Film discussion

Back to the Future Part II (1989) – Throwback 30

As the years continue and time moves ever faster, one of the most alarming things to happen is that films that were set in the future become films that are set in the present and then subsequently the past.

Recently the November 2019 setting of Blade Runner, which itself seemed so very far away, has now become the now, while four years ago, in a blaze of hype, the October 21 2015 setting for the first third of Back to the Future Part II passed into the… well – the past.

As always with these things, flying cars were promised, and in fact they never came to pass. And while we did get a variation on hoverboards, they didn’t end up quite as cool as they were in the film. Most regrettably, we also didn’t get an overabundance of Jaws sequels directed by Steven Spielberg’s son.

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After a four year wait, Back to the Future arrived back in cinemas with the first of its long-awaited sequels (filmed back to back with its third instalment) in the incredibly busy year of 1989. That same summer also saw the release of Tim Burton’s massively hyped Batman and the return of Indiana Jones.

Of course, originally there were never any concrete plans to do a Back to the Future sequel, despite that cliffhanging tease at the end of the first film which both writer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis claimed was more of a joke to end the film on. But becoming the highest-grossing film of 1985 and with the 80s being the era that the sequel became a major contribution to Hollywood, a Back to the Future sequel was all but inevitable.

They say the best sequels are ‘the same, but different’, and the second part of Marty McFly and Doc Brown’s adventures ends up being exactly that; a quick stop to the future year of 2015 in the first third, before a sojourn into a frightening (and frighteningly relevant) alternative 1985 for the second, before going back to the events of the first film and tiptoeing around those events in order to get things back on track.

In many ways, Back to the Future Part II is the most timey-wimey time travel movie ever made. A denser film than the first, and with little of the romantic whimsy that would come to the fore in the wonderful third film, Gale and Zemeckis took the George Lucas route of making the second film the ‘dark one’ in their trilogy. There is a brilliant, rather  unconventional air to the second film, what with an alternative 1985 that was inspired by the emergence of Donald Trump on American culture, a 2015 sequence that showing that Marty and family aren’t exactly living a happy life, and an eventual trip back to 1955 that sees them having to walk around themselves – which makes revisiting the first film in light of this one rather interesting.

Opinions have always varied on the sequels, and it sometimes feels as if many prefer one of the follow-ups over the other. Whilst the third film, objectively, is the better of the sequels, there is something dazzlingly brave in how Gale and Zemeckis approach what was a heavily anticipated film after a lengthy (in terms of Hollywood sequels, where the norm is usually two or three years) four year wait, with something a touch more darker and subversive.

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While that approach is brave, it also means that it somewhat ends up being the colder of the three movies, sometimes feeling as if Gale and Zemeckis are more interested in exploring the concept and ideas behind time travel rather than focusing on character in the way that made the first and third films such joys. The intricacies of the second film are what always make it feel like such a dazzling little experiment, with the time travel stuff being headache-inducingly great fun, and the story taking the Biff Tannen character (Thomas F. Wilson on great form) and switching him from a high school bully into something even more dangerous than previously imagined.

Its treatment of Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue taking over from Claudia Wells) is unfortunate. Basically having her pass out because they actually didn’t have anything for her to do is a regrettable side effect of not planning ahead because nobody expected the first film to launch a franchise. While the replacement of Crispin Glover with Jeffrey Weissman as George McFly would get the film into trouble and cause the Screen Actors Guild to create a clause for future film and television productions when it came to using the likeness of actors or actresses.

Despite these issues, it’s hard to resist the film fully. It actually says something about the trilogy itself that this is its weakest instalment, because by any other yardstick this is still a wonderful slice of blockbuster filmmaking. Once again complemented by wonderful chemistry between Fox and Lloyd, brilliant confidence in its storytelling and slick direction from Zemeckis, the lesser Back to the Future film is still a great slice of Hollywood comedy sci-fi, a massively entertaining film, and one that, even as its future year of 2015 passes ever more into the past, has become frighteningly and hilariously relevant.

One comment

  1. This is the second blog I have seen on BTTF II today. I guess I didn’t realize how much this film was disliked. I loved it! I thought BTTF III was good, but was disappointed with the way it ended.

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