The future’s so bright, I gotta wear self lacing Nike sneakers!
The unexpected continuation of Back to the Future weaves new complexities into the series, presents new versions of familiar scenes, and creates new technology to depict a fantastic future. Marty and Doc run into more craziness, more problems and more of themselves in this fun and not too dark time travel sequel which kicks off a new era of time travel adventure films.
After reminding the audience about some of the fun elements in the first film, the trailer for Back to the Future Part II jumps right into the future. It appears to continue from the end scene of the first film as Doc and Marty head into the future, but some problems happen, and the present day gets screwed up. All the while the upbeat Huey Lewis song “Back in Time” plays, so it can’t really be all that bad, right?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The film opens a few moments before the end of the original Back to the Future, with Marty (Michael J Fox) and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue) being told by Doc (Christopher Lloyd) that they need to return with him back to the future. Landing in 2015, Marty is amazed at all the technological advancements. After knocking Jennifer out, since no one should know too much about their future, Doc instructs Marty to enter the Cafe 80s dressed as his son and “just say no” to Griff’s offer for that night. Inside Marty meets old Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson) as well as his grandson Griff (also Tom Wilson), but the sleep agent Doc used on Marty’s son wears off and Marty McFly Jr (also Michael J Fox) stumbles in.
Realizing something is off, Griff calls Marty a chicken–which makes him angry. A hoverboard chase ensues with Griff and his gang chasing after Marty. Marty dodges their attack and the bullies careen into the courthouse, changing the outcome of tomorrow’s newspaper. With the mission accomplished, Marty and Doc realize Jennifer has been taken home by a couple of officers, so they proceed to Marty’s 2015 house to rescue her. Old Biff follows, puzzled by the flying DeLorean which he recognizes. While Doc tries to help Jennifer, Marty wanders away from the time machine allowing old Biff to steal it, along with a copy of a future sports almanac bought by Marty at an antique store. Jennifer encounters an older 2015 version of herself and Marty, plus Marty’s parents, and Marty’s two children before being rescued by Doc.
Old Biff returns moments later suffering some sort of pain and stumbles away. Marty and Doc return to 1985 and place Jennifer (who is passed out again) on her porch before returning to their homes. They both soon realize that something terrible has happened, as this 1985 is a dark shadow of its former self. Doc finds part of Biff’s cane in the DeLorean and theorizes that he stole the car, went back into the past, which caused a branch of the timeline, and this is actually 1985A, an alternate 1985 to what they remember. In this timeline, George McFly has been dead for 12 years, and Doc was committed to an asylum. Marty finds a giant casino in town square that belongs to Biff. Inside he discovers his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is now married to Biff.
In order to determine what happened, Marty straight out asks Biff how this happened. He explains that 30 years ago some old codger gave him a sports almanac and instructed him to bet on sports games. He made millions and created BiffCo, which now runs Hill Valley. Biff also reveals that he killed George McFly and then attempts to kill Marty. Doc shows up and the two return to November 12, 1955–the same date as the famous Hill Valley lightning storm, to fix the timeline. They arrive early in the morning, with the Doc warning Marty not to run into his “other self,” who is trying to get home (after the events in the first film), as it could be disastrous.
Marty witnesses old Biff meeting his younger self and giving him the sports almanac, complete with warnings about how to keep it safe. Hiding in Biff’s car, Marty catches a ride to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance with the bully. Looking for Marty, Doc accidentally bumps into his younger self on Main Street, who happens to be setting up a “weather experiment,” however his younger self does not recognize him. At the dance, the sports almanac is confiscated by Mr Strickland (James Tolkein) so Marty has to steal it back. He witnesses young George McFly saving Lorraine from Biff from a different perspective, but also finds that the “sports almanac” is really a girlie magazine with the dust jacket from the future book.
Marty returns to the dance, saving his younger self (who is on stage playing Johnny B Goode) from Biff’s three flunkies, and then follows Biff who still has the real future book. Using the hover board from 2015 Marty grabs the books out of Biff’s car just before the younger man wrecks his car into a manure truck, again. Doc and Marty return to the Lyon Estates entrance in 1955. Marty burns the almanac, causing the timeline to right itself, just as the flying DeLorean is struck by lightning and apparently explodes. As it begins to rain, a mysterious man (Joe Flaherty) shows up with a letter for Marty. It’s from the Doc, dated September 1, 1885, explaining that he’s been living in the old west. Marty races onto Main Street, where his past self has just departed back to 1985 and informs the 1955 version of Doc that he needs his help. “To Be Concluded…”
“Talk about deja vu.” – Marty McFly
History in the Making
Ten months after the release of the original Back to the Future film, the VHS release ended with the words “to be continued…” indicating a sequel was on its way. Fans would have to wait a little longer as director Robert Zemeckis was busy making Toontown come to life in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which released in 1988. Universal Studios was pushing strongly for a summer 1989 release for Back to the Future Part II but Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale had created a script that seemed to be too big for one film, which was causing them budget issues with the studio. Rather than trim the film down, they came up with the brilliant idea to split the massive script in two and film a second and third film back-to-back. This was not completely unheard of. Several dozen films had filmed elements for multiple releases together, including The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (1973 & 74) and Superman: The Movie and Superman II (1978 & 80), but Back to the Future Part II and Part III, were the first major releases to do all their filming in one batch. Part II was shot over 23 weeks, then a short break was taken before resuming to film the entirety of Part III. The Superman films, for example, shot all of the first film and most of the second, but that film switched directors partway through and needed numerous reshoots later. Zemeckis and Gale had never planned for sequels, instead enjoying the adventure of the film as a one-off. But Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal, was determined to have a sequel made with or without the original creators, so Zemeckis and Gale decided that it was better to be a part of it.
After sorting out the script, locking in the returning cast–which included a replacement for Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer, and securing release dates in late 1989 and summer of 1990, the crew got working on a sequel that begins literally where the first film leaves off. To date, sequels usually returned at some later point to meet up with the characters within another adventure. With Back to the Future ending as it did, the filmmakers decided to pick up immediately with the DeLorean leaping into the future. But with the addition of Elizabeth Shue, who had joined the cast as Jennifer, it was decided to re-film the entire last scene with the new actress–four years after it was originally shot. The two days necessary to film this scene added extra cost to the film overall, but served as a great bridge between the two films, as well as allowing the audience to mis-remember having seen this footage already. This was not the only trickery that Zemeckis and crew had in store for audiences however. Their goal was to have the actors portray multiple versions of themselves (or of their family), and revisit scenes from the original film. In order to accomplish that Zemeckis tasked Industrial Light and Magic with creating a new motion control camera dolly that could replicate precisely the pans, tilts, zooms, and moves of the large format VistaVision camera. Bill Tondreau’s design became the template for such a device, and was forever imbued with his name as ‘The Tondreau.’
Actors appearing with themselves on screen was nothing new. The standard process to create this illusion was blacking out a portion of the frame, filming the first character, and then reversing the split to film the second character. The split usually occurred on a hard edged surface, such as a door frame or some other object. This also meant that the camera was locked off and stationary. The idea that Zemeckis wanted ILM to solve for was being able to move the camera, which could help sell the idea that multiple versions of the same actor existed. ILM’s solution was a computer controlled camera, much like the motion controlled cameras used in the ILM model studio, but sized up for standard production cameras. It was also necessary to be portable in order to be used both in and out of doors. The Tondreau was created so that one portion of the scene was shot, recording the movements of the camera, and then those motions could be repeated again later after the actor had switched clothes. A soft matte, with blurred edges, rather than a hard matte (as with the original split screen process) was used to smooth any visible lines between the elements. Actors could also hand themselves objects through the use of a motion controlled arm that was rigged to the system. This allowed old Biff to hand his younger self the sports almanac, or the McFly’s to grab pieces of pizza at the same time.
Unlike the film reviewed last week (Millennium), Back to the Future Part II is all about setting up probable paradoxes. In fact, at one point Doc surmises that if Jennifer were to come face to face with her older/younger self she might simply pass out. But, he also advises that it could create a time paradox that could “unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!” This is the very plot of Millennium! If it weren’t for the two films coming out three months apart, this might seem like a dig against that previous film. This is part of the fun of this film. The filmmakers set up wild and outrageous moments to put the characters into and then create equally fun and outlandish ways for them to escape. All having to do with the idea that time is malleable, to a point; lumping numerous versions of characters into single moments in time.
Previous time travel films suggested care when handling the timeline, lest one create a paradox (time quakes from Millennium) or accidentally erasing yourself from existence (as Marty almost did in the original film by interrupting his parents meeting). But as that first Back to the Future film showed, time can be stretched and played with up to a point. It is not a rigid construct. Part II takes even more liberties by introducing a second Marty and a second Doc co-existing in 1955. While there are real stakes for the plot of the film, there’s also a lot of fun to be had by taking moments that audiences are familiar with and retelling them with an additional point-of-view, or in this case, the addition of another time traveling character.
Back to the Future Part II also presents the future as a mostly positive and light-hearted place. So many of the films from the 70s and 80s viewed the future as a dystopia, where pollution, crime, or fascist states were omnipresent. Here, the future is bright, colorful, and sunny. There’s fun and exciting technology (hover cars and hoverboards), and there is as much familiar (Pepsi and Texaco) as there is new (a Miami baseball team and accurate weather forecasts). The trouble really starts when the characters return to what becomes known as, 1985A–the alternate 1985. Doc presents the idea of multiverse, or at least a split timeline based on the choices other characters make. Thus, any change in the timeline, such as George McFly punching Biff in 1955 would create a new future which would resolve around the characters and also explains why Marty’s “present” in the previous film became so different. This was the first major sci-fi film to deal with this notion of multiversal logic. It has become one of the cornerstones of explaining time travel in other films, such as Scott Lang using it as an example of one possible form of time travel in Avengers: Endgame. The multiverse is something that would get more exposure in TV shows like Sliders and Fringe, as well as the Marvel and DC Superhero films of the 2020s.
With the positive spin on the future, it would seem like there’s not much the film has to say about the future of society. But that’s not altogether true. The problems of this particular future are inherently personal, instead of based on society as whole, as many other films depict. As with the remainder of the film, the issues and problems are uniquely centered on the McFly family. Marty is constantly concerned about his and his family’s status. This leads to the problems and confrontations for the characters in this and the next sequel. For a moment, the film series backtracks on its theme that the future is not set in stone as Doc once again cautions Marty that no one should know too much about their own future. Fate appears to be a more crucial component in the second chapter of the franchise after showing that the future is malleable enough to change. But just because Doc wants to fix one thing for Marty, while keeping him in the dark about the rest of his future, is Free Will sidelined for this adventure? It’s hard to say, since the crazy and paradoxical time traveling adventures appear more about trying to keep the status quo, than actually altering anything. Obviously, leading Marty and Doc back to 1955 introduces new ripples in the timeline that weren’t there before, such as Biff wrecking his car a second time, Biff interacting with his older self (which wouldn’t have been undone by any of the other trips), and the Western Union man actually directed to find Marty on that empty stretch of road. The characters don’t actually seem forced into doing anything in particular, instead witnessing previous versions of themselves that, in this second go-round behave just as they had before. Just as with the first film, the survival of the McFly family in particular is what is at stake, as Marty just tries to correct the things that he has made go wrong. Fate vs Free Will will again be a topic for the third film in the series, and an important theme overall as the franchise ends.
Another topic for questionable time travelers is the ethics involved with the entire venture. Marty sees the sports almanac and gets the idea to take it back to 1985 with him and make money by betting on sporting events. Doc tells Marty that’s a bad idea, as he created the time machine to gain a “clearer perception of humanity.” However, his admonition that Marty should not gamble on sporting events with the almanac goes against a quote from Doc in the first film where he hopes to travel in time to get the next 25 World Series winners. Now this could be attributed to Doc just speaking off the cuff in that first film, as the filmmakers did not anticipate the need to create this sequel at the time they wrote the original line. Or it could be something that he realized sometime after Marty returned to 1985 and before Doc showed up to take him and Jennifer into the future. Evidence points to Doc doing a lot of other traveling once Marty returned to 1985 in the first film. Doc has a suitcase loaded with cash from different times, and he’s obviously already been to the future (and to the day after the one he visits with Marty) so maybe his excursions have helped inform this new opinion. It also begs the question about Biff’s continued windfalls during his lifetime; the ones that changed the timeline into 1985A. Wouldn’t his betting and winning with such publicity compound itself to change the events further downstream? Obviously for the storytelling purposes, that’s not what the writers wanted to show, but the thought problems that this film raises are obviously interesting discussion topics that can lead in various directions. Questions such as: if Doc is opposed to gambling to make personal financial gain on time travel, why is it okay to alter the life of your parents so that they are more successful? Isn’t that just a similar issue?
The Science in The Fiction
As with many films that take place in the future, one of the highlights is looking at the advancements that technology has achieved. Keeping with the positive and bright aesthetic of the future, many of these advancements are related to commerce and pop culture, rather than anything of a more weighty substance. The future of Back to the Future Part II consists of a healthy nostalgia of looking back to the 80s (which is one of the more accurate depictions of life in 2015), plus flying cars, hoverboards, 3D holographic ads for action films, dehydrated pizza, and some odd clothing choices (double neckties and pants worn inside out). These are all taken with a dose of comedy however. Whether it’s Doc peeling off the old skin from his face (worried that Marty “wouldn’t recognize him”) or the two young boys complaining that using their hands for a video game make it for babies, this version of 2015 seems like a place that audiences would like to live in. Who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend in Hill Valley? Of course, there’s no real depth to any of this technological advancement. The future is also superficial, since as mentioned before the real reason for being in that time is the personal journey of the characters.
The Final Frontier
Knowing that they were going to make a second and third movie at the same time afforded the filmmakers some ability to tease elements for the third film within this film. With the hindsight of having seen Back to the Future Part III, tracking the easter eggs in Part II is a fun task. Since Part III takes place in the old west, 1885 by accounts of the end of this film, some teases as to that timeline are placed in plain sight. Doc’s shirt for a portion of the film is covered with trains and cowboys, plus his penchant for his favorite historical period, The Old West, is revealed. An old photo of “Mad Dog” Tannen, Biff’s relative, is shown at the Pleasure Paradise museum. Doc also mentions wanting to study another mystery of the universe–women. This was a new character moment for the scientist. Up until this viewing, there seems to be yet another tease for Part III that has gone completely unnoticed. Much debate has engaged over the reasoning for the strange flame trails when the DeLorean is zapped by lightning. They look like two backwards 9s, which is nothing like had been shown before. Looking closely at the street at the end of the film, behind the “To Be Continued…” title card, is a sign for Western Auto, which is inside a neon sign with an arrow bent into the shape of a 9. This ties in perfectly with the opening of Part III, when Marty is driving the DeLorean in the Old West–a western auto. There may even be an easter egg related to the comic books series The Watchmen, as the 1985A newspaper about Doc Brown being committed has a story about Nixon seeking a sixth term. Nixon was President in 1985-86 during the events of the Watchmen universe as well.
The film ends on a cliffhanger, namely how will Marty get back to 1885 to save the Doc (or even back to 1985 if he were going home)? The trailer at the end of the film for Part III, which was in itself a great addition knowing that the answers would only be a few months away instead of years, indicates that he would be successful. But there was much debate between me and my friends of just how he could accomplish that. Some may feel that this second film does more to set up the third film instead of being a movie in it’s own right. As so much of Part II is revisiting elements of the first film, including the 1955 era of the third act, it doesn’t seem to stand on its own as well as Part I. That may be true to an extent, but it was also attempting to expand the universe of the first film in order to tell a bigger story of the McFly and Tannen families, which is the culmination of the third film, as well as the series. Whatever your personal opinion of Back to the Future Part II is, the film set the bar higher for sci-fi film, time travel stories, and franchise movies, and ended the era of the 80s with some style. It’s just too bad that 2015 didn’t have some of the advancements that we saw in this film. But on the other hand, be glad we didn’t get fifteen more entries in the Jaws franchise!
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.