FRANCHISE REWIND: Back to the Future, Part II (1989)

Back to the Future, Part II, 1989 (Michael J. Fox) MCA/Universal

“Shark still looks fake.”

I think Back to the Future, Part II might’ve missed the boat being released four years after the original hit movie. This was part of the sequel mentality, particularly as it began to blossom in 1989. There were more recent movies (such as Lethal Weapon and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) that were fresh in the public consciousness, but some sequels (like Ghostbusters II) were late to the game. I don’t think Indiana Jones counts because the character was much more of a cultural icon and touchstone than Marty McFly.

You can’t drop Marty into an adventure and expect him to hold his own (or somebody else’s—poom!). The first Back to the Future movie felt like a cute, one-off fantasy; a classic ’80s movie, even as Doc Brown tells Marty at the end of the movie that they have to fix the future because of his idiot children. Doc Brown should, oh, I don’t know, leave well enough alone and stop tampering with timelines, for crying out loud, but if he did, we wouldn’t have a sequel, so there.

This sequel is a mess, but it’s a well-made, cutesy-clever mess. “How ’bout a ride, Mister,” Elisabeth Shue seductively asks Marty as he marvels over his brand new Toyota pickup truck and OH MY GOD…er, WAIT A MINUTE! What? Elisabeth Shue? What happened to the other chick? I mean, it’s the same shot, okay, Michael J. Fox looks a little chubbier and somebody let out his suspenders, and she’s got the right hair and clothes, but it’s not Jennifer! It’s clones! Now why didn’t they make that a plot point? What happened to the real Jennifer? Now that I think of it, what happened to Elisabeth Shue at the end of The Karate Kid? There’s a massive conspiracy going on. I’m sure of it. Must have something to do with 5G.

We go into the same ending of Back to the Future, the same dialogue, the same costumes, the same camera angles but this time Claudia Wells has been replaced by Elisabeth Shue. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) takes Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his girlfriend, Jennifer (not Claudia Wells) into the future with his fancy-pants flyin’ DeLorean that runs on garbage. Apparently there’s some kind of a problem with their kids. As if!

We’re supposed to assume that skittish, short-attention-span Marty with his skateboard is able to hold onto this girl well into adulthood? And then to get married and produce little McLarvae? I don’t believe it. I mean, I know it’s a movie about time travel, but … moving on. They go 30 years into the future, oh! I forgot to mention that this movie also employs the trick of time-traveling within movie time, just like Rocky and The Karate Kid. 1985 lasts four years, since we begin the movie at the end of the previous movie, so we can add Michael J. Fox to the list of actors who visibly age in a relatively short period of time, along with Ralph Macchio and Sylvester Stallone.

Keeping track of this can make you a little crazy after a while. I suspect the sequel was less a logical progression of the Marty’s story than it was a conglomeration of goofy ideas about the future, such as self-tying Nikes (those are cool, by the way—I’m a big fan of Nike hi-tops), jackets that adjust to any size (convenient), all teenagers wearing their pants inside out (ridiculous), and piles of laserdiscs dumped into the garbage (prophetic). Doc Brown’s entire gambit hinges on the idea that McFly’s kid, Marty Jr., will help Bif’s grandson (imaginatively named Griff), with a robbery.

I think Doc Brown should mind his own business. There’s an insulting cookie-cutter logic to the whole affair that assumes that if you tell somebody not to do something, or you refuse to do something, somehow it will do wonders for your character. In this case, it’s much worse as Marty is asked to impersonate his son and then refuse to participate in the robbery. We could try to help the young man or try to understand why he’s become a deviant, but no—the band-aid looks better.

The movie becomes enormously confusing as Marty travels between 2015, 1973, 1985, and 1955—all of this due to Bif figuring out the time travel and purchasing an almanac which he intends to give to his younger self in 1955 and make him a multi-millionaire in the future. Materialism seems to be the good guy and the bad guy of these movies, and people are powerless little cogs in their own lives driven to make money and own things because they’re convinced this is the only way they can be happy.

All of this was playing out against the backdrop of recession in the late ’80s/early ’90s when people were losing their fortunes overnight. The dream of the ’80s was dead. Marty continues to effect changes in his own timeline, in 1955, and in the original movie, but this time, the freak lightning bolt sends Doc Brown to 1885, while his 1955 “variant” remains and promptly faints upon seeing Marty again.

I know this sequel is seen as a “classic” these days (likely due to the eerie prediction that in 2015 the Cubs will have won the World Series—they didn’t but they did make the Championship, which they lost to my Mets), but critics and audiences were less kind when it was released in 1989. Kids enjoyed the “product placement future”, and Blade Runner cars, but critics were baffled by the “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey” narrative. The next movie, Back to the Future, Part III (a direct continuation of the story) would aim to please crowds with a linear story rather than bombard them with near-constant pop culture references and visual effects.

For more Franchise Rewind, visit Second Union!

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