Back to the Future Part II

Year: 1989

Production: Amblin Entertainment / Universal

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson

Screenwriter: Bob Gale

Based on a story by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

108 minutes; Color


Panned by many critics as a typically disappointing follow-up, in part because its plot remains unresolved at the end, this film and Back to the Future Part III can properly be seen as two halves of a single film, and indeed were shot simultaneously. In fact it is perhaps the most sophisticated time-travel film ever made; what was supposedly by critics unfamiliar with the genre to be an incoherence of plot was in large part the perfectly well realized convolutions of a time-paradox tale. The story, involving Marty and Brown's trip to the future, where the older Marty is interestingly a failure and his son a potential hoodlum, is too complex for synopsis. A trip back to 1955 generates a dystopian 1985, an alternate world run by Biff, the bully of the previous film. The scenario is dark; the acting suffers from Fox's tv sit-com mannerisms and Lloyd's hamming; but the story, amnitious and intellectually complex for a popular movie, is a joy. The good aspects of the film were perhaps ahead of their time, demanding a knowledge in the audience that not enough of them had.

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Unlike most sequels, this really does play like the next episode of a serial, to the extent of winding up on a cliffhanger and a trailer for the forthcoming Back to the Future Part III (1990). It opens with the last five minutes of the first film, as Marty McFly (Fox), who is just back from 1955, is whisked off to 2015 by mad scientist Lloyd in his time-travelling De Lorean, in order to sort out some trouble with his as yet unborn children. After a spell in a chipper future of flying skateboards and 80s nostalgia, which could almost come from an optimistic 50s sf novel, the film whips back to an alternate 1985 , caused by some tampering with the past, to discover that the small town setting has been converted into a violent hellhole resembling a cross between the fantasy sequence from It's a Wonderful Life (1947) and an urban nightmare like The Warnors (1979), where all the streets are covered wiih white body outlines. The heroes are then forced to go back again to 1955 to the events of Back to the Future (1985) to fill in some interesting narrative gaps, as Fox tries to prevent the villain (Wilson from taking advantage of an almanac of future sports results, handed to him by his time-tripping future self while trying to avoid himself. The finish sets up another bout of time-twisting in the next installment, where Fox has to go back to the Old West to rescue Lloyd and be around at the founding of the town.

The film lacks the blend of nostalgic detail and bizarre (bordering on the incestuous) family feeling that gave the first film heart as well as flash, but it replaces that with a plotline that never lets up, a wealth of interesting detail in all its time zones, and some mind-bending concepts. It is a subile development from the 50s feel of the original, in that it uses many of the devices and jokes from 50s written sf - 50s sf movies were very different from what was going on in the magazines - and is very much in the spirit of writers like Fritz Leiber, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester and Fredric Brown, who were reshaping literary sf in the Eisenhower years. Thus, the film provides a weird and appealing blend of nostalgia and anticipation. Some of the characters get lost in the narrative reshuffle, with Marty's love interest (Shue) mainly being left asleep on the porch during the action, but Fox and his nemesis (Wilson) get to appear as several versions of themselves in elaborate make-up. Breathlessly paced, this almost matches the feel of such Eastern European paradox- mongers as Zabil Jsem Einsteina, Panove (1970) and Tomorrow, I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea (1979).

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