Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A clear-eyed look back at 'Back to the Future Part II'

"The shark still looks fake."

NOTE: Since today is the famous October 21, 2015, I thought I'd do a little Internet time-traveling of my own and resurrect an article I co-wrote back in 2010 for Unloosen with my pal and fellow movie blogger, Craig J. Clark. I've edited and retooled my section of the article somewhat, but I'm leaving Craig's rebuttal at the end just as he wrote it five years ago.

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.

Somehow, the leather jacket never caught on like the vest from the original did.

During this portion of the film, 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. Of course, 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.

And now, a rebuttal by Craig J. Clark, Esq.

You know what's big in 2015? Print journalism.

Dorkin's comic.
All right, you can do that, Joe. Me, I haven't been tempted to re-watch Bogus Journey since it was in theaters (although I have read the comic book adaptation since it was written and drawn by Evan Dorkin, creator of Milk and Cheese and freelance writer on Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Yo Gabba Gabba), and I probably wouldn't have given this film a second look, either, if you hadn't suggested it. This is partially due to how unpleasant the middle section is (and it sure hasn't aged well, as you've pointed out), but it mostly stems from the feeling that one can't watch Back to the Future Part II without immediately following it with Part III so that the story can actual resolve itself. And if I can't seem to block out the four hours required to watch Gone With the Wind(a film that continues to elude me after all these years), I'm sure as heck not going to do that for two-thirds of the trilogy that practically defined the concept of diminishing returns for my 16-year-old self. This is not to say that the Back to the Future series ended on a bad note -- Part III went a long way toward washing away the bad taste that Part II had left in my mouth -- but neither of the sequels ever struck me as really necessary. I dutifully saw them as part of family outings, but between this film and Ghostbusters 2, 1989 was the year of the mercenary sequel that almost but didn't quite taint the sanctity of the original in my mind. 
Speaking of having things contaminated, I'd like to say a few words about DVD menus and the people who create them. Now, I realize the perception is that most people who purchase catalog titles like the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD have already seen the movies in question, but is it really a good idea to include a montage of scenes from the film, including some major plot points,including the ending of the film, on the main menu? Surely it crossed their minds that people who were completely new to the series would sit down one day to watch it, presumably right after watching the first film for the first time. Did they really think these people wanted to have major plot points, including the ending of the film, spoiled for them? I guess they must have. 
Claudia Wells Vs. Elisabeth Shue
Anyway, getting back to the film, it hits an unavoidable speed bump right out of the gate owing to the replacement of Claudia Wells, who played Marty McFly's girlfriend in the first film, with Elisabeth Shue. This required Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to replay the original ending verbatim with the new Jennifer, but Lloyd's performance is so erratic (his delivery of the iconic line "Something's gotta be done about your kids" is especially off) that it's a major distraction. Now, I understand that actors aren't necessarily going to use the same exact inflections from take to take (especially ones that are done four years apart), but VCRs were so ubiquitous in the latter half of the '80s that the filmmakers must have realized that people would have re-watched the original multiple times over and thus committed the scene to memory. (As a matter of fact, as Joe points out, they were pretty much banking on that.) It's not like Pulp Fiction, in which Amanda Plummer's Honey Bunny delivers her "Nobody move" line differently at the beginning and end of the film. So much happens in between that you probably won't notice until the second or third time you watch it. With this film, though, if you're as much of a Back to the Future nut as Gale and Zemeckis hoped you would be, you can't help but pick up on it right off the bat, which means instead of wondering what's going to happen when Doc takes Marty and Jennifer to the year 2015, you're thinking, "What's wrong with Christopher Lloyd? Doesn't he know how to say his own lines?" 
Moving on, the movie plops us down in 2015 (which, it should be said, is only five years away, or as Roland Emmerich has clearly shown us, three years after the world comes to an end) and immediately Gale and Zemeckis have Doc Brown knock Jennifer out for asking too many questions about her own future. Because when you're a scientist with a time machine the last thing you have time for is to pull over somewhere and take 15-20 minutes to explain things to your assistant's girlfriend. What it really comes down to, I think, is that Gale and Zemeckis were stuck with Jennifer in the DeLorean because she was there at the end of the first film and when they started working on the sequel they realized they had no idea what to do with her in the future. Pretty inconvenient, right? Zap! Problem solved!

A highly unlikely sequel.
With Jennifer out of the way, Doc fills Marty in on his plan (he's to impersonate his doofus of a son, Marty McFly Jr., and refuse to take part in a robbery) and sends him off into the bustling town square of the future Hill Valley with the admonition that he shouldn't look at anything or interact with anybody. Of course, movies are all about looking at things, so Marty ignores the Doc's instructions and marvels at the electronic billboards, including the extremely interactive one for Jaws 19 at the Holomax. Now, anybody who saw Jaws the Revenge in 1987 knew there was no chance of a Jaws 5, let alone a 19, but with the proliferation of IMAX theaters and the recent resurgence of 3-D movies, the idea of a hologrammatic film experience isn't so much of a stretch these days. Marty's also drawn to the window of an antique shop which, in addition to highlighting the pivotal sports almanac, also features a Roger Rabbit doll (a neat in-joke since that was Zemeckis's previous film) and a quaint-looking Macintosh "biege toaster." He then has his proscribed run-in with Griff (whose entire role can be summed up by the way he says, "Since when did you become the physical type?") and one McFly family disaster is avoided only for another to be waiting in the wings.  
This second disaster comes in form of a "like father, like son" moment where Marty McFly Sr. (who is the fourth Michael J. Fox we see in the film -- I guess he was trying to one-up Eddie Murphy after Coming to America) fails to back down from an illegal business deal dangled in front of him by a colleague named Needles (a character played by an unrecognizable Flea whose importance to the story isn't revealed until the closing moments of the next film) and is subsequently terminated by his unforgiving Japanese employer, who tells him to "Read my fax." Yes, it's 2015 and people still send faxes, but this is easy to forgive because it's actually important for events in the Back to the Future movies to have a paper trail. After all, how else will we and the characters know that history has been changed if newspaper headlines, matchbooks and other printed media don't magically change in front of our eyes? (Of course, the payoff for the fax likewise doesn't come until the end of Part III, but that was released in the spring of 1990 so it's out of our purview.)
"Mad Dog" Tannen
Since both sequels were written and produced simultaneously (a practice that was later repeated with The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean movies), there are a number of other things that are set up in Part II that don't pay off until Part III. One is Doc's declaration that the Old West is his favorite time period and that he wants to give up time travel and explore that other great mystery, women. Another is a passing reference to Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, gunslinging ancestor to Biff in a video Marty sees upon his return to the 1985 that has been corrupted by Biff's evil influence. And finally there's the scene from A Fistful of Dollars that Biff watches with much amusement, little realizing that his forebear had a similar encounter with somebody posing as "Clint Eastwood" (just as Marty passed himself off as "Calvin Klein" in the first movie). 
I tend to agree with Joe that the film picks up considerably when Doc and Marty return to 1955 to set things right and prevent all sorts of calamities that will befall them and their loved ones. Accordingly, there isn't a whole lot for me to say about it that Joe hasn't already covered, but I do want to point out the Travel Service sign in the background of some of the shots that trumpets "10 Days in Cuba!" (This neatly echoes the billboard in 2015 that invites travelers to "Surf Vietnam!" -- itself a clear reference to Apocalypse Now, which had been co-written by Zemeckis and Gale's1941 co-writer John Milius.). And I quite like Joe Flaherty's walk-on as the ominous Western Union man, which he reprised almost word-for-word at the end of Family Guy's second extended Star Wars parody, Something Something Dark Side, a take-off on The Empire Strikes Back, the gold standard for middle sequels that end on a cliffhanger. 
You can practically hear the theme song in your head now, can't you?