Should I Watch..? 'Back to the Future Part II'
What's the big deal?
Back To The Future Part II is a sci-fi adventure film released in 1989 and is obviously the sequel to the 1985 film Back To The Future. Once again directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film reunites Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd as they return as Marty McFly and "Doc" Emmett Brown who must stop at nothing to prevent the time-travelling DeLorean from falling into the hands of the villainous Biff Tannen. The film also stars Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson and Elisabeth Shue who replaced Claudia Wells in the role of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer. Filmed consecutively with the third film over the course of two years, the movie was a success with audiences around the world with earnings around $332 million. However, critical reaction was more mixed with the complex plot and alleged misogyny coming in for particular criticism. The film was also the subject of a lawsuit by Crispin Glover after a contract dispute after his role was minimalised and replaced by another actor made up to look like Glover.
What's it about?
On October 26th 1985, Marty McFly returns home to find that his previous time-travelling escapade hasn't disturbed the space-time continuum too much. His girlfriend Jennifer is waiting for him on his porch and delighted to see him, unaware of Marty's adventure. But that changes instantly when Doc Brown appears out of thin air in his time-travelling DeLorean, pleading with Marty and Jennifer to accompany him to the then-future of 2015 after uncovering a tragedy that affects Marty and Jennifer's kids. As they float off and blast into the future, they are witnessed by Biff Tannen who can't believe his eyes.
As they arrive in Hill Valley in 2015, Doc attempts to get Marty to replace his lookalike son in order to prevent disaster. But with Jennifer knocked out in an effort to prevent her knowing too much about the future, nobody is around to stop the future Biff Tannen realising the significance of the DeLorean. Picking up a discarded sports almanac Marty had originally purchased, Biff then travels back in time in order to make himself some serious money...
Michael J. Fox
Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown
Thomas F. Wilson
Biff Tannen / Griff Tannen
Douglas J. Needles
Release Date (UK)
24th November, 1989
Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nomination
Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
When I first watched Part II as a kid, it was my least favourite of the three. The plot was too confusing, there was too much recycling of material and even I knew we weren't getting hoverboards in time for my thirties! However, watching the film as an adult was a much more pleasurable experience. The plot is complex but the film makes as much effort as possible to explain what is happening without dumbing itself down too much. The characters are already familiar so the film literally jump-starts from where the first one finished - no need to set up funny scenes later on. Still waiting for my hoverboard, though.
Fox and Lloyd still make a sublime odd couple, especially taking into consideration how many different versions of the character they each play. For example, Fox plays the original Marty from the first film (and also bumps into him again when revisiting the 1955 Hill Valley), the old Marty in the future and even two of future Marty's kids - one of which is in drag and a little creepy! For me, Wilson really steps things up as Biff who finally comes into his own as the main antagonist and single-handedly makes this a more darker film than before. Incidentally, once I got my noggin around the plot, I actually loved the scenes when Marty is forced to go back to 1955 to retrieve the almanac but trying to avoid contact with the other Marty from the first film. If you're looking for temporal paradoxes then a) God help you and b) you'll really get a kick out of this.
- Glover was asked to return as George McFly but was offered much less money than the rest of the cast as well as Glover rejecting the film's philosophy, feeling that the story financially benefitted the characters instead of rewarding them with love. Weissman then played the role beneath prosthetic make-up to look like Glover while the producers also recycled old footage of Glover's initial performance without his consent. As a result of the lawsuit, the Screen Actors Guild now has strict rules preventing such techniques from being used again. The case was settled out of court.
- The film marks the debut film appearance of Elijah Wood who appears as one of the two kids playing the video game in the diner at the start of the film.
- For the thirtieth anniversary of Back To The Future, Lloyd reprised the role of Doc Brown for a short film called Doc Brown Saves The World where he discusses travelling forward to 2045 and attempting to prevent a nuclear holocaust that somehow resulted as a by-product of the hoverboard. This forces Doc to travel back in time to prevent them from being invented, which explains why the 2015 shown in the film is different to real-life 2015.
- While hoverboards are still absent, Nike did produce a pair of self-tying shoes called Mags in 2016 and sold them with all proceeds going to Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's research charity. For just a limited run of 89 shoes, Nike raised $6.75 million.
What's not to like?
Pulling on my critical shoes (which also aren't self-tying), there are a couple of issues I can't ignore regarding this film. Although the set-up for going back to 1955 is well handled and provides a different perspective on the first film's events, it does feel a bit lazy on the film-maker's part - why keep going back to one specific night in 1955 when you literally have the whole spectrum of human history to play with? It just feels a little unambitious, especially alongside the more adventurous Part III. The film's storyline just about makes sense assuming you stop munching pop-corn long enough to catch the exposition but the film's clumsy attempts at recasting (or straight-up fooling the audience) feels ham-fisted and frankly unnecessary.
I don't mean to dwell on this but it's hard to notice the changes in cast because the recast characters are nearly completely ignored. Weissman's impersonation of Crispin Glover feels desperate while poor old Shue has her character knocked out almost for the film's entire duration, rendering her appearance useless. A shop mannequin could have been used, for the most part. Part II also lacks much of the sparkle and originality of the first film, unsurprisingly given how closely we stick to the original's formula. For all its inventiveness and fun glance at the future, it doesn't feel as entertaining as you might expect.
Should I watch it?
For all of the film's production problems, they don't unduly distract from an intelligent and gripping film that delivers some memorable action scenes and clever use of story-telling devices. It gets better as it goes along as the 2015-sequence feels quite outdated today despite that timeless hoverboard chase. Like many middle films in trilogies, this feels like a place-holder until the more bombastic third film sweeps us away once again but that does this film a disservice - it's still funny and enjoyable and a great film to watch with the family.
Great For: Nike & Mattel shareholders, fans of the series, family nights in
Not So Great For: fans of It's A Wonderful Life because parts of this film mirror that one quite closely, Crispin Glover, female representation in cinema
What else should I watch?
Although you have to watch this and the first film in order to understand it but Part III is my favourite one of the lot, a pistol-whippin' visit to the Old West and the very birth of Hill Valley itself. It stops caring about paradoxes and being overly scientific with the time-travel theory and instead focuses on being simply a great piece of entertainment, a trade-off which more than works. The original is also still worthy of a watch today - it's a rare film that you think you already know but you forget the little nuances that elevate the film to greatness.
Time travelling is still a staple ingredient of science fiction and especially in cinema, from 1921's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court to the frat-boy antics of Hot Tub Time Machine. Personally, the film I enjoyed the most doesn't feature time-travelling in the conventional sense - Groundhog Day is a riotous comedy starring Bill Murray as a grumpy weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. However, the film isn't afraid to ask some big questions about mortality, divinity and redemption while still having Murray in the form of his life.
Or have I already recommended that somewhere else?
© 2018 Benjamin Cox