The Good: Interesting plot, Decent acting, DVD extras
The Bad: Little character development, Plot drives story, Rehashes much of the first
The Basics: While the middle of Back To The Future, Part II is engaging as the story of Biff Tannen becomes huge, the movie is 2/3 average and uninspired.
I had not seen Back To The Future, Part II until this week, though I certainly knew about it when it was released. I had the novelization, watched behind the scenes specials on television (which are included on the DVD and Blu-Ray release!), and was excited about the movie, but I just never got around to seeing it. As a standalone project, Back To The Future, Part II falls down on any number of occasions because some of its work is far too dependent on Back To The Future (reviewed here!). Back To The Future, Part II is much better in the context of the trilogy (see link at the bottom), than as a standalone movie. This review is just for the middle act, for this movie as it stands on its own.
Marty McFly, his girlfriend Jennifer, and Dr. Emmett Brown take off in Doc Brown's flying Delorean car made time machine for 2015, to stop Marty and Jennifer's future children from making fatal mistakes that will ruin their lives and essentially destroy the McFly family. Marty succeeds in saving Marty Jr. from being bullied by Griff Tannen (grandson of bully-turned-browbeaten loser Biff), but in the process Doc and Marty lose Jennifer. Jennifer ends up at the residence of 2015 Marty and Jennifer, where she works to escape and reunite herself with Marty and Doc.
While Marty and Doc work to rescue Jennifer, Biff Tannen steals the time machine and returns to 1955. He gives the younger version of himself a sports almanac and instructions to bet on the winners in the book to build himself a better life. Older Biff returns to the future with the time machine before Marty and Doc know it is gone and the pair - along with the rescued Jennifer - return to 1985. Unfortunately for them, 1985 is not what they remember it to be and Biff Tannen owns Hill Valley, running it like Las Vegas with it under his heel. Brown deduces what happened, recovers Marty from the psychopathic gangster and the pair travel back to 1955 to try to fix things, without Marty undoing what he did the first time around in 1955.
Back To The Future, Part II suffers from two things: it was written and produced four to five years after the original Back To The Future and it feels like it. While the film does an adequate job of disguising recasting, with neither Crispin Glover (as George McFly) nor Claudia Wells (Jennifer) returning, though Glover appears in archive footage for a few scenes, the movie is far too plot-driven to be as interesting or respectable as the original.
Take the basic plot: Marty and Jennifer in the future are married, have children and the children are going to jail as a result of the draconian system of jurisprudence in 2015. Once that is established, the viewer has to ask, "Why is Doc Brown making this his issue?" We wonder why Doc Brown thinks going to the future to influence the events is the best idea and why Jennifer is brought along. In fact, the movie does not have an easy answer to why Jennifer is brought along, so she is dispatched pretty quickly. In short, writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis clearly had no idea how to fit Jennifer into the story but because of how Back To The Future was resolved, they had to include her and cut her out as quick as possible.
But while certain aspects of the plot are good ideas and interesting, the essential idea is just stupid; Doc Brown acts like there is an imminent threat to fixing the future, which is why Jennifer is brought along. He can't wait to get back to the future to fix things. But the future will still be there . . . well, in the future, so there's no good reason Doc Brown couldn't have waited until Marty was alone and taken him to fix the future . . . other than the writers were bound by their own conceits and writings.
The thing is, it feels like it was misassembled as a result. More than that, Back To The Future, Part II becomes an homage to itself when the movie returns to 1955. Key jokes and moments are revisited, with Marty from Part 2 acknowledging them. So, for example, Marty from Part 2 is crawling beside the car where Marty from Part 1 is sitting talking to his future mother, Lorraine, who says something. Marty from Part 1 makes a quip about the remark and Marty from Part 2, outside the car says something like "I still feel that way." It's self indulgent and falls terribly flat. Marty witnesses one of the climactic moments of Back To The Future from a different perspective and he does what Marty from Part 1 (standing nearby) cannot do; he gives the audience reaction from Back To The Future. To speak in less obtuse methods (that's the closest I come to saying "spoiler warning"), George McFly punches Biff Tannen, the big bully, rescuing Lorraine from being raped. When this happens in Back To The Future, the ideal audience cheers and feels some catharsis. Because Back To The Future, Part II is not invested in this storyline - we are engaged in Marty trying to recover the sports almanac from Biff - Marty Part 2 providing the reaction from part 1 just seems self referential, patting the movie on its own back and that's just insulting to the seasoned viewer. It pulls us out of this movie by, in essence, saying "If you're not liking this, remember how good the original was?"
I'm not a big fan of altering movies, at least not without offering the originals to the viewers (yea, branching technology!). In Back To The Future, Part II some of the effects are silly by today's standards, much less where the viewer anticipates them being in the future. The prime example of this is a holographic Jaws shark (for Jaws 10 or 19) in 2015. Steven Spielberg - a producer on this work - allows director Robert Zemeckis to take a poke at him with a fake-looking holographic shark advertising the new movie in 2015. Marty's response is "The shark still looks fake." This would be an actually funny line if the shark did not look like a cartoon. If it looked as close to real as possible, the joke works, as a cheap animated version of a shark, this line is just silly and self-referential as opposed to genuinely funny. The effect ought to have had a face-lift.
But mostly, Back To The Future, Part II suffers because it tells the same jokes as the first. We have Biff Tannen and Griff Tannen being run into trucks of manure, we have the cultural observations about differences in time, and we have Marty not responding well to being called a chicken. And there's a skateboarding scene or two made new with the use of a hoverboard as opposed to a skateboard. The humor here does not hold up, even over the first viewing.
But where Back To The Future did science fiction comedy well, Back To The Future, Part II creates an adequate science fiction psychological horror. Removing the beginning and end, the middle in the alternate 1985 is intriguing, dark and in many ways terrifying. Marty finds himself living in the consequences of his own idea executed at the hands of someone completely unscrupulous. Biff Tannen, browbeaten by George McFly in Back To The Future through receiving his comeuppance, manages to regain his status as power broker through essentially buying the world.
And this section is remarkably well assembled. George McFly in the alternate 1985 never stopped loving Lorraine, allowing Marty to exist. Alternate Biff never stopped coveting her, which leads him to murder George and take Lorraine as his own. On a character level, this makes Biff the best-conceived character in the film and the one who works the best. And flaws here - like Lorraine's brother still being in prison (Biff's power seems so limitless that it seems inconceivable that Lorraine's brother, referenced as being in jail in the first movie, would still be in jail when Biff could simply have him released considering he owns the police. Honestly, what better dowry for Lorraine than Biff heroically getting her brother out of prison?) - are minor and are generally easily brushed aside.
Biff taking a center role in this portion, along with basically creating the plot of the movie, gives Thomas F. Wilson the chance to completely develop as an actor. Like his layered role in the short-lived series Freaks and Geeks (well worth your time and reviewed here!), Wilson is given the chance here to be more than simply the big dumb bully. More than just prosthetics, Wilson's portrayal of Biff Tannen in the future is a wonderful acting job with the characterization being expressed through a lot of body language and vocal modulation to make the character seem realistic. Wilson effortlessly portrays Biff alternately as thug, browbeaten and aged and decrepit. His man-on-top-of-the-world performance in the middle of the movie makes this possibly one of his most impressive displays of range. He keeps the movie watchable at all the moments when it otherwise would not be.
Christopher Lloyd is not given a lot to do in Back To The Future, Part II and one assumes his main reason for doing this movie was because he was promised a much juicier part in Back To The Future, Part III. As in the first, Lloyd is not given much to act with that stretches his range, instead doing a slightly different twist on the mannerisms and affectations that made him brilliant and memorable as Reverend Jim on Taxi. That's not to say that Lloyd is bad, just that the performance is nothing new or different here.
Michael J. Fox, charged with holding together the movie as its protagonist, is not given much to work with either. Because the film is so plot-driven, instead of character-centered, Fox is basically replaying the role he had in the first movie. While he does a decent impersonation of Crispin Glover's George McFly to portray Marty Jr. as browbeaten by Griff, he does little that is distinct or interesting. And the thrill of seeing Fox in women's clothing as Marlene McFly (Marty and Jennifer's daughter) wears off about three frames after she is introduced. Fox simply recreates his performance from Back To The Future to make Marty seem like the same character from the first.
Ultimately, this was a razor decision and as a movie on its own, Back To The Future, Part II is an inconsistent and - at best - average film that hinges on dazzle to open it (in 2015), a strong engaging middle (in the alternate 1985), and a self-referential latter third to try to win back the audience (back in 1955). The problem is that when the movie is not busy setting up the third or referencing the first, it fails to create something definitive and new. Or when it does (in the alternate 1985) it leaves far too quickly.
The DVD extras are good and some of the deleted scenes are so good they ought to have been in the movie. The commentary track is adequate and the behind-the-scenes special makes me wonder what ever happened to summer blockbusters advertising half their movie by showing the bulk of it in behind-the-scenes specials on network television. They were doing it as recently as the cinematic outing of The X-Files and it was equally a delight to see one on the DVD for Batman Returns (reviewed here!) which I remembered from the time as well.
Ultimately, this was a razor decision and because the movie does not stand well enough on its own, I put this as a completely average film not worth seeing on its own.
To see how Back To The Future, Part II works as a part of the greater series, check out my review on Back To The Future - The Complete Series on DVD here!
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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