Back to the Future, Part II

(Dir. Robert Zemekis, USA, 1989)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

Back to the Future (1985) was always going to be a hard act to follow. So rather than relying merely on the consequences of time travel to create another action-packed comedy set in an idealised version of the past, screenwriter Bob Gale has made time travel itself central to his sequel. As a result, Part II attempts to explain the workings of the timeline and its attendant paradoxes. It is because this film takes such a fundamental shift in gear that it is one of the few sequels that appears in this collection along with its original. It is also this change of tack that makes it difficult to make a comparison between Part II and Part I. Certainly the script, with its clearly defined act structure and punchy dialogue, is equally witty, but Part II's exploration of time travel itself inevitably makes it harder to follow. Perhaps more significantly, by exposing the mechanics of time travel it makes its own plot less credible for those who do manage to follow.

Dr Emmett Brown takes Marty and Jennifer to 2015 to sort out some problems with their future children. Here, a new version of Hill Valley town square successfully melds speculative 21st century trappings (replete with appropriate product placements) with the simplistic familiarity of its 1955 and 1985 counterparts. The plot develops in fine time-travel tradition when Marty's actions cause further problems, eventually returning him to an alternative, nightmarish 1985 (the date of the first film). Forced now (or then) to travel back to 1955 to smooth out the kinks of the timeline before they occurred, Marty finds himself re-embroiled in the events of the first film. But this time he also has to avoid his other self. In the words of the film's tagline: "Getting back was only the beginning".

Whilst this intentional exposé of time paradoxes often poses more questions than it answers, the joy of Part II is in its increasing integration of Part I into its own story, effectively reformulating Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for a science fiction comedy cinema audience. Fresh from his special-effects triumph Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Robert Zemekis directs a visual feast, as footage from Part I is intercut with actors playing opposite themselves in an increasingly complex and farcical plot. Ironically, the problems came when Crispin Glover, replaced here by Jeffrey Weissman in the role of George McFly, sued the Part II production for reusing Part I footage of him without permission. Jennifer was also recast, but given her scant involvement in Part I, it is hardly surprising that Claudia Wells was 'unavailable' to reprise the role. Jennifer fares little better in this film, once again spending most of the time asleep or off-screen - skills that she would develop further in Back to the Future, Part III (1990).

Self-reference and increased intertextuality (both hoary stalwarts of the time travel genre), coupled with a more complex story, make Part II denser and consequently perhaps less satisfying than Part I. This may be why Gale and Zemekis allowed the machinations of time travel to take a back seat in Part III - destroying the DeLorean and returning to the clear comedy-adventure structure of Back to the Future.

USA; Universal; 111 minutes; cert. PG; Panavision/Dolby
Pr.: Neil Canton & Bob Gale; Scr.: Bob Gale; Cin.: Dean Cundey & Jack Priestley; Ed.: Harry Keramidas & Arthur Schmidt; Mus.: Alan Silvestri; Des.: Rick Carter; Art.: Margie Stone McShirley; vfx: Ken Ralston, Scott Farrar, Suella Kennedy; sfx: David Blitstein, Michael Lantieri (ILM).
Cast: Marty McFly/Marty McFly Jnr/Marlene McFly: Michael J. Fox; Dr. Emmett Brown: Christopher Lloyd; Lorraine Baines/McFly/Tannen: Lea Thompson; George McFly: Jeffrey Weissman; Biff Tannen/Griff Tannen/Grandpa Tannen: Thomas F. Wilson; Jennifer: Elisabeth Shue.

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