ Top do that thing where they spin their instruments around in perfect synchronicity. Damn, that always looks cool.
I have to say that revisiting Back to the Future Part II
was generally a rewarding experience. The film is certainly one of the more idiosyncratic sequels ever made, and though it's not always appealing -- and, indeed is often deliberately appalling -- I was not bored by it. I was actually surprised at how frantic it was and how much there is actually going on in this film. I'd like to file BTTF2
alongside Gremlins 2: The New Batch
and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
in the small but noble category of meta-fictional parodies masquerading as sequels.