This week the 'Back to the Future' trilogy is being released on Blu-ray by Universal Studios Home Entertainment, and suffice it to say that it's an enormous pleasure to rewatch all three films in sterling, high-definition presentation, augmented by hours upon hours of bonus materials and background information. In the particular case of this trilogy, which was an important moment in my adolescent moviegoing experience, getting to dig through all three films via the best presentation available is sort of like scrubbing memories clean and looking at them clearly for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, that clarity also makes it entirely possible, if not inevitable, to go beyond feelings of nostalgia or youthful forgiveness and see these films for what they really are, or perhaps were.
Anyone who's been following the site for the past several weeks knows that Erik Davis, Cinematical's esteemed editor, is a huge fan of the trilogy, and has devoted no shortage of content announcing, discussing and deconstructing the films as their high-definition debut grows near. But at the risk of my continued employment under Davis' Marty-loving eye, it seemed only appropriate to take a look back and see how good "The Future" looks after some 25 years in the zeitgeist. That said, it did seem silly to try and question whether the original film was worth all of the adulation and commercial success that's been heaped on it for decades, so this week's "Shelf Life" focuses on 'Back to the Future Part II,' whose reputation is comparatively less assured.
The Facts: 'Back to the Future Part II' was released on November 22, 1989, and became an immediate box office success, earning more than $331 million during its theatrical run. The film currently enjoys only a 66 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it was nominated for Best Visual Effects at the 1990 Academy Awards, and received four nominations at the 1991 Saturn Awards, including Best Science Fiction Film, although it won only for Best Visual Effects.
In terms of its production, 'Back to the Future Part II' was produced concurrently with 'Part III,' which was released the following summer. It was originally titled 'Paradox' and both sequels were meant to be one epic follow-up to the original film, but director Robert Zemeckis eventually acquiesced to the commercial limitations of showing a 3 ½ hour film in theaters, breaking the story into two halves and releasing each part as its own installment.
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What Still Works: As one of the most sophisticated and "scientific" portrayals of time travel ever put on film, 'Back to the Future Part II' is a fairly amazing achievement. Bob Gale and Zemeckis went back into the labyrinthine logic of the first film and expanded it to create an epic saga revolving around Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his family's influence and experiences in Hill Valley, in the process providing one of the most interesting returns in film history to an original installment via a sequel. They not only constructed a new story, but reverse-engineered it to allow audiences to see the events of the first 'Back to the Future' from new and literally different perspectives, even as they played out in close to or identical ways to the structure of the first film.
The logic used in the first film – the interruption of various events that disrupts a historic chain of events – is employed to even more complicated effect, showing how time travel can (and in the film does) radically alter the "present" and even future when small details are changed. It's on this level that the movie is most interesting, because it seems to consider and include every thought or idea that one might have from a narrative standpoint, and then similarly to the series' understanding of the logic of time travel, designed each plot development to also sustain its sort of scientific underpinnings.
What Doesn't Work: The real killer in this sequel, and to an equal extent in 'Part III,' is the shameless introduction of a character arc for Marty that wasn't even hinted at in the original film: his almost violent response to being called "chicken." To a certain extent I can understand the necessity for a character arc, since in the first film, Marty's primary goals were to get his parents together, protect his continued existence and get back to 1985 – all narrative-driven ambitions but not deep-rooted psychological ones, at least in a significant way relevant to the story.
But given the fact that Marty shows no signs of this sort of behavior in the first film, it feels all the more forced for him to suffer from such a weird and quite frankly improbable affliction that it becomes the underpinning of his emotional journey through parts 'II' and 'III.' This is especially problematic in 'Part II' in the 2015 sequences, since Marty's adult life has been defined quite literally by an event in which he responded to a taunt and subsequently ruined his prospects. (This also begs the question, wouldn't he have learned his lesson when it went wrong back in 1985?)
Meanwhile, despite the inventiveness of reshooting the scenes from the first film from different angles, some 45 minutes of screen time is devoted to Marty gingerly advancing towards an almanac in someone else's possession, and the suspense drawn from this becomes enormously underwhelming after the second or third time he is unsuccessful in retrieving it. Furthermore, the depiction of this effort is shot and acted broadly and clumsily: Marty spends a lot of time perched over Biff's (Thomas F. Wilson) shoulder trying to get a look at the almanac, and while Biff is certainly dumb, he's not blind, and it just feels dumb and cartoonish.
And finally, while I completely understand from a narrative standpoint that it's necessary for Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to be in the air during the third-act thunderstorm, it's a choice that really kind of doesn't make a lot of logical sense, especially since Doc is extremely protective of the time machine and would presumably know it's a bad idea to be floating around while lightning could strike. (Especially since he and Marty have an intimate working knowledge of the effects that lightning can have on the time machine's circuitry.) In fact, Doc's treatment of the time machine throughout the whole movie is pretty awful, frankly, including when he clumsily runs into the billboard earlier in the film (which again serves a story purpose later), and especially when he hits the time circuits as they go on and off and says dismissively, "damn – I've got to fix that thing."
What's The Verdict: While I completely understand the nostalgic affection that fans have for 'Back to the Future Part II,' particularly as an 'Empire Strikes Back'-like second installment that bridges the first and third films, it's not really a great movie. The special effects are genuinely amazing, especially the use of multiple versions of the same actor, and its construction of plausible time-travel logic is not only fascinating but understandably influential. But for guys who are as smart as they are in so many other regards, the story and its telling is often painfully clumsy and obvious, and features story developments that while perhaps necessary to make audiences care for the characters' plight, are just not well-engineered, certainly considering the narrative and emotional timeline of the first film. And while I will almost certainly revisit it the next time I sit down for a Saturday-afternoon marathon of all three films, 'Back to the Future Part II' will be the one I'll be most interested in travelling past.