Sunday 18 September 2011

Back to the Future Part II (1989)


As we have come to learn, with great box office comes great opportunity for sequels. As I mentioned yesterday, Back to the Future was the most successful film of 1985, turning a simple $19,000,000 budget into just over $380,000,000 of box office gain. That’s some fine business. These are the kinds of numbers companies like to see, so plans for sequels were put into development, hoping that lightning would once again strike the clock tower, this time with a budget of just over double the first. Zemeckis and Gale returned, and reassembled most of the original cast, for another dose of time-skipping wonder in Back to the Future Part II.

Having just returned from mending his parents’ relationship, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) get dragged to the future by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). In 2015, Marty has to save his son from turning to crime, but afterwards buys a sports book so he can make money in the past. When Doc throws it away, old Biff Tannen (Thomas J. Wilson) takes it, steals the time machine and gives it to his own past self. On discovering the changes, Marty and Doc have to travel back again to set things right.

It should be understood from the outset that there was never any intention for there to be a sequel to Back to the Future. When word came that another film or two were to be made, decisions had to be made about the direction of the story. At this point, Zemeckis had his hands full with his next film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, so Bob Gale became the sole writer on the film, working on an idea that had its origins in a throwaway line from Doc Brown the first time out. When Doc first reveals the time machine to Marty in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall, he jokingly mentions that he could use the time machine to acquire future knowledge for personal financial gain in the present. From this, Gale spun the plot of Part II, where Marty is the one who plans to make money gambling with future knowledge, thus triggering a temporal paradox that he and Doc must rectify before they can return home. As such, the story jumps from 1985 to 2015 to an alternate 1985 to 1955 and back to 1985, and manages to run parallel to, and even intertwine with, events from the first film. Given the amount of jumping around and alterations in time, you’d think that it would be confusing and easily unravelled. As it is, it’s all very well played out. In fact, Carl Sagan, noted scientist and all-round incredibly smart guy, said at the time that Back to the Future Part II was the greatest time-travel movie ever, saying that the folding and overlapping of timelines was presented in a way that was very close to what it would be like if time-travel were possible.

Given this kind of praise, it’s difficult to start trying to pick holes in the fabric of the film. In fact, some of what happens in Part II intentionally apes what occurred in the previous film, which gives the film something of a nice feeling of déjà vu about it. It all seems new, but also very familiar. As such, when the film begins to deviate from this familiar pattern, as in when 2015 Biff travels back in time to give 1955 Biff the sports book, the resulting changes feel awkward, unfamiliar, wrong. When George Lucas was making his Star Wars prequels, he told his production team that the similarities between events in the original trilogy and the new one were intended as some kind of temporal rhyming scheme, like history has a poetic structure to it. As far as I’m concerned, it didn’t work for Star Wars, but this idea is probably the best way to describe the occurrences in Back to the Future Part II and, eventually, Part III.

There is one thing that does rather unsettle me in this film. Gale and Zemeckis are smart enough to know that characters need some kind of motivating factor to drive them into action, rather than just acting because the script told them to. And Marty has these motivations to get things going, to take action. We can all understand why Marty tried to take back the sports book, why Doc said no, why Biff went back in time, why Marty and Doc tried to reset things. What I never really took to was this new facet of Marty’s character where he doesn’t like to be called chicken. Now, it’s a perfectly understandable trait in itself, but I’ve never thought it sat right with Marty. Look at him in the first film. He’s confident and capable, but his flaw was always that he couldn’t quite put himself on the line, like with his demo tape. He feared rejection by those that held the keys to his future, and would shrink from the challenge. That he learns to overcome this because he taught his dad to find his own confidence is part of what makes it all so special. However, this new aspect of Marty being easily goaded into doing stupid things because he doesn’t want people to think he’s a wimp seems ill-fitting. By this measure, all someone needed to do in the first film was tell him he was chicken for not sending in his demo tape. On hearing this, he’d send it in, problem solved. The whole thing about his dislike of being called chicken does set up obstacles in Part II and III, but it compromises the original film. Original Marty was a stronger person than this.

I think part of this may have come from the fact that there was never a sequel intended. Both Gale and Zemeckis said that, had they known that a sequel was on the cards, they would not have had Marty’s girlfriend get in the car at the end of the first film. However, that’s how it ended, and so she had to be there in the future, too. She’s rendered unconscious almost instantly, but this then leads to them going to the McFly family home, and having to explain that Marty and Jennifer hit the skids, and that Marty’s music career never took off because someone called him chicken, which would become a trait to recall later on and in the next film. If the character of Jennifer hadn’t been there, it would probably be very different. It’s not Jennifer’s fault, or rather the fault of Elisabeth Shue who plays here. Nor is it entirely the fault of Gale, although he does have to accept some credit on it. Simply, it’s just an unfortunate side effect of trying to deal with the sequel status.

Outside of this, the film is actually pretty decent. The rest of the script works itself around the various timelines with great skill; Zemeckis’ direction is still great, particularly when roaming around 1955 again; and the actors are still on great form. On the point of the actors, there are two changes in the line-up. First off, as I mentioned, Jennifer is played by Elisabeth Shue, as opposed to Claudia Wells, who played the part in the first film. The reason for this is that, by the time filming began for the sequel, Wells had left acting to look after her mother, who had fallen ill. Shue was brought in to replace her, leading to the final scene of the first film to be reshot for this one. On a weird note of trivial linkage, this would mean that Shue was the movie girlfriend of two beloved 80s characters – Marty McFly in Back to the Future Part II and III, and Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid. And to further the link, Ralph Macchio, who played Daniel LaRusso, was briefly considered for the role of Marty McFly. Ain't life weird?

On the second point of casting shake-ups, despite appearing in Back to the Future Part II, Crispin Glover never actually signed on for the film. Anytime you see George McFly, it’s either footage from the original film or a different actor shot from a different angle. Glover was approached about being in the film, but apparently asked for such a ridiculous fee that he was turned down and effectively written out of things. He did try to sue on the grounds that they used his image without permission, but the case went nowhere and was eventually dropped. Shame, really.

In the same way that Back to the Future had a cultural impact, so did Part II. This generally has to do with some of the cooler aspects of future technology and prediction that the film made for the 2015 sequences. People really wanted some of that stuff, but nothing more so than the Hoverboard. I was six when this film came out, and you best believe I still want one now. There was something of a backfiring prank about this item. On a behind the scenes feature for the film, Zemeckis said that the Hoverboards used in the film were real, and had existed for years, but parent groups were holding them back over safety concerns. He was only kidding, but this opened a door you can’t easily close again. Toy stores and companies were inundated with calls and letters wanting to know where and how people could get them, but to no avail. Thanks a lot, Zemeckis.

Back to the Future Part II is generally regarded as inferior to its predecessor, which it rather is. It’s doesn’t really capture the same spirit, but being fair, the first film was brilliant. Besides, I love the way the timelines break off in this one, and the way the new storyline crosses over with the old, creating a very textured feel to proceedings. Plus, it does mean that you can go back and watch the first film, looking for the stuff they picked up on here (do it, they really have lifted a few things nicely). My biggest complaint is the alteration made to Marty’s character, which comes off more as a convenient tool for the plot rather than a recognisable trait from someone we already know. It’s not really enough to completely sully the enjoyment of the film, but it doesn’t do it any favours. Overall, it’s still an enjoyable film, with good work and memorable scenes, and with some actual thought put into how events play out. Honestly, you all know it could have been so much worse.

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