Giving Back to the Future Part II Its Due

Robert Zemeckis provided a more than worthy follow-up to his 1985 classic. Simon looks back at Back To The Future II...

If you’re looking for an utterly independent analysis of Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future Part II, then it’d be fair to say you’re probably in the wrong place. It would be remiss of me from the outset to not acknowledge that, in my youth, I absolutely adored Back To The Future Part II. I wore out two VHS copies of the movie I had (one of them ex-rental, to be fair), and Alan Silvestri’s superb score has been resident in my head pretty much ever since (one I seem to have bought four times, across four different formats).

It’s only over time that I’ve come to appreciate the film in any kind of perspective, and the catalyst for that was watching the three films back-to-back in the cinema one glorious Sunday in the early ’90s. Because it’s when laid next to the first and third chapters in the trilogy that I began to understand what many of the critics had been arguing around the release of Back To The Future Part II, namely that it’s the most muddled of the films.

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I think they were probably right. Even Robert Zemeckis in more recent times has admitted that it’s the film in the trilogy he’s probably the least happy with, given how quickly he had to edit it. It’s no secret that Back To The Future Part II and Back To The Future Part III were shot back to back (just one of the ways in which the films were ahead of their time), and that truncated the post-production time available on the second film. Furthermore, you can imagine the Zemeckis was in the editing room trying to focus on the second film, whilst having to make lots of decisions about the third. Often, he’d had to fly to the set of Part III, before hopping on a plane back to sort Part II out. It’s pretty amazing it came out this well at all.

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Structure

So why does the second one differ? Well, the first and third Back To The Future movies in the series have a far more conventional, and arguably successful three act structure, aided by keeping time travel to a minimum. In fact, the underlying objective of films one and three is the same: to somehow get a time machine that’s not working back to life, using parts and technologies available several decades before Doc Brown first put the flux capacitor to good use. Zemeckis expertly builds up lots of things going wrong, only for it all to come together at the last minute. Find me a film that does that sort of thing better than the original Back To The Future, and I’d be hugely impressed.

Back To The Future Part II? Well, nominally it’s about going to the future to sort of Marty’s kids. But really, it’s a film that’s divided into three smaller ones. So, you have the 2015 segment at the start, bristling with the level of attention to detail that all the films are packed full of. Then it’s about going back to 1985 version two and finding out what’s happened there. After that? It’s back to 1955 again, to try and correct what’s happened in 1985 version two, to turn it into 1985 version one again. And at the end of it all, the Doc ends up back in 1885.

It’s a film where the time travel, rather than being the bookends of the story, is the mechanic to shift from time period to time period. The DeLorean has a lot of work to do.

It does mean that it’s an awful lot to pack into the narrative of a blockbuster film. The challenge facing Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis when penning the script (with Gale taking on the lion’s share, while Zemeckis was making Who Framed Roger Rabbit) – beyond the cliffhanger from the film before, which I’m going to shortly – is how to clearly explain to the audience just what’s going on. Particularly when Marty and Doc land in the alternate 1985, it’s actually quite a lot of information that needs to be put across to make it clear what’s happened.

Thus, they have to pull in an increasingly-maligned narrative device. They stand Doc Brown in front of a blackboard, and he draws a diagram nominally for Marty, which is really for us. 

Time travel movies and shows often struggle to get across the chronology involved in a narrative. Zemeckis and Gale save themselves a good ten pages by taking us to class just for a minute. Fortunately, Doc Brown is such good company that it’s hard to grumble, and it’s a very economical way to move on to the next thing.

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For while opting for the blackboard is cheating a little, it’s hard to think of any other way to get over such crucial information in such a short space of time. It’s Basil Exposition, just in a sort of infographic form. I’ve spoken to one or two screenwriters over the past few years, who talk about trying to avoid the Doc Brown blackboard moment, but I’d argue it works in the film, and isn’t really as ultimately confusing as many used to argue it was.

It’s not the only moment of outright exposition that’s needed throughout the film, incidentally. There’s the small matter of Lorraine in 2015 for instance. But still: these quibbles were never much of a problem for me. Because there’s simply so much to like about the film.

Ambition

I love Back To The Future Part II‘s sheer level of ambition, for starters, because few sequels can match it in that regard.

It’s little secret that Zemeckis and Gale boxed themselves into a corner with the ending to the original Back To The Future, where the Doc, Jennifer and Marty fly off in the time machine to sort out a problem with their kids in the future. It’s the kind of ending that you write when you genuinely don’t believe there’s a sequel on the way (and sequels were nowhere near as prevalent in 1985). It’s why Jennifer is fairly swiftly disposed of for pretty much two movies within the first third of this one. She’s a character that, in hindsight, Zemeckis and Gale wouldn’t have wanted in the car heading to 2015, but managed to lumber themselves with.

But you can’t help but admire the gusto with which they tackle the future. All three movies in the Back To The Future series feature a similar scene where Marty stumbles his way through his new surroundings, but it’s never as much fun as it is in 2015. It’s the same square we’re used to seeing, but the hugely impressive production design for the future (a million miles away from coming true in 2015, too) is wonderful. A huge round of applause for Rick Carter there. It feels like a functioning, legitimate world, an extension of how we were living when the film came out. There’s new technology, but it doesn’t always work. There’s the same groups of people, from the cool kids to the grumps. And there’s misguided nostalgia all around.

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The most obvious visual gag (of many) is the arrival of Jaws 19 in cinemas (pah, we haven’t even had Jaws 5 yet), with Max Spielberg directing (he’s yet to make his directorial debut). But in the high definition world, the smallest details become clear. Read the newspaper, for instance, and we learn that America now has a female president for the first time, amongst other previously hidden stories. Furthermore, the side characters all have some degree of progression. Mayor Goldie Wilson’s family tree isn’t doing badly in 2015, for instance.

Elsewhere, I’ve talked about how the script sometimes uses some explanatory devices to get over the sheer wealth of information and storytelling that’s required here. But then it also places little nuggets of helpful information in place for the future. Or past.

Note how in the future antiques shop, for instance, the fateful Grays Sports Almanac is sold by the shop owner with the explanation that a dust jacket is a special feature. The same dust jacket that would later in the film cover up a copy of Oh-La-La magazine. It’s a small pointer, granted, but the trilogy as a whole is packed with moments like that. Note, too how the time machine keeps resetting to an 1885 date established long before it becomes vital to the story.

The Future

One major upshot of three short stories packed into Back To The Future Part II is the production design, which varies immensely throughout the film. The future is deliberately anti-Blade Runner in tone (in fact, the alternative 1985 is the Hill Valley with more of a Blade Runner feel), with its Café 80s setting the tone, and the bright outfits soon following. It’s as light as the film gets (in more than one sense), and it really looks a treat, modelling the landmarks such as the Clock Tower (a central point in each of the films) into a surprisingly feasible future, perhaps just one 20 years too early.

That said, I can’t help thinking that it’s the alternative 1980s where the most fun is had. This is where the Back To The Future trilogy is at its darkest, showcased notably by a drive-by shooting on Mr Strickland’s house. The centrepiece of the alternate 1985 though is Biff Tannen’s massive tower of decadence, and it transforms pretty much the same settings of the trilogy into something really quite daunting.

Even one of the scenes in there, notably, lays down some strands for Back To The Future Part III. Notice the Clint Eastwood scene that Biff is watching when he’s in the hot tub? Where Clint has a bit of extra protection to guard himself in a gunfight? We’ll see pretty much that very scene in Back To The Future Part III, where Marty – aka Clint Eastwood – has his fateful duel with Mad Dog Tannen.

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Cinematographer Dean Cundey chatted to us about creating the look of the two 1980s back in 2008, specifically what he called “the Biff-Horrific period.”

“That was a style that was even more contrasty and darker, and cooler light, and then we tended to use other elements. There was smoke whenever we could, and so forth, and then when we went to the 50s, or the pleasant 80s, we tended to use, again, slightly warmer colours and softened the image by putting a little bit of atmosphere, a little bit of smoke or whatever in the set so there was a little bit of a glow around the windows, and a softening of the background.”

One mild grump: I always felt the second and third films over-relied on Marty reacting to being accused of being chicken a little too much (although as has been pointed out, given the changes to George’s character as a result of the first film, it may be that Marty’s father imbued him with slightly different mannerisms and behaviours), but that’s a mechanic that’s firmly put in place. So is the fateful accident, that’s hinted at lots of times before we get to see it at the end of Part III. If you didn’t know that the two films were made back-to-back, all of these little clues should point you in the right direction.

Enchantment Under The Sea

The cleverest part of Back To The Future Part II for me is when we scoot back to 1955, and Zemeckis weaves in a recreation of the Enchantment Under The Sea dance with footage from the first film. This is brilliantly and confidently done, made in an era where computers could only help so much. Zemeckis plays happily with moments from the first movie, and whilst there’s no requirement for familiarity with the original to enjoy Part II, this is the sequence where you really feel the benefits of watching Part I so many times. What’s more, it’s very much an example of technology being used for the sake of the film, rather than the other way around.

When Marty steps off the stage after playing Johnny B Goode, for instance, he now steps over Biff’s three lackeys. Again, it’s such a small detail, and nobody would really object if it wasn’t included. But it shows just how far Zemeckis was keen to go to weave his films together. Back To The Future Part II is the most ‘different’ movie of the series, yet it’s deeply woven with touch points and themes from its predecessor and successor.

My favourite moment of our return to 1985 is when Marty and Lorraine are in the car, and the new Marty crawls past it, adding a line of dialogue to their conversation. It’s a lovely little piece of work, and all leads towards a satisfying cliffhanger for the next film.

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There’s yet more about Back To The Future Part II that I love, though. Alan Silvestri’s aforementioned score, for starters. It’s his music that drives the film far more than in the original, and this, for me, is one of his very best pieces of work. There are so many little tonal shifts he has to wrap into the music, and it’s a piece of work that’s rightly endured independently of the film, as well as entwined to it.

And then there’s the special effects. I remember devouring the making-of book that appeared at the time, and being taken with a Robert Zemeckis comment in there that he hoped people wouldn’t start questioning how everything had been done until they were on the way home. In my case, on first viewing, it was mission accomplished.

One of the side-effects of high definition transfers, though, as we get with the Blu-ray release of the film, is that it’s good at highlighting the joins. And personally, I’m glad things like this are left in, rather than artificially ‘corrected’.

Pathfinder

Back To The Future Part II is very much a product of its time, and there’s no shame in that. It was also a pathfinder in terms of visual effects (as many Zemeckis films have been), most notably in being the first major blockbuster to have an actor playing multiple roles on screen at the same time, and passing physical objects between the assorted characters. It’s the latter that’s something that’s taken for granted now, but it was genuinely groundbreaking here. It’s only after watching the film lots of times that you pick up how the scene is blocked so that the actors are all sat down and divided by invisible vertical lines. The next film would set itself a bigger challenge, with a walk and talk between two characters played by Fox.

It would be remiss not to add, of course, that this is the only film where Michael J Fox plays his own daughter. It led to guffaws when I saw the film on the day it first came out, but it now feels part of Back To The Future Part IIs charm.

More than the technical achievements though, Back To The Future Part II remains a hugely satisfying piece of storytelling, warts and all, and a really exciting film. It condenses a lot into a running time that falls well under two hours (how long do you think it’d be if it was made in the current blockbuster climate), and whilst it’s the chapter of the story that perhaps sits less comfortably with the others, it’s a tremendous achievement.

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For all the foibles, I really love watching Back To The Future Part II. It’s a sequel that feels from start to finish like it’s a labor of love, and it puts far more into place for the concluding part of the trilogy than it’s sometimes given credit for. Plus it’s got both Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd on terrific form, utterly owning their roles and establishing one of the best double acts in modern day blockbuster cinema.

It’s also a refreshing antidote to production line, cash-in sequels that trade noise and bluster for craft and storytelling. And when Marty delivers his final line – “I’m back…. I’m back from the future” – I can’t help but immediately reach for Part III from the boxset…