Friday, October 23, 2015

Review: "Back to the Future Part II"

Actually, you know what would be funny? If after this, we still have "Today is the day Marty McFly arrives in the future!" hoaxes. Either that, or we'll have to move on to something else. Like, "Today is the day SkyNet sends back the T-800 to kill Sarah Connor!" or something.

So expect those until we finally get to the year 2029.
The one thing that I will absolutely give this movie is how well it plays with the first one. Revisiting the events of the first movie is a great way to not only illustrate how complicated things can get when you mess with time (justifying Doc’s wishes to destroy the DeLorean), but watching Marty sneak around himself is simply fun to behold.

But there’s a pretty big elephant in the room regarding the time travel that doesn’t actually make sense, with Biff returning to a future that shouldn’t exist. Which becomes funny when you consider that Carl Sagan himself said this was the most accurate time travel movie ever made.

If only he had lived to see Primer.
While 2015 isn’t the most accurate thing in the world by a long shot, it’s still a lot of fun to see, especially with the things they actually got right. Like hoverboards! Except ours don’t work very well and are hard to use. And very expensive to make.

And you will never convince me that Marty Jr. isn't watching Age of Ultron.
As for the blatant sequel hook, the malfunctioning time-circuits are never explained. In the original script, Old Man Peabody would have seen the flying DeLorean in 1985, recognized it, and shot at it, damaging the time circuits. Unfortunately, the actor wasn’t available. Most people just assume that the DeLorean wasn’t the most well-constructed time machine ever made.

My main criticism would be the pacing. Roughly equal time is spent in each time period, but that basically means that it takes the first third of the movie to get the plot started, the second third stalls for a bit, and then the final third is a mad dash. I can only imagine what the script was like back when it and the next movie were one.

But in the end, the scripting is about as good as the first one. For example, Doc's throwaway line about how the postal service isn't as reliable as the weather? Well, the reverse comes true when they head into the past. Such plotting is a trademark of these movies, and of Bob Gale's scripts in general. But alas, there's a bit of a snag.

Unfortunately, this film’s main theme is a bit muddled. That’s not to say you can’t find themes.

One could make the argument that this film is all about the hubris involved in tampering with history. Marty lucked out the first time, but when he actually tried to change his own life for the better, he just made things as bad as they could possibly be.

Time Lord Victorious, and all that.
In the same way, the film acts as a very good lesson about emerging technological breakthroughs. All it takes is one person with an evil plan to turn a fleet of delivery drones into a fleet of flying bombs, for example. Or in this film’s case, one guy with a time machine can either watch history unfold or screw it up.

But the original plan was to use this film as a deconstruction of the first one. As was originally planned, Marty McFly would wind himself addicted to taking risks in the year 2015 as a consequence of the events of the first movie. Marty would watch in horror as his future self took a risk too big and lost everything. So he bought the Gray’s Sports Almanac to limit his future risks by ensuring guaranteed wealth for himself and his family, which led to Biff taking it and giving it to himself, et cetera. The idea kind of got lost after a few rewrites though.

Personally, I would have liked it if that original idea had shone through a little more instead of being replaced with the whole “chicken” thing.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox)

For having not played the character for four years or so, he slides right back into the role with ease. Well, apart from having to re-learn how to skate.

The whole “chicken” thing comes out of nowhere since the last movie, but Fox manages to make it fit with Marty’s established character. And I already mentioned the fan theory that Marty’s personality has slightly changed after he changed history in the first movie.

But there’s a bit of brilliance in his future self. He’s given up. He’s convinced himself that he can’t follow his dreams. Not only has Marty, Sr. regressed to the person he was at the beginning of the first movie, but he’s following in his dad’s original footsteps as well. As for the resolution to Marty’s new arc… well, that’s not until the next movie.

Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd)
Doc’s character shift is actually pretty tragic. In the first film, the Time Machine was his first working invention. And now, he regrets ever building his life’s work. His sense of “what the hell” when it comes to meddling with time is long gone, replaced with a panicked urgency to restore things to their proper state. In a way, it’s incredibly tragic. And to think, 1955 Doc at the end of the movie has all that head of him still… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson)
1955 Biff is the same bully from the first film, and 1985 Biff is the toady we remember from that movie, too. This one introduces us to Old Man Biff, who seems to be taking it easy, though he’s still as slimy and unpleasant as ever, and 1985-A Biff, an asshole/billionaire casino owner based on Donald Trump.

"Hey, buttheads. Vote for me."
Ugh. You know, Jimmy Kimmel somehow got Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to appear on his show and reprise their roles two days ago, and this was brought up.

Marty McFly: “[Biff Tannen] became a rich, maniacal casino owner and ruined the world.”
Jimmy Kimmel: “Oh. No, I know who you’re talking about. That guy’s running for President right now.”

Of all the things this movie correctly predicted, I didn’t think that a casino owner with terrible hair getting even more powerful would be one of them.
Back on track, I must say that Thomas F. Wilson did an amazing job here. While Michael J. Fox had to play more separate characters, Wilson had to play the same character across separate timelines, ages, and circumstances. And as somebody who graduated with a degree in Theatre, I can tell you that that’s no small feat.

Thomas F. Wilson had to take the same character and make him equally believable across several permutations. From the laid back geezer of 2015, to the weasel of 1985, to the bully of 1955, to the evil mogul of 1985-A, his various Biffs are different from each other, but still recognizably the same person.

Lorraine McFly/Baines/Tannen (Lea Thompson)
Lorraine McFly is as we remember her in 1985 and 1955, as well as a sweet old lady in 2015. But this time, Lea Thompson also gets to do drama in this one, portraying the Lorraine of 1985-A. And I mean DRAMA. She goes far over the top with her portrayal of a broken, alcoholic wife. To be fair, if she had given a more subdued performance, it would probably be a bit too real for comfort.

But as in the last movie, she never really gets a chance to shine as a character.

Additional Characters
I might as well mention the minor characters, even if most of them barely got any focus.

Jennifer Parker (Elizabeth Shue)
Not much to say, she spends a lot of time unconscious.

George McFly (Jeffrey Weissman)
He’s barely in this, and I can’t really critique his performance, since he’s only here to make it look like Crispin Glover came back for the sequel.

Marlene McFly (Michael J. Fox)

I can’t be the only person who thinks that Michael J. Fox made a pretty hot chick, right?
Marty McFly, Jr. (Michael J. Fox)
Fox’s performance is different enough from Marty himself that you could actually believe that they’re two separate people. Especially since their eyes are different colors.

Terry (Charles Fleischer)
An odd, superfluous addition. Probably only here because he was the voice of Roger Rabbit and Zemeckis brought him along. Fun fact: Fleischer also voices Biff’s unseen grandma.

Griff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson)
While this crazed cyborg does indeed sound like he’s short circuiting with every syllable, it’s a bit too over-the-top for my liking.

"Wallet Guy" (Wesley Mann)
All of his lines revolve around the fact that he's pretty sure Marty McFly stole Biff's wallet. And I will love him forever for his delivery.

Not everybody gets to play the star. Sometimes, you have to make due with what few lines you get.

My color-changing hat's off you you, my good man.
It’s good. Not much else to say.

Alan Silvestri’s music is basically the same as what it was in the last movie (albeit with an actual theme for the opening titles), and the music chosen to sum up the various time periods (“Beat It” [CafĂ© 80’s], “I Can’t Drive 55” [1985-A], “Mr. Sandman,” and “Papa Loves Mambo” [1955]) are all excellent choices.

Here’s where things get problematic. Now, this movie is full of fine visuals. The intentionally-terrible holographic shark, the flying DeLorean, and especially the compositing of multiple versions of the same actor. In fact, they developed a new process for those shots called "Vistaglide," which would allow them to move the camera around. And these shots still hold up to this day, apart from the bad composite shot of Biff tossing the Almanac to his older self.

But the booger on the Mona Lisa this time (apart from the aforementioned composite shot) is the old age prosthetics.

When Doc Brown’s in-universe old age prosthetic is the most realistic one, you’re doing something wrong.
To be fair, though, some of the old age makeup only looks bad because we now know what these people really look like in 2015.

Michael J. Fox has actually aged pretty well, all things considered.
But of special note is Terry.

Good God, Terry.

First, we met him in 2015, where he is the most rubber-faced and fake-haired out of all the characters.

And the audience thinks, "Why?" Because we haven't yet seen this character in 1985 or 1955, so we're stuck wondering who's under that terrible old age makeup. And when we finally see him in 1955, well, you could easily be forgiven for not knowing that they’re the same person, since 1955 Terry only appears in one scene arguing with Biff. And it’s not like you’d recognize him as the geezer who bugs Marty for a donation, either.

Clearly the same guy. It's so obvious. Said no one ever.
But overall, it’s not too distracting, and the effect is more than adequate for when the movie was made. I mean, compare it to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Too Short a Season,” which was in production around the same time.

So, yes, point to Back to the Future Part II.
Best Actor: Thomas F. Wilson
For all the stuff I already mentioned.

Best Character: Doc Brown
He’s still just as much fun as in the original.

Best Line
I would give it to the iconic “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need… roads.” if that line didn’t originate from the end of the previous movie. So, instead….

Doc Brown: “Unbelievable that old Biff could have chosen that particular date. It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance. Almost as if it were the junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.”

Final Thoughts
Is it as good as the first one? Not at all. But it has a lot of the same charm, wit, and tight scripting that made the original a beloved classic of sci-fi, teen comedies, and general pop culture. So while it might not hold up to the perfection of the original, I’ve seen movies as good as Back to the Future get sequels that were far worse.

Overall, I’d have to recommend it.

But… you know, I can’t stop there. After all, there’s one final chapter to the story. So in a couple weeks, I’ll be covering the final part of the trilogy, the imaginatively-titled Back to the Future Part III, which will blend sci-fi and Westerns! How could such a combination possibly go wrong?

Oh. Oh, dear.
See you then!


  1. I know I've started telling my students "Whelp, now that Marty McFly is here, we can look forward to Valentine's Day 2016, which Ghostbusters 2 says is the end of the world. Bummer."

    1. I think I know of four ladies who ain't afraid of no ghost who might be able to help. After all, their movie's coming out that same year....

  2. The first draft sounds a lot more interesting and I found the pacing rather problematic as well.

    I found the future scenes after the diner scrap kinda boring. Mostly from Marty's future family whom I didn't think was very funny. The scenes just felt like they dragged on and on with nothing really funny or entertaining going on.

    I kinda wonder why they bothered including Marty's girlfriend at all if she was just gonna be utterly inconsequential.

    1. Yeah, the big problem is that the fun stuff in 2015 is too slow and overall unimportant to the plot, the rather uncharacteristically dark stuff in 1985-A has the same problem (It just needs to establish a sucky present, so what's with all the little details?), and the final third goes at breakneck pace.

      And... well, they wrote themselves in a corner with Marty's girlfriend, remember? They could retcon the actress, but not the events of the ending.