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Past Imperfect: Deep Dive Movie Blog on “Back to the Future Part II.” [2 of 3]

This is the second installment of my “Movie Deep Dive” on the 1989 science fiction comedy Back to the Future Part II, which I maintain is the best—and most interesting—of the three BTTF films. It doesn’t have the farcical charm of the first film, which is what most people liked about the 1985 original, but Part II is a fascinating movie in its own right for very different reasons. The first installment of this blog series is here.

Visionary and well-written though it is, Back to the Future Part II’s plot suffers from a serious logical defect. While Marty and Doc are yukking it up in Hill Valley in 2015, the elderly Biff (Michael Wilson), now apparently in his 80s, steals the Delorean time machine and takes it backwards in time for the purpose of giving his younger self a book called “Gray’s Sports Almanac,” which lists the results of nearly every major sporting event from 1950 to the year 2000. Biff then returns the time machine to 2015 and staggers away while Marty and Doc are distracted. They only become aware that Biff changed the past when they go backwards in time to their ostensible “home” in 1985 and find it radically different. When Marty suggests simply returning to 2015 and preventing Biff from stealing the time machine in the first place, Doc says they can’t, because the 2015 they would visit would be the future of that alternate timeline—not the one they just left.

The logical flaw is this: Old Biff himself would have had that problem too. When he altered the past, the timeline, in Doc’s words, “skewed into this tangent” which he labels on a chalkboard “1985-A.” As soon as he did that, the 2015 that Old Biff returned to would have also been the future of 1985-A, not the 2015 that Marty and Doc visited at the beginning of the film. From their standpoint, Biff would have stolen the time machine, vanished and simply never returned.

The dystopian 1985 scenes in Back to the Future Part II depict bully Biff as a rich , narcissistic, boorish casino mogul who bullies everyone. Does that remind you of anyone in 2017 America?

This criticism is nit-picky, to be sure. Given that Part II is pretty successful at everything else—and the fudge is crucial to have a plot at all—I think I can forgive it, but it is an interesting slip-up.

The “1985-A” scenes are truly fascinating. In the story, Hill Valley is a dystopian hell-hole full of motorcycle gangs, burnt-out buildings, nudie joints, polluting industries with belching smokestacks and a massive casino hotel called Biff’s Pleasure Palace. The place reflects the personality and values of Biff himself, who, Doc Brown tells us in a dialogue-heavy scene, made his entire fortune by betting on sports events listed in Gray’s Sports Almanac. At the door of Biff’s Pleasure Palace Marty sees an informational video talking up Biff as “America’s greatest living folk hero.” From this he learns that Biff has also married his mother (Lea Thompson). Marty is cornered by some of Biff’s henchmen, including a pre-Titanic Billy Zane, and knocked unconscious. He awakens in the 27th floor penthouse of the casino hotel, which is a garish disaster of faux gilt, animal prints, hot tubs and busty women, including Lorraine (Marty’s mother) herself, whom Biff has had “enhanced” with enormous unnatural breasts through plastic surgery.

Watching Back to the Future Part II from the standpoint of 2017, it’s obvious and very chilling to realize who the character of powerful 1985-A Biff is modeled after. The model for the character is, tragically and astonishingly, sitting in the Oval Office at this very moment.

Note the decor in this scene taking place in “Biff’s Pleasure Palace” in the dystopian 1985-A. Its garish tastes evoke a sort of Trumpian excess.

Indeed, the 1985-A scenes are much more interesting today than they were when the film came out in 1989. They depict a world very much like the one that President Donald Trump thinks we live in, or alternatively that he likes. Trump apparently believes that crime rates are skyrocketing out of control (they’re not) and that even small-town American communities are awash in violent hooliganism, which in the 1985-A scenes are manifested by waves of gruff bikers and highly militarized police gliding around in tanks. Even the former Hill Valley High principal, Strickland (James Tolkan) carries a shotgun, wears bandoliers and cries, “Eat lead, slackers!” as he fires back at the perpetrators of an attempted drive-by. This is the dark and violent America that Trump today, in 2017, thinks we all live in.

But 1985-A also reflects Trump’s values, and his execrable taste. Biff’s Pleasure Palace is obviously intended to look like Trump’s hideous Atlantic City casinos. It sports the trappings that lowbrow rubes, like Donald Trump and his family, think are high taste among the rich: everything is shiny, preferably gilded, and all décor is aimed at emphasizing not just wealth, but gross excess. Furthermore, Hill Valley in 1985-A has legalized gambling and there are obviously no environmental regulations, showing Biff (and Trump) as naïve believers in unfettered capitalism. Even Lea Thompson’s grotesque breasts reflect a Trumpian ethos, in this case projected on to a female body that exists solely for Biff’s pleasure. Re-watching Biff and Lorraine interact in these scenes, I heard in my head Trump’s gravelly voice repeating “You gotta grab ‘em by the p*ssy” from the scandal tape that should have ended his public career, but did not.

This sequence taking place at Biff’s casino hotel is a good demonstration of how much darker Back to the Future Part II is compared to its predecessor.

The 1985-A scenes, I think, have a lot more to do with 2017 than they ever did with the real 1980s. So, when you watch Back to the Future Part II, forget the 2015 scenes and their depiction of hoverboards, flying cars and the Cubs winning the world series. The real prediction of the future is in the 1985-A sequence. When Back to the Future Part II allows itself to become dystopian, it completely leaves behind the innocent farce of the first movie. And, defying even the title, there’s no going back.

In the next installment, we go back to the 1950s in Back to the Future Part II’s final act.

The header image was compiled by me from public domain images. I am not the uploader of any YouTube clips embedded here.

4 Comments

  1. Okay, maybe we can explain Biff’s returning by the fact when he went back to his younger self, nothing yet had changed so he could go back to the same unchanged place in 2015. Marty and Doc went to a 1985 that had already changed, so 2015 would now be different. It is a complete and utter stretch, but it helps me overlook the problem.

  2. Zin The Phoenix

    If I remember correctly, there is a deleted scene on the DVD in which we see Old Biff return to 2015 in the DeLorean after going back in time to give his younger self the sports almanac. He manages to stagger out of the car, but then slowly fades away to nothing… now that he has changed the past, he no longer exists in 2015. (According to the commentary, this was meant to imply that “at some point before 2015, Lorraine finally shot him”.) This doesn’t completely solve the problem (and in fact it raises several new inconsistencies, such as the fact that when Old Biff disappears from existence, he still leaves the top of his cane in the DeLorean… that should have disappeared too, but of course then it wouldn’t have been there for Doc and Marty to find)… but at least it does attempt to address the issue: after changing the past, Biff can’t return to the 2015 he left behind.

  3. Gary

    I was looking forward to a light, fun Back to the Future discussion, and was somewhat enjoying your post until I got to your awkward, rough, blantant Trump-bashing. Come on…aside from the fact that this is neither the time or place, Hillary in the oval office would be worse than any alternate 1985. Think she ever would have brought the Koreas together? Not a chance. And try to remember, Biff in alternate 1985 is not President or in any political office. Nixon is supposed to be seeking his 5th term, if you noticed the newspaper in the movie, which is a hilarious play on the insanely exaggerated negative portrayal of Nixon in the media. The simple fact is that the trilogy is so beloved because each of its 3 parts offers something very different and as a whole it adds up to something that no other movie franchise equals. To touch on one point you made, Doc only thinks they can’t stop Biff from stealing the time machine by going to 2015 from the alternate 1985…the movie does not show definitely that that is not possible. I find part 2 the most interesting and funny, despite its dark elements. And Fox’s performance when he sees his father’s grave is heart-tugging…the best performance in any scene of the trilogy. Part 2 had the difficult task of continuing the crazy, rushed closing of part 1, which some moviegoers in 1985 must have felt had damaged the movie. But part 2 handles the task well. My biggest complaint with part 2 is that there is no way old Biff could have successfully traveled through time with the DeLorean (he would have had to figure out how to set the date, gone 88 mph, hid the DeLorean in 1955, refuel it with Mr. Fusion, and then go back to 2015, assuming he could even drive the hover car in the first place!). I think the writers should have put much more thought into how alternate 1985 got created–that was a lazy move. But part 1 has its embarrassing oversights, too. It bugged me even as a kid in part 1 that Doc in 1955 doesn’t even ask Marty how he accidentally got sent back in time. That would be so critical to determining how to fix the situation (maybe the DeLorean has a serious malfunction?), but he just says, “how could I have been so careless?” Of course, the writers did this to create the subplot about Marty wanting to tell Doc about his getting shot in 1985, but I think Doc in 1955 learning that he created a time machine in the future is far more dangerous information to receive than learning he would get shot. He has already seen and learned way too much from Marty about the future–so what if he learns about getting shot.

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