Roads! When we are, why do we still need roads?!
by Thom Yee
The date is October 24 and the year is 2015 — three days after Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown arrived in their future (our present) to prevent Marty McFly, Jr.’s arrest. In the process, they unwittingly set forward a series of events that would alter our past (their present), resulting in a ruined 1985 where Biff Tannen became one of the richest men in America who used his newfound economic power to influence the political and socio-economic climate of the country for the worse, resulting in widespread crime, corruption, prostitution, and gang warfare. In order to prevent this dark timeline from happening, McFly and Brown engaged in further unsanctioned time travelling to fix their present-day 1985 and set history back on its correct course. But did they really succeed or did they, in fact, set humanity — all of us — back by engaging in these chronal machinations.
I look around today, October 24, 2015, three days after that original vision of the future, and I see disappointment. I look around today and I see mistrust. I look around today and I see desperation, bitterness, and a complete lack of hope. Where are the flying cars? Where are the hover boards? Where are the power laces, the self-fitting clothes, the fusion engines, the pizza rehydrators, why won’t our voice-recognition software actually work [I’m looking at you, Siri], why does it still get so cold and snowy in the winter? Why is obesity rampant, why are civil wars happening all over the world, why has our local Alberta economy been ruined by a foreign conglomerate devaluing the cost of what should, by now, be an archaic fuel source? I look around today and I say that Marty McFly and Doc Brown were wrong, wrong to ever build a time machine using foreign energy sources, wrong to ever travel through time without the proper precautions, wrong to choose a timeline that they preferred, and that it is they who set us on this path to now, this alternate 2015, with obesity and war and chilly, slippery winters that none of us ever wanted.
Or maybe it was just a movie, and the October 21, 2015 future was simply a date thirty years after 1985, just like 1955, the setting of Back to the Future, was thirty years before, and all of the Back to the Future Part II news stories, videos, and articles this past week have really outworn their welcome.
And here’s one more [article].
What’s it about?
It was 1986 and director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale had a problem. After making what would become the biggest movie of 1985, they were charged with creating a sequel to continue the story of one of the most popular movies of all time. This meant writing a story that would please fans of the original and open the franchise to an even wider audience, this meant re-creating sets and scenes that had been built years earlier, this meant writing around the fact that George McFly wasn’t going to be back, and this meant figuring out what to do with Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, since the filmmakers, for some reason, chose to also include her character at the end of the original. In following up the movie that would come to define their careers even to this day in 2015 (and really the careers of everyone involved), Zemeckis and Gale created a movie that would travel to a bright future, a grim, dark-mirror present, and a recognizable time in the past before taking us somewhere entirely different and yet all-too familiar in the third, concluding installment.
What I’m about to say might sound controversial, but it still has to be said:
I don’t think the hover board scene is all that great.
Further, I don’t really like much of what we got to see of what was then the future in 2015. Those are, almost without doubt, the parts that the movie is most remembered for, and for many people they’re the reason Part II is a fan favourite. They’re fun moments in their own way, but they’re also some other things that I wasn’t looking for in a Back to the Future movie — cynical and more than a little bit mean spirited. At their best they’re an homage to some of the greatest moments that we loved so much from the original film, but at their worst there’s a sinister side to them that can override the honesty and hopeful innocence that the series represents at its core.
For me, the moments of true depth come later in the movie, and mostly during the despair and bleakness of the ruined 1985 that Marty and Doc returned to after old Biff messed everything up. I can still remember being a little kid the first time I saw the movie and being really horrified and freaked out with how bad everything was, especially when we discovered that George McFly was dead. Later, of course, we found out that the character was simply written out because Crispin Glover was asking for too much money, but still, it was a moment that struck me as Earth-shatteringly real and really made it clear the powers that Doc and Marty were messing with. True, this 1985 era is far more downtrodden than the brightly lit future of 2015, but it represents a more genuine depth of emotion than any of the scenes in the future while making it clear that our heroes now have a very real problem to solve that, this time, goes far beyond their own lives.
Is it any good?
“Of course it’s good, it’s Back to the Future,” some of you might be thinking, and that’s arguably the strongest point in Back to the Future Part II’s favour. In the same way that I consider Die Hard 2 one of the best Die Hard sequels because it at least feels like a Die Hard, Back to the Future Part II is a successful reuniting of all the core ingredients that made its forebear such a strong movie. Doc and Marty are the same strong leads they always were, the new Jennifer, though significantly more annoying, is a reasonable fit for a story that, essentially, can’t get rid of her soon enough, and the time travel concept is allowed to go much further than it did the first time through where it was primarily just a device to explore what it would be like to meet your parents when they were your age. It’s funny and adventurous and essential viewing in the grand scope of movies in general. Like Star Wars, Casablanca, or The Godfather, the Back to the Future trilogy is just a part of our collective movie vocabulary to the point that it crosses all sorts of social barriers around age, race, gender, and preferences.
It does all of that… while not actually being that great of a movie, at least not in comparison.
As the middle child in the Back to the Future trilogy, Part II is a bit of an incomplete work and it’s entirely dependent on its surrounding siblings to reach its own success. It’s an incomplete narrative, one that presents its heroes with a greater threat than ever before, but it’s ultimately a movie more concerned with setting the table for a concluding chapter in a story that, it can easily be argued, was already pretty much finished in its first outing. By spending almost equal amounts of time in the past, present, and future, the whole movie at times feels a little undercooked if not a little discombobulated, and some of the scenario repetitions, though pointing to a potentially fascinating predestined, cyclical nature of time (like the hoverboard scene), can make this second part feel like little more than an echo of the first, one that diminishes what was so special about the first.
And especially with time travel at the centre of everything going on, it messes with the concept to an extent that it raises uncomfortable questions that make the concept fray a little at the edges. As a dramatic concept, time travel is almost always fraught with peril in that the changes time travellers make in the past would result in a future that negates said traveller from ever going back in the first place. The problem boils down to the usual chicken-and-egg question (i.e., which happened first), and the most nonsensical part of the entire Part II premise is that, if future Biff had gone back to 1955 to give the sports almanac to his younger self and change his own future, the future he returned the DeLorean to would already have ceased to exist, taking our heroes with it. Back to the Future has set itself up as a time travel world where past actions have future repercussions, and if future Biff could go back to his old future after building a new, future-sports-almanac-influenced past even though that future should no longer exist, then Doc and Marty should have been able to return to their preferred present 1985 even though that 1985 should also no longer exist. And if not, why not?
But that’s enough of that. It’s still a decent movie that manages to recapture most of the fun of the original while opening its world up to a lot of the speculative “What if…?” scenarios that make the series fun to just sit around and talk about with friends. One thing that becomes very clear from watching Part II is how little credit Thomas F. Wilson sometimes gets in his portrayal of Biff, who goes from a small-time high school bully in part one to an almost terrifying avatar of pure evil in this movie. In the first, Biff is a little menacing, but is ultimately exposed as a minor threat, whereas in Part II he carries an enormous weight that touches everything and represents the movie’s central problem. What’s more, he’s still a really funny character, sometimes almost inexplicably so considering that he’s directly responsible for the death of one central character, the attempted murder of Marty, and the complete corruption of the American way of life in one possible time line (not to mention his attempted rape from the first part). Maybe it’s all the manure he keeps running into. Also, here’s a fun fact: at 6’3”, actor Thomas F. Wilson is almost literally a foot taller than Michael J. Fox, who’s 5’4”.
There’s a lot of really grim, dark stuff in Part II, but it’s never not fun, not even when you’re finding out that Marty ruined (and continues to ruin) his own future when someone calls him chicken, that the new, apocalyptic 1985 Hill Valley is filled with gun-toting criminals and ruthless realty companies, or that Doc was committed to an insane asylum. Just like it’s obvious that the 2015 future we see in this movie is meant to be played more for laughs than prophecy, there remains a comic element that overrides whatever else might be going on, one that succeeds mostly through the strength of its principal actors’ comic timing. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at seeing someone’s hand crushed between a desk and a roller chair, and I always find the way Marty distracts his enemies (“Hey look!”, “Biff, you’re forgetting one thing — What the hell is that?!”, “Guys, what’s that?!”) endlessly entertaining because he uses it so much and it always works.
Plus this time around, Marty actually gets to see his dad punch out Biff. That might be reason enough to go back to the past.
So should I see it?
Of course, why wouldn’t you? Not seeing (Naziing?) it makes almost no literal sense. I could make an argument that the series is best left alone with the first, but Part II is at least good enough to stand near part one if not right next to. More importantly, it’s essential viewing in completing a story that ultimately manages to find worthwhile narrative ground to cover even if the first was perfect on its own. It just doesn’t get there by itself, so look forward to our coverage of Part III… sometime in the future!!!!! (Probably next month.)
Back to the Future Part II may not have gotten a lot right about the future world of 2015, but that wasn’t really the point. It did warn us about one thing though. Recently, series writer Bob Gale put an end to years-long fan speculation by verifying that the ruined 1985 version of Biff was in fact based on Donald Trump. They got the hair right, the hateful gaze right, the bullying, the disdainful opinion of human life. It’s almost ridiculous that it was ever a question. Back to the Future Part II is really all the proof we need to see that President Trump is something that can never be allowed to happen.
Thom’s Back to the Future Part II final score
On the Edge
- Oh Claudia Wells, you’re the only Jennifer for me.
- Doc and Marty both seem to have a habit of not giving themselves enough time. They have all the time in the world, they have a time machine, but just like Marty only gave himself ten minutes to warn Doc about the Libyans, Doc barely gives himself enough time to stop Marty McFly Jr. from meeting Biff in Café ‘80s.
- $50 Pepsi! It had better be Perfect!
- I’ve seen this movie, like, twenty times, but this is the first time I noticed the handle on Biff’s cane is a fist. That’s hilarious.
- Why would a repairman call Marty chicken? How would that ever have come up during the course of a repair job?
- Those were some really great kid’s toy walkie-talkies Doc Brown picked up. They worked all the way across town!
- Biff didn’t seem to have a great home life, I wonder how he got that great car? Or is it just another case of how every high school bully inexplicably has a great car?
- Imagine if old future Biff had also told his younger to look out for that punch from George McFly. That really would’ve effed things up.
- I wonder if Strickland was ever happy. Did he actually like being a principal?
- Good thing Marty didn’t check that newspaper page the first time he got the almanac back or else he would’ve been freaking out about why the “George McFly Murdered” headline still wasn’t changing.