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.