Looking back at Back To The Future Part II

As it arrives on Blu-ray for the first time, we take a look back at the majesty of Back To The Future Part II…

Back To The Future Part II

It’d be remiss of me from the outset to not acknowledge the fact that, in my youth, I absolutely adored Back To The Future Part II. I wore out two VHS copies of the movie (one of them ex-rental, to be fair), and Alan Silvestri’s score has been resident in my head pretty much ever since.

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.

And I’d argue it is.

The first and third 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.

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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 the films are packed full of. Then it’s about going back to 1985 version 2 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 2, to turn it into 1985 version 1 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.

It packs a lot into the narrative of a blockbuster film, and Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script, in fairness, struggles to explain it all to a mass audience.

Thus, they have to pull in an increasingly-maligned narrative device, namely getting Doc Brown to stand in front of the audience with a blackboard and lay it all out half-way through the film. There’s simply no other way to do it, short of handing us all notes as we sit down to watch the film.

Bluntly, that scene isn’t for Marty, it’s for us.

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While, to some extent, it’s 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 not the only time they utilise such an explanatory speech. Lorraine, for instance, in the future, has to do a fair bit of explaining at one point, with lines that clearly are marked for exposition rather than any kind of conversation. But I’ve spoken to one or two screenwriters over the past few years, who talk about trying to avoid the ‘Doc Brown blackboard moment’.

Yet I still – even after all this time – love the film, warts and all.

I love its 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. It’s the kind of ending that you write when you genuinely don’t believe there’s a sequel on the way, and 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, but managed to lumber themselves with.

But you can’t help but admire the gusto with which they tackle the future. The three movies all 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. The sight gags are there to be found.

Jaws 19, directed by Max Spielberg, is the obvious one, but with the benefit of high definition, reading the future newspaper reveals that America now has a female president for the first time, amongst other previously hidden stories. Plus the side characters all have some degree of progression. Mayor Goldie Wilson’s family tree isn’t doing badly in 2015, for instance.

Furthermore, we’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.

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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 detail, 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.

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, 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 (even if I’d be amazed if any part of the world looked quite that way in 2015).

But 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 Strickland’s house. The centrepiece 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 meet 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.

Lots of other strands are woven in too. I always felt the films over-relied on Marty reacting to being accused of being chicken a little too much, 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.

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The cleverest part of the film, though, 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, and Zemeckis plays happily with moments from the first movie. 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. It’s such a small detail, and nobody would really object if it wasn’t included. But it shows just how deeply Zemeckis was keen to go to weave his films together.

My favourite moment is when George 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.

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 new 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’.

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Back To The Future Part II is very much a product of its time, and there’s no shame in that. It was also very much a pathfinder in terms of visual effects, most notably in being the first major blockbuster to have an actor playing multiple roles on screen at the same time, and passing objects between the assorted characters. It’s the latter that’s something that’s taken for granted now, but it was genuinely groundbreaking here.

The upgraded transfer does expose one or two of the tricks, though, and it’s also a little easier over time to see the joins. Scenes with Michael J Fox, for instance, playing more than one character (he really shouldn’t have played his daughter), generally have some vertical divider on them somewhere built into the frame. And the moment where the future McFly family sit down to eat dinner leaves them conveniently neatly divided in specific seats. Back To The Future Part III would attempt a walk and talk with two generations of McFly, but we’ll come to that when we take a look at that movie.

The most obvious join here though is the varying colours. The lighting of Fox’s multiple characters all appear to be a little different to my eyes, and the 1080p transfer does highlight that. I’ve never really remembered it before, and it has to be taken as a by-product of an impressive Blu-ray transfer. It’s not a complaint, I should note, more an observation.

For the end result remains a deeply satisfying, and very ambitious mid-point of the trilogy. When I sat and watched the films back-to-back in the cinema, I did find it that this is the chapter of the story that sits least comfortably with the others, even though it does a lot of work in joining them together.

Yet, I still love it. It’s a sequel that feels from start to finish like it’s a labour 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 in 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.

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Tomorrow: we go back to 1885, with Back To The Future Part III.

The Back To The Future trilogy arrives on Blu-ray on 25th October.

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