This is the first in a new category of articles I plan to do called Movie Deep Dives. In this series, I’m going to get very in-depth and analytical on particular films that I find to be noteworthy and interesting, but which are not the kind of “film geek” fodder that you might deconstruct in a cinema class. Each Movie Deep Dive itself is going to be two or typically three articles. Here’s the first, on the 1989 science fiction comedy Back to the Future Part II.
To begin this Deep Dive, I’m going to make a statement that I’m sure most of my readers will disagree with. Of the three iconic Back to the Future films, Part II is the best. It’s the most thoughtful, probes the deepest into its subjects, it’s the most well-structured of the trilogy, contains its most imaginative (and darkest) elements, and develops its characters more than the other two. For my money it also features the best acting, coolest costumes and best special effects of the trilogy. Yet, of the three films released between 1985 and 1990, Back to the Future Part II is considered the runt of the litter, the “uneven middle” sandwiched between the first film, which is nothing short of a cultural icon, and the final one, which is a great deal more fun in a popcorn-entertainment sense. I’ve even heard people refer to Part II as nothing but an extended trailer for Part III. I couldn’t disagree more.
Part of the reason that it gets so little respect is that Part II is so different in tone from the first BTTF. People often say it’s “not as much fun.” That’s true, but that’s also the point. Part II dared to be something completely different, probably because director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale knew it was hopeless to try to capture lighting in a bottle a second time. The tones are totally different. The first film was a comedy farce, an ‘80s teen coming-of-age movie with a time travel plot, where the central situation—a kid goes back in time to meet his parents, and his mom falls in love with him—is farcical and humorous. Part II is about a young man and a scientist trying to prevent a catastrophic paradox in time that, we’re told, has the potential to destroy the universe. Completely different mission, completely different focus. It’s rare that the makers of a blockbuster sequel will summon the courage to make a major departure from the tone of the franchise, and the few times it’s ever happened it usually hasn’t turned out well (Halloween III, anyone?) But Zemeckis pulls it off here, and with aplomb.
Interestingly, Part II has something common with some of the greatest movies ever made: it has a story arc that starts relatively small and grows epic as the film goes on. Look at some truly great films and you’ll see a small-to-epic story arc: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring springs immediately to mind, which (aside from the prologue) begins with a hobbit’s birthday party and ends with an entire world hanging in the balance. It’s kind of hard for a filmmaker to inflate the stakes steadily as the movie goes on and still have it hang together and not seem uneven or jarring. Part II does this more naturally than it might seem.
The opening scene of Back to the Future Part II apes the ending of the first film. It’s a remarkably bright opening for what becomes a very dark film.
Picking up right where the first BTTF ended—in fact, even a few minutes before it ended—Part II opens with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), having just returned to 1985 from his adventure 30 years in his parents’ past, meeting up with his girlfriend Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue) when suddenly mad scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) appears in his now unexpectedly airborne Delorean time car. “You’ve got to come back with me!” Brown implores Marty, meaning, of course, back to the future. “It’s your kids, Marty! Something’s got to be done about your kids!” I suspect this was a potential sequel hook planted almost as an afterthought by Gale at the end of the first picture, without any real expectation about what it would lead to. But soon we’re off, and Marty, Doc and Jennifer are in Hill Valley, California in October 2015, three decades forward of their normal time. The mission, Doc explains, is for Marty to impersonate his future son (also played by Fox) and refuse to participate in an altercation with town bully Griff (Michael Wilson). Sounds like an easy, low-stakes objective, right?
Indeed, the first half hour or so of Part II, where the vast majority of its jokes are found, is basically a fun, light-hearted romp through a future world, as envisioned from the standpoint of the 1980s. I’m not even going to talk about the “predictions” the film makes about what the world of 2015 would be like; if you want that, go see this article I did in 2015 on that subject. But this part of the movie plays the story almost entirely for laughs. Marty’s son is a feckless wimp. Marty foils Griff and his gang in a comic chase involving anti-gravity skateboards. As Jennifer eavesdrops on her future home, filled with kitschy gadgets, she sees the future Marty, old, boring and ultimately fired by his Japanese boss. It’s a really fun sequence, but not very serious.
The scenes depicting the “future” of 2015 are the most famous part of Back to the Future Part II. They’re amusing, but hardly the best of what the film has to offer.
Then, about a third of the way into the movie, its real plot begins to get started. And things get dark…in a hurry!