Back to the Future Part II (1989)


In 1985 a science fiction comedy called Back to the Future made a full-fledged movie star out of Michael J. Fox and proved to be yet one more triumph for producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis.  It was not only clever and exciting, but has managed to stand the test of time.  

Studios like to make money, and one of those ways of making money is to draw out a hit by making as many sequels as possible.  Back to the Future was a self-contained story.  Marty McFly (Fox) got stuck back in time, made sure his parents got together so he could exist and, with the help of a younger Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) was able to make his way back to 1985, his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and a much improved family situation.  Everything worked out well except for the bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) and his cronies. 

There was one last thing, however.  Doc Brown shows up in a new, flying, fusion-powered version of the Delorean, and announces that they need to go help out Marty and Jennifer's kids in the future.  Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale meant it as a final gag, and to hint that Marty would be having ongoing adventures with the Doc and Jennifer.  We were never supposed to see those adventures, and, since it was 1985 and I was getting old enough to appreciate endings like this, I can say that we were fine with it.  It wasn't like Fox was disappearing any time soon and, even though he did star in a few things that retrospectively were turkeys (like Teen Wolf, the movie Fox had made before Back to the Future, which was released on the heels of it), Fox was on his way to a respectable career. 

Then the video cassette for Back to the Future came out with something extra: a note that the story was to be continued.  That was news to many people, including Fox, who rushed to make sure he was going to be in whatever they were planning.  And, sure enough, there were another two chapters in the story coming out which were to be filmed back to back, which was something quite rare at the time.  While no one had been expecting a sequel there was no real complaint among fans - at least not until the movie hit the theaters. 

Doc, after picking up Marty and Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue), heads for 2015 to have Marty stop his son (Fox) from making a mistake that would end him up in prison.  Turns out Marty Jr. is much like George McFly used to be, and is easily pushed around by the local bully Griff (Wilson), son of Biff Tannen.  Only thing is Biff in 1985 sees the Delorean fly off, and 30 years later he puts two and two together when he suddenly realizes that Doc and Marty from 1985 have arrived in 2015.  Marty, for his part, decides to increase his fortunes by buying a sports almanac that has a list of winners and statistics from 1950 to 2000, which Doc finds and discards.  Biff, however, thinks it is definitely the way to change his lot in life. 

Realizing what a mess he could make of things, Doc returns back to 1985 and aims to destroy the time machine.  Unfortunately, the 1985 they return to is quite different; Biff Tannen is the richest and most powerful man on Earth. Even worse, George died in 1973 and Biff eventually married Marty's mother (Lea Thompson).  Because Biff is boss of this alternate 1985 it is a crime-ridden dystopia, and Marty and Doc soon figure out that the biff from 2015 visited the Biff in 1955 to provide him with the almanac.  To put things back they way they should be requires a trip back to 1955, meanwhile avoiding their past and future selves and trying not to make things worse.

To say that Back to the Future Part II was not received well when it came out is an understatement.  Critics hated it because it suddenly took a dark turn.  Despite the hijinks at the beginning the movie begins to take itself quite seriously when we get to the alternate 1985, and it becomes clear that we're no longer on a wacky ride.  Then, back in 1955, a good portion of the first movie is repeated, just from different points of view, and the mood quickly shifts again although we know what the stakes are.  Also, Zemeckis wanted to make it as clear as possible that this was one half of a two-part sequel.  While it was reported they were being filmed back-to-back, it wasn't made clear that they were not self-contained films like the first one.  Ticket sales suffered as soon as word of mouth started spreading that audiences felt cheated. 

I have to admit that I didn't much care for it when I saw it in 1989.  The tone was off, and even though I was aware this was only half of the story, I still felt cheated when the last third happened in 1955.  Most of that was re-shot for this movie, but they did such a good job of it that many people couldn't tell at the time, including me.  Since it also featured many key scenes it also felt like Zemeckis had taken the lazy way out and reused most of Back to the Future to save money.  In addition a lot of what happened in 2015 mirrored the events of 1955 in the first film.  

Although I appreciate Back to the Future Part II a lot more now than when it came out I still feel the same way about its flaws.  There is too much here that repeats the same plot points and, though it can be said to be mirroring events, it often appears to be lazy writing.  There is also too much slapstick this time around, in particular the long, drawn-out effort of Marty to get the almanac from the 1955 version of Biff. After awhile it just gets tedious.  Marty is also given a new character trait that never showed up in the first movie: he freaks out whenever he gets called a chicken, acting in irrational ways to prove he is not.  It's a problem that affects his life negatively in many ways, and is responsible for the fact he has failed at most things during his life.  Supposedly it was put in there so he didn't seem too perfect, but it simply comes out of nowhere, and it is ludicrous that a grown man would care if someone called them a chicken.  That may be what they found funny in it, but the gag, repeated often, simply does not work.   

Where the movie does work is that some thought was put in to the consequences of messing with time.  Where Marty's future is messed up due to his erratic behavior, the fact that Biff Tannen is able to do so much damage with the sports almanac proves his point, even if Marty would have used it a bit more wisely.  It is even questionable that Doc's experiment on getting Marty's future son out of trouble didn't have ripple effects that later changed things in a noticeable way further on in the future, and not necessarily for the better.  

While I understand the need to build on Marty's character his final way of dealing with the almanac says a lot more about him than flying off the handle when called a name most people ignore after grade school.  Fox, although it is starting to become apparent he shouldn't be playing teenagers (it was questionable in the first movie as well), still plays Marty perfectly, but he's also developed a bit more subtlety.  Where he doesn't do so well is playing different versions of himself as well as his kids.  It may have seemed like a funny idea at the time, but he's good at playing a comedic role when he doesn't overplay it.  It's almost as bad as that Irish brogue he tries when playing his great-grandfather in the next chapter.  

Also back on point is Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown.  I have always liked that even though he acts and, for the most part, is eccentric, he is largely grounded in reality and a sense of responsibility - except when stealing plutonium from Libyans, that is.  Thomas F. Wilson is way too over the top this time as Biff and Griff; honestly, I like campy performances, but forcing it by screaming every line at top volume is not the way to do it.  Despite the scenery chewing it doesn't change the fact that Biff makes a great villain, and I can't really imagine this sequel working as much as it does without a solid antagonist.  Elisabeth Shue replaces Claudia Wells due to the latter having a family tragedy, but the truth is Shue was wasted and Wells would have been as well, as the story had no room for Jennifer.  Lea Thompson also is not used the way she should be, although her portrayal of an abused woman who has literally given up everything in her life to protect her kids is heartbreakingly well-done.  The big problem is that it comes after Marty staring uncomfortably at her breast implants. 

While I like it more now for its portrayal of another future that never materialized, and for the concepts it puts forth regarding time travel, I still find Back to the Future Part II to be an unnecessary addendum to what was a good enough movie on its own.  There are opportunities to play things a bit more seriously, and curiously the movie works best during the dark 1985 timeline, but it seems Zemeckis and Gale could never decide this time around if it was still supposed to be a comedy or straight science fiction film.  Sticking with the light or the serious, and not spending so much time revisiting and rehashing the first movie, would have made this so much better. 

Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Time: 108 minutes
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
 

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