This is the third and last installment of my “Movie Deep Dive” on Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future Part II. The first installment, focusing on the “future” (2015) aspects, is here. The second installment, where I drew some parallels between the movie’s “1985-A” dystopia and real America in the age of Donald Trump, is here. In this final installment I’ll finish out the movie.
Back to the Future Part II predicates its final act on what the character Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) suggests may either be a “a focal point of the space-time continuum,” or “just an amazing coincidence.” Marty (Michael J. Fox) has just found out that the point in time where Biff from the future returned to give his younger self Gray’s Sports Almanac was November 12, 1955, the exact date on which the climax of the first BTTF film took place. It sounds like a script and story cop-out, but I love the framing. I believe there literally are focal points in time. My book, The Valley of Forever, is about that very concept (among other things). Many audiences and critics thought the return to 1955 in Part II was just a tired attempt to “milk” the previous movie, but I think it’s a brilliant stroke.
The third act of Back to the Future Part II returns us to 1955, where most of the first film took place–but what we see is very different.
It’s brilliant because, in part, now that Part II has gone all dystopian on us, it doesn’t try to come back from the brink. Trying to recreate the cute, happy and farcical situations of the first film, the first time these characters “did” 1955, would have been extremely jarring after the darkness of the 1985-A sequence, and the movie would have been ruined. Instead, as it is, 1955 the second time around is a completely different look at what we saw before.
The original BTTF idolized and openly fetishized the nostalgia of the 1950s that was prevalent in the 1980s. Its working thesis—which it has in common with other “teen movies” of the era—is that kids are basically the same in every era, and that only their hairstyles, clothes, slang and pop music really change. Fortunately Part II does not give us another dose of that same thesis (which is questionable enough to begin with). It’s a much darker 1950s. Young Biff lives with a catty and verbally abusive grandmother. Principal Strickland (James Tolkan, a brilliant actor) guzzles whiskey in his office when no one’s looking. The 1950s, far from being nostalgia-fetishized, are a backdrop for a desperate struggle to save the universe, which ultimately centers around the MacGuffin of the whole plot: Gray’s Sports Almanac.
Several scenes in Part II revisit events from the first film, but they are shown to us (the audience) from entirely different angles. This was a novelty in 1989 when the film was made.
The climactic chase sequence in Part II involves a race to possess this book, which Young Biff is finally catching onto the value of, now that Marty has attempted to steal it from him twice. After hiding out in the back of Biff’s car, a 1946 Ford, Marty winds up on a floating skateboard at one end of a very long tunnel—with Biff gunning the engine ready to run him down at the other. What could easily have been a Three Stooges number of physical comedy turns out to be a surprisingly tense sequence. And it’s like nothing we ever saw in the first BTTF, which was too light and perky to give us this kind of grim geometrical showdown.
The lead-out from this sequence sets up Part II’s quirky and thought-provoking ending. In terms of story mechanics it’s not much of an ending, merely a setup for Part III. The Delorean time machine is struck by lightning while airborne, triggering the time-travel effect inadvertently: Doc, who is circling around to pick up Marty, vanishes. Moments later a Western Union man appears with a telegram to Marty from Doc, from 80 years in the past, explaining what just happened. Zemeckis and Gale took quite a chance with an ending like this. According to many fans of the films, it didn’t work, but I think it’s brilliant because it’s thought-provoking and isn’t afraid to play with the potentialities of time travel even if they seem to lead to absurd results.
The action climax of Back to the Future Part II involves a struggle over a book from the future. There’s something neatly existential about that.
So what does Part II have to say to us? I honestly think it’s more than just a fun popcorn adventure, which is pretty much all the first film and certainly what the third film wanted to achieve. Part II, though, comes close to having something substantive to say about time, money, love and greed. Certainly our futures may not be what we hope or imagine, but particularly in its final third Part II dares to suggest that our pasts may not always be exactly as we remember them, or want to. That’s a line the original BTTF utterly refused to cross, and which Part III, which takes place in the year 1885, largely bypasses in favor of recycling every trope it can think of from Westerns. Part II stands alone in daring to explore the deeper dimensions of time and memory. As I write a great deal about time and memory, this message resonates with me.
If you’ve been reading along through this whole series, thank you. I suspect you probably disagreed with me when I asserted in the first article that Part II is the best of the Back to the Future films; perhaps you still do. But I hope at least I’ve given you something to think about.