Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part II (1989, Robert Zemeckis)

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Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 screen doors on a battleship out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part II especially excels. I won’t mention the direction, the music, the production design, the dialogue and the main cast (Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Thomas F Wilson) because they were discussed in the previous blog post. But they’re all just as sensational in this film.

1. New Jennifer.
The opening scene is a reprise of the final few minutes from the original movie. However, the footage had to be reshot because Claudia Wells had dropped out of playing Jennifer for personal reasons. I was already a fan of the new actress, Elisabeth Shue, from The Karate Kid and Adventures in Babysitting. She’s a big improvement on Wells: she gets more to do, and is also a better comic actress. (I’ve only this week learnt that there was a *third* Jennifer. Originally cast in the role in 1984 was Melora Hardin, who was later in the US version of The Office. She filmed a few scenes with Eric Stoltz, the original Marty. However, when Stoltz was fired and replaced with Michael J Fox, Hardin was deemed too tall to play opposite Fox so was let go.)

2. “Whoa, this is heavy!”
This film’s plot is dizzyingly complex and all the better for it. The mechanics of who does what, when they do it, what that means, and what it leads to are very complicated but (almost entirely) make perfect sense. The writers even use something they considered a mistake – putting Jennifer in the car at the end of the first film – to their benefit. When the cops in the future find time-travelling Jennifer, they naturally deduce that she’s the Jennifer from 2015 so take her home. We then get a very entertaining sequence at Marty’s future house, which is full of fun gags and character details, *and* provides Biff with the opportunity to steal the DeLorean. The whole script has this kind of plotting panache.

3. “Please, Marty – no one should know too much about their own destiny.”
The DeLorean arrives in the future at 4.29pm on 21 October 2015. Doc even specifies that it’s a Wednesday. I first saw this film at a cinema in Southport in December 1989. It was my cousin’s birthday, so he, some of his pals and I went together. I was only 10, but crucially a year or so older than everyone else. So I felt enormously smug when, after the movie, they all complained that it made no sense and I was able to spell out what had happened. I also remember calculating that I’d be 36 years old in October 2015. That seemed a laughably long time away. It was, I suppose.

4. Future proof.
The twenty-first century on show here has flying cars, self-tying shoes, and Jaws 19 playing at the cinema (tagline: “This time, it’s really, really personal!”). The filmmakers knew they had no hope of accurately predicting 26 years into the future, so they chose to play it for laughs. The main dialogue scene, for example, takes place in the Café 80s – a horrid, pastel, plastic retro joint with AI waiters in the form of Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In presenting a future society, the film got a lot of things wide off the mark (Marty Jnr uses a payphone) but some things bang on the money. Check out how Marty Jnr watches six TV feeds all at once, and how he and Marty’s daughter are both obsessed by their Google Glasses while at the dinner table. Behaviourally speaking, they’re kids using social media. (The sight of Michael J Fox playing Marlene McFly, however, is just horrific.) When he arrives in the future, Marty buys a sports almanac from a vintage-goods shop. It’s said to list all major sporting results from 1950 to 2000, including American football, baseball, horse racing and boxing. In 1955, Biff verifies its accuracy by looking up the score of a routine college-football game. Even if we assume it’s only *American* sports, it still seems a very thin book for all that information! (By the way, I’ve looked it up: some if not all of the football scores we hear on Biff’s car radio are from genuine games that took place on 12 November 1955. And UCLA did really beat Washington with a last-minute field goal.)

5. “Manure! I hate manure!”
As with the first film, there are loads of gags only noticeable on repeated viewings. An electronic billboard in 2015 advertises Major Goldie Wilson III’s election campaign. An edition of USA Today we see in the future has jokey headlines such as ‘Washington prepares for Queen Diana’s visit!’ and ‘President says she’s tired’. Some subtle gags are, in effect, in the wrong order. We’ve already seen Lorraine married to a wealthy Biff in the alternative 1985 when, in 1955, she tells him that she wouldn’t marry him “even if [he] had a million dollars!” There are also quite a few forward references to the third film, which was shot back-to-back with this one. Marty plays a Western shoot-’em-up arcade machine in 2015 (a young Elijah Wood is one of the kids in the scene); the Doc laments that he’s never visited the Old West and says he wants to learn more about women; we find out that Biff’s great-grandfather was a Wild West outlaw; and Biff is seen watching A Fistful of Dollars. (One little detail I spotted on this viewing that I’ve never realised before: the old codger in 2015 who gives Marty the idea to go back in time and make money via betting is also in the 1955 stuff. He’s the mechanic charging Biff $300 for the repairs to his car.)

6. “I’m old!”/”I’m young!”
For 1989, the special effects are tremendous. There are numerous split-screen shots where the same actor plays two (or even three) roles at the same time. The characters interact believably and the camera often *moves*, which was just revolutionary for the time. The two Jennifers seeing each other and both fainting might be my favourite example, but there are plenty to choose from. There’s also some smart animation used for the flying cars in 2015. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie Robert Zemeckis made immediately before this.

7. History repeating itself.
The same type of events keep happening, but in interestingly different contexts. This kind of story rhyming is not unique to the Back to the Future films – The Godfather and Star Wars series both use the same technique. In the first film, Marty used a skateboard as he was chased round Hill Valley’s square by Biff; here, in 2015, it’s a hoverboard and Biff’s grandson. Marty’s asked for a donation to “save the clock tower” again, this time in the future. When Marty wakes up in the alternative 1985, a scene from the first film is being echoed – however, rather than a slim teenager, his mum is now a middle-aged woman with fake tits. Biff ends up crashing his car into a manure truck for a second film running. Of course, in the final act, events are literally repeating themselves…

8. “It’s like we’re in hell or something.”
The clues that 1985 has changed are evident before Marty learns what’s happened. We see ruined cars and lots of graffiti; Hill Valley Square has been taken over by bikers; and there’s a toxic-waste plant. In its middle section, the film is heading into It’s a Wonderful Life territory – ‘what if’ Biff were rich and successful? Like in It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s now a nightmarish world. There’s lots of violent crime. Everywhere’s rundown and tatty. It’s always night. Biff’s built a Vegas-style casino on top of the clock tower, seems to run the whole town, and is married to an unhappy Lorraine. George is dead (a subplot created because the original actor wouldn’t come back). Doc has been committed. And Marty’s been packed off to school in Switzerland.

9. Back to the Fifties.
The original script set the final third in the 1960s. Lorraine would have been a flower-power girl, George a peacenik. But then the writers made the inspired decision to go back to 1955. It’s a time-travel film, they argued, so we can do anything – including revisiting the events of the first movie. We therefore get the intoxicating, imaginative situation of having two Martys and two Docs running around Hill Valley. For 38 glorious minutes of cinema, the film stitches new scenes in and around footage shot in 1984 (as well as restaging some moments). There’s a joyful exuberance for this kind of tomfoolery – the Doc meets himself, we go back to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, and we see classic moments from new points of view. It’s heady storytelling that would only work on film or television.

10. “Is your name Marty McFly?”
As two sequels were made back-to-back, we get a monster of a cliffhanger at the end of Part II. The plot concluded and the real 1985 put back on track, the DeLorean is struck by lightening. It vanishes in mid-air, stranding a bemused Marty in the 1950s. Then, out of the rain, comes a man with a letter. His company have had it in their possession for 70 years, with specific instructions to deliver it to Marty as this precise moment. The letter is from the Doc, telling Marty that he’s living in the Wild West. Writing to someone in the future: it’s a sensational concept. Cinema tricks us into accepting that the two times – 1885 and 1955 – are somehow concurrent, that Doc is speaking directly to his friend. (The 2007 Doctor Who episode Blink uses the same letter idea. I have no idea if it’s a coincidence or was deliberately half-inched. But the show has lately become more and more fascinated with Back to the Future-style time-travel trickery. A thought occurs: did Steven Moffat name Clara after Part III’s main guest character?) The movie then ends with an in-film trailer for the third chapter – that was a stunningly exciting move in 1989. But a frustrating one, as the next film was eight months away…

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