‘Back to the Future’ (1985) – ‘Back to the Future Part II’ (1989)
by Robert Zemeckis
Clarification: I will be discussing both of the first two Back to the Future movies in one post because, at the end of the day, they feel like one long movie, not only because the second film contains countless scenes from the first one viewed through a different perspective but because the third one feels more like “the sequel” in how different it is. At some point I’ll get to that one too, but we shall see when I feel like doing that. I will say this: I don’t find it as great as the first two.
In 1985, Robert Zemeckis changed the world of both geekdom and cinema alike when he gave us a little movie called Back to the Future, a Spielberg-produced science fiction film that did too many things right to do justice and has since become almost everyone’s favorite 80’s film. In terms of sheer story-telling, character and enthrallment, this film is so damn near a “perfect movie” that I dare anyone to think of a legitimate, non-fallacious reason not to like it. It’s a movie that’s fun, entertaining, memorable, quotable, nostalgic, funny, touching, exciting, well-written, well-directed, well-shot, well-acted, just all around well-made, and for the time it came out, interesting in its take on the concept of time travel – if sometimes nonsensical. We’ll get to that later.
Firstly, let’s recap what these films are about, starting with the first: an adventurous teenager named Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) lives in 1985’s Hill Valley with his dorky dad George (Crispin Glover) and drinking mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), the former of whom is constantly pushed around by his abusive boss Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Marty is also resented by his principal and his rock band’s not doing too hot. However, he does have a nice girlfriend named Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and has befriended a local mad scientist called Dr. Emmet “Doc” Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd. I can’t possibly praise the performance of the latter man enough.
Doc Brown’s latest invention is a time machine that looks like a DeLorean DMC-12, which he wants Marty to test run with him. The problem is that Doc has stolen something very valuable from a group of Libyan terrorists in order to perfect his invention, so it isn’t long until the terrorists track him down and shoot him dead. Marty flees the site inside the DeLorean. Once he gets out, he discovers that he has not only drained the time travel car’s juice, but also ended up in the year 1955 – as far as I know, perfectly replicated both in look and general feel.
Shortly, Marty also interferes with the past of his own parents, ruining the moment the two first met by causing Lorraine to fall in love with him instead of George. Lorraine, by the way, calls him “Calvin Klein” due to the writing on his underwear (don’t ask, it’s a long story). Desperate, Marty seeks out a younger version of Doc and soon enough convinces him that he is in fact from the future, and that only Doc can help him get back. It will be a complex process, however, and recharging the DeLorean will require the power of a perfectly timed lightning strike on a specific stormy night. Even worse: Marty has to make sure that George and Lorraine fall in love, since his interference with their first meeting will ultimately result in Marty not being born – thus wiped from time.
It’s a race against the clock as Marty has to help his own dad muster up the courage to ask Lorraine out to the high school prom, avoid the sexual advances of his own mom (*shudder*) in the meantime, fend off the forces of a much younger Biff Tannen, now a local bully instead of a cruel boss and also hungry for Lorraine, and get his parents to kiss on prom night, all before the big storm of 1955 happens and he has one single chance to go back to his own time. It culminates in one of the most intense and exciting third acts of any movie I have seen within my lifetime and its intensity escelates the more things go wrong. It is nail-biting to watch still, even though I know perfectly well how it turns out.
It is probably a spoiler to almost no one when I reveal that Marty ultimately saves his own existence and does make it back to 1985, where he finds that his visit to the past has changed his present-day life for the better. He has prevented Doc’s death, his parents are far cooler, his siblings all have high-paying jobs, he has his own truck, and Biff is a submissive car washer who dares not go up against George. Everything seems fine and good until Doc suddenly reappears in the DeLorean, telling both Marty and Jennifer that they must go “back to the future”, being as something needs to be “done about [their] kids”. It’s one of my favorite movie cliffhangers but, unlike the Super Mario movie, this was a cliffhanger that actually paid off – three years later, in fact. This is where movie 2 comes in.
As Back to the Future Part II opens, Marty and Doc bring Jennifer (recast and played by Elisabeth Shue) along in a now flying DeLorean to October 21st, 2015. Because she has seen too much, Doc uses some weird ray-thingy to make her fall asleep and think it’s all a dream, whilst he and Marty get to work on saving the McFly name.
Ever since 2015 started, people have complained about the things featured in Back to the Future‘s version of this year that haven’t been invented yet. Alas, we have no (proper) hoverboards, no flying cars, no Max Headroom-versions of dead celebrities, no pizza-enlarging microwaves, no weird 80’s cafés, and no clothes that can adjust their size and tightness to the wearer (see this for more details). There is, however, a fake trailer for Jaws 19, a film briefly alluded to in a joke when Marty first arrives in futuristic 2015 and a 3D hologram of the famous shark appears from a billboard. “Still looks fake”, he remarks.
Doc and Marty fulfil their mission but they (or mostly Marty, rather) make a huge mistake: Marty buys a sports calendar to take back with him to the 80’s to bet money on games that haven’t happened yet. Of course Doc forbids this and throws the magazine in the trash, although there’s another problem: an old and infirm version of Biff has overheard the whole thing and promptly grabs the magazine, travels back to the 1955 we saw in the first film, and gives it to the younger “50’s bully”-version of himself, all while Doc and Marty are busy retrieving an awoken Jennifer before she runs into an older version of herself. When they eventually make it back to 1985, things have gone straight to Hell and Biff Tannen has gambled/betted his way to being the most powerful man in the States and the “ruler” of Hill Valley. He has also married Lorraine after George’s death and basically become Donald Trump.
Marty’s only hope now is to go back with Doc to 1955, reenact scenes from the first film from an entirely new viewpoint (via some truly nifty editing tricks) and eventually destroy the almanac, since the 2015 they just left has now been wiped from reality. Why the future doesn’t change around Doc and Marty while they’re still in 2015, or why Old Biff going back in time doesn’t wipe them from existence, which is exactly what happens to Old Biff when he returns to 2015 in a deleted scene, I know not.
Admittedly, there are some inconsistencies in how time travel works within the universe of this franchise. Marty’s entire existence depends on his parents hooking up during one certain prom night, but apparently he doesn’t get wiped from time when his living conditions in the 80’s change even more drastically than they did after his journey to 1955. And on that note, when he returns to 1985 at the end of the first film his life has indeed changed, but somehow he still has the exact same relationship with Doc and his journey back in time still happened. Shouldn’t Marty run into alternate versions of himself when returning to 1985 both times, given that he can apparently hop between timelines/realities? If Marty then exists outside of time, why does it matter if his parents meet or not? Did that only need to happen in a specific timeline? And how will his parents in the new timeline react when their son displays memories of a timeline that hasn’t happened for them, instead of one where their third-born looks weirdly similar to that Calvin Klein guy from high school who helped them fall in love?
These are questions that have troubled many fans for ages, but the beauty of it all is that these questions hit us long after we’ve already fallen in love with the films. What I mean is that we probably don’t need to make sense of everything, because the movies are already so skillfully engaging that the logic of the time travel takes a backseat to all the loveable characters, great quotes, clever references, perfect pay-offs to all the set-ups, fun little details and gags that won’t be noticed on the first viewing, wonderful music courtesy of the great Alan Silvestri (see also The Abyss), and wickedly cool special effects accompanied by equally cool sound design.
Also pitch-perfect are the performances. Special kudos go to Christopher Lloyd, who has inarguably given us one of the most memorable characters in sci-fi history, and Thomas Wilson, who nails a grand total of 5 different versions of the Biff character/his grandson Griff – and that’s only within the span of these two chapters. No tiny feat, and neither is Fox playing an old version of himself, his own son, and his own daughter all in the same scene. Really, these films are just well-acted in general, no matter what make-up the actors have on in any given scene.
Because of hitting all these marks in all the essential ways, the Back to the Future movies are kind of immortal. It doesn’t matter that certain references and effects are dated (one could argue that it’s charmingly retro). These films still evoke the exact right emotions and take us on an adventure we’d all want to go on – therefore, I imagine we will never live in a world uninhabited by Back to the Future fans. And yes, that is a prediction about humanity’s future I actually feel 100% sure about. We’ll see how it goes with the flying cars.
The local arthouse theater screened both of these movies today in honor of both the anniversary and the date itself, and it was a beautiful night indeed, proving to all the dedicated fans in the theater that this franchise still holds up after all these years. It is retro and nostalgic enough to be charming, and it is effective enough in its adventure and characters to be timeless. I honestly need not say more; you already know how great these films are, how all the great lines go, what all the characters are like, and why these are meaningful movies that will last into the future. So, Silvestri, play me off as I go watch some Rick & Morty to celebrate the entirety of this once-in-a-lifetime milestone of a year even more: