Back to the Future Part II (1989)
STORY: ROBERT ZEMECKIS and BOB GALE
SCREENPLAY: BOB GALE
DIRECTOR: ROBERT ZEMECKIS
RELEASE DATE: November 22 1989
After the success of Back to the Future, it was inevitable that there would be sequels. Director Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale fashioned two screenplays to complete a trilogy and filmed the second and third films together, releasing Back to the Future Part II in 1989, picking up right where things left off and sending the two heroes thirty years into the future, an alternate present, and back where it all began in 1955. It retains the sense of humour and good pacing of the original, takes things into some dark directions, and ends up giving us a thrilling cliffhanger ending.
The story picks up immediately where the previous film left off - with Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) taking Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue, taking over the role) into the future by flying DeLorean to the year 2015, where Marty once again finds himself a fish out of water in a future where lawyers have been abolished, the Cubs just won the World Series, hoverboards are everywhere, and Jaws has just gotten yet another sequel. It’s a strange future - the Doc has had rejuvenation procedures done to take decades off his life, 80s nostalgia cafes feature bickering robot waiters with the faces of Reagan and the Ayatollah, and Marty’s home town of Hill Valley seems familiar but different.
They’re there to set something right that’s gone wrong - keeping Marty’s son Marty Jr. (who resembles his dad in pretty much every way) from doing something that will get him sent to prison. The turn of events draws Marty and Jennifer into close proximity with their future selves, their children, and the grandson of a familiar adversary. Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) is still around, old and decrepit, and his grandson Griff, also played by Wilson, is just as dumb as his grandfather. Biff seems to have learned a few things in his old age- thirty years earlier he witnessed the vanishing flying DeLorean, and the sight stayed with him. It’s his actions that drive the rest of the plot, messing around with the past in such a way that a hellish present day in Hill Valley comes to be- and Marty and the Doc have to set it right.
Marty and Doc
investigate the distant future of 2015
Gale and Zemeckis came up with the story, tweaking elements of the original by returning back to 1955, while showing a future that wasn’t quite like the dystopian future of so many sci-fi tales (though it is alarming that a person can be arrested and convicted within two hours). Instead of trying to be predictive of the future, the story goes for the funnybone. Their screenplay bounces around in time, getting particularly dark when the characters find themselves in an alternate 1985 where Hill Valley has become a garish hellhole, before returning to the 1955 of the original in which we see things from a different point of view.
I particularly like the way Zemeckis weaves the same characters from different time periods into the same scene, whether that is a side by side conversation or sharing the same space. We see it repeatedly with Marty, Doc, Jennifer, and Biff - and it comes across as seamless. Zemeckis also deftly handles the storyline that works around the events of the previous film in creative ways- the way he presents the aftermath of the clocktower sequence from the first film is greatly satisfying, and very funny. The film bounces around in time, and feels like a roller coaster for that, and yet we can keep track of where we are in all of that. The crew’s work on all levels contribute to that, and I’ll touch on a couple of things. The makeup crew, which had already worked around with middle aged versions of Lorraine, George, and Biff in the first film, expand that for the second film with those other characters, shown in middle age or senior years (it’s ironic though that Fox, who’s older than Marty was in the 2015 segment of this film, still looks younger and fresher today, even with Parkinsons). And Alan Silvestri, who’s often worked with Zemeckis as a composer, expands on his themes from the previous film and takes the film score into new directions.
Biff and Griff
loving grandfather and grandson
There were a couple of casting changes from the first film. Elizabeth Shue took over the role of Jennifer, and there was enough of a resemblance to Claudia Wells that the transition is seamless in the film. Contract disputes with Crispin Glover led to a recast for George McFly, and actor Jeffrey Weissman was brought in to play the role. Zemeckis worked around that for the character, shooting the actor mostly in the background or other ways to minimize the character’s presence. Lea Thompson did come back and reprised her role as Lorraine - we see more of the 1955 version again, from different angles, but we also see a senior citizen Lorraine in the 2015 era, as well as an alternate 1985 version, one stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, a very different take on the character.
Thomas F. Wilson gets more to do this time as Biff, seen across three time periods, as well as Biff’s grandson Griff. The Biff of 2015 is a cranky old man - and yet he’s at least learned a bit in his senior years - he’s devious enough to take advantage of a time machine and travel back in history to change his own past. The Biff we meet in an alternate 1985 is malicious with success- we see the character as the monster he basically is (I doubt anyone out there will find Biff in any timestream to be a sympathetic likable character). And when we see the Biff from 1955 (even when interacting with his future self), he’s still the thug and moron that we first saw that young version as. Wilson plays the bully and the antagonist well- we don’t like him at all, but that’s a measure of how well Wilson fits the character.
Christopher Lloyd returns as Doc Brown, and he’s as eccentric as ever. As the film goes on, the character begins to understand that making a time machine was a mistake - even inadvertently, it’s possible to do things that alter history in ways that can be dangerous, and the scientist comes to feel that he has to set that right- a refreshing change from the Doctor Frankenstein sort of scientist who doesn’t understand their own hubris until it’s far too late. Lloyd still plays much to the humour of the character, a daft loon that we like for all his eccentricities.
explains the downfall of time travel
Part of the story sets things up for the third film for both Doc and Marty, and that is certainly factoring into Marty’s character and the performance by Fox. I like how a momentary musing on personally benefiting by Marty - knowing the outcome of sports scores years in advance - backfires and causes the paradox in time, and that Marty realizes he has to fix things because of his own mistake. And I also like how the story presents a character flaw- Marty doesn’t like being thought of as scared - that will pay off more in the third film. While it’s not something we’ve seen from the first film, it does feel true to the character. Fox has a whole lot to do through the film, not only playing Marty, but also his son and daughter in the future, and he seems to have fun doing so. And of course he brings his natural charm and gift for comedy back to the role.
Back to the Future Part II was a good second chapter of the trilogy, really having fun with the concept of time travel, giving the audience a rich film with sight gags, while staying true to the science fiction aspect of the story. It didn’t shy away from the ethical questions, making note of the idea of consequences of time travel. And it continued to give us two leading actors who work well together, cementing a sense of friendship between them while trying to figure out a way to clean up some very significant messes - some of their own making, others of the making of others. It’s a worthy part of the trilogy