Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Films of 1989: Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II (1989) is the franchise’s own The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and therefore the finest film in the Zemeckis trilogy.

This rousing middle chapter of the saga transforms the cheerful triumph of the 1985 picture into personal tragedy, thus taking Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to his lowest ebb. The sequel also elevates Biff (Thomas Wilson) from school yard bully to Evil Incarnate, a kind of grotesque “lounge lizard” variation of Donald Trump only with a murderous streak, not merely bad hair.

This sequel also proves brawnier in terms of visual imagination and sense of humor than its critically-appreciated predecessor was, and includes some nice, amusing nods towards 1980s nostalgia.

In fact, Back to the Future Part II even lives up to its featured Jaws 19 holomax tag line:

This time, it’s really, really personal.

What that means, specifically, is that our hero, Marty, has not overcome the seeds of his own downfall, and, therefore, the future could still turn out quite badly for him. The black pick-up truck -- the first film’s valedictory symbol of his promising, successful (and yes, yuppie…) future -- becomes, instead, the vehicle of his ultimate destruction.

This 1989 sequel has been in the news a lot lately, since we entered the year 2015 in fact, for both those things it gets right and those things it gets wrong about our current epoch.

But just because everyone seems to be talking about Back to the Future II doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth discussing at length here on the blog. On the contrary, this dark middle chapter forms the emotional heart of the Back to the Future trilogy by forecasting the darkness in Marty, and increasing, by degrees, the trilogy’s narrative and intellectual complexity. 

For example, Back to the Future Part II’s remarkable final act not only goes back to 1955 and the events of the original film, it actually travels "inside" those events, and inside the frames and compositions of the previous entry. It inhabits that same milieu (and the Enchantment under the Sea Dance) with remarkable technological wizardry (forecasting Forrest Gump [1994]) and ratchets up the suspense, as events we think we know take new twists and turns.

If Doc Brown created the time machine to examine the “pitfalls and possibilities” inherent in human nature, Back to the Future Part II also serves that mission ably. The first film concerns how, via time travel, we can understand and appreciate our parents as people who were young once too...not just weird old folks.  The second film, uniquely, pursues that same end, but reveals that the faults that plague us as teenagers have the power to totally destroy us as adults.  Life -- and time -- can be quite cruel.

Paradoxically, time has been anything but cruel to Back to the Future Part II. It was once critically-hated by the establishment, but now seems to be the film in the BTTF trilogy that everyone absolutely adores.

Better late than never...

“No one should know too much about their own destiny."

Immediately following his return to 1985 (from 1955), Marty (Fox) is confronted by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who warns him that something terrible will happen to his children in the future, in the year 2015.  

Accordingly, Marty, Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) and Brown time travel thirty years to a brave new world, to a Hill Valley of flying cars, hover boards, holomax movies and 1980s nostalgia.

There, Marty must save his son from a future in jail, a future caused by Biff’s son, Griff (Wilson).  

After the future is restored, Marty purchases a Sports Almanac from the Café 80s, realizing that it features all the winning teams circa 1950–2000, and he can get rich gambling on them. 

Brown stops Marty from taking this road of greed and cheating, but elderly Biff has overheard the plan, and takes the DeLorean back in time to 1955, so his younger self can execute it.

Meanwhile, Jennifer visits her home with Marty in Hilldale in 2015, and learns that Marty was injured in accident thirty years earlier, primarily because because he couldn’t tolerate being called chicken. 

Worse, his boss in 2015, Needles (Flea), wants to engage Marty in an illegal activity, calling him chicken if he doesn’t comply. Marty succumbs, and is promptly fired from his job.

Marty, Doc and Jennifer return to 1985 in the returned De Lorean, only to learn that elderly Biff has changed everything.

George McFly is long dead, murdered by Biff, and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is married to the scoundrel.  Biff controls the police force, and has turned Hill Valley into a den of gambling and sin.  

Doc and Marty realize what has happened, and determine they must travel back to 1955 again, this time to prevent Biff from using the Sports Almanac that has altered the past, and can change everybody’s future.

 “Be careful in the future.”

Back to the Future Part II’s three act narrative structure is also, significantly, a three age or three epoch structure. 

The film goes from the adventure in 2015 to the dark passage involving Biff-World in 1985, to the tense and ultimately despairing span in 1955. 

Thus, in a subversive way, the film plays like Back to the Future in reverse, with every new challenge being met with a greater challenge, and any sense of closure or triumph proving, finally, impossible to least until the next sequel.

Specifically, Marty succeeds in saving his son and daughter in 2015, but his avaricious plan with the Sports Almanac is adopted by Elderly Biff, and rewrites Marty’s present. 

When Marty and Doc arrive at that present, in 1985, they are unable to beat it or over-turn the nightmare -- one depicted in endless night-time shots and punctuated by images of grave-stones, cemeteries and obituaries -- without traveling again, this time to 1955.  

And in 1955, crucially, the events that made Marty’s future “happen” (his folks’ first kiss at the Enchantment under the Sea dance) are intruded upon by a "new" version of Marty, whose object this time is not to assure or cement a high-school romance, but to steal back the item that has made Biff’s frightening ascent possible: the almanac. Marty is back in 1955 for business, not love. He must not only succeed in his quest, he must avoid being spotted by his Mom and Dad to be, and also by the version of him we met in Back to the Future.

In the final act, Marty attempts, again and again, to re-acquire the aforementioned sports almanac, but is vexed at every turn.  He thinks he gets it at one point, for example, but finds that it is just the dust jacket hiding a girly magazine. The second time Marty gets it, he loses it because Biff calls him chicken....and he can't let it stand.

And when he finally gets the almanac and burns it, Doc is zapped by lightning out of 1955, along with the DeLorean, trapping Marty thirty years out of his time, with his own future on the line.

And that future doesn’t look good, because we know that even if Marty sets the time line straight, he will be in a car accident, one caused by his constant and continuous inability not to take the bait when called “chicken.”

So where Marty went back in time and succeeded in his mission in Back to the Future, this sequel takes him from failure to failure, with no triumph or victory in sight, and personal injury and failure looming in his future.  

In both circumstances, importantly, Marty is to blame.  Using the Sports Almanac is his idea in the first place.  And the psychological foible involving being called a coward is also his own cross to bear.

Yep, this time it is really, really personal indeed.  Marty’s life is being erased because of himself, and his own failings. He may escape 2015 and Biff World, but can he escape his own nature?

This sly creative structure purposely subverts what we know about the Back to the Future saga up to this point.  As I noted in the introduction to this piece, the black pick-up truck -- a symbol of success -- becomes instead a symbol of Marty’s failures.  

Furthermore, the triumph at the Enchantment under the Sea Dance from the first film gets re-written as a tense action scene with the ultimate kicker being not that Biff knocks out Marty and takes the almanac, but that one version of Marty knocks out the other Marty.  

Again, Marty is to blame for his problems, and that moment -- with Marty #1 storming through a high school exit and knocking out Marty #2 -- is the perfect embodiment or visualization of that leitmotif.

Structurally-speaking, the middle part of any literary or film trilogy finds the hero at his or her weakest, and the forces of darkness gathering.  

The middle part is the point of highest danger, highest risk, and one can detect immediately how this is true in Back to the Future Part II. The film takes Marty to his lowest point, where Biff is strongest, but also to a place where Marty faces another nemesis: himself. What makes the film more than merely subservient to a standard formula, however, is the film’s increasing sense of complexity and despair.  

Events in the year 2015 seem to turn out well, with Marty’s son saved. But then we learn of Marty’s car accident, and his firing from his job. Then Biff rewrites the eighties. And then, finally, the moment of innocent romance and triumph we associate with the original film is broken up, spatially and event-wise -- intruded upon literally by new footage over old footage -- so that it becomes essentially, a battle-ground where paradox (and therefore the end of the universe) is possible at any moment.  

In this way, Back to the Future Part II starts out as being consistent with the mood of the 1985 film -- joyous and light -- but builds inexorably towards a sense of total catastrophe, or at least collapse.

Because Back to the Future Part II is the only film in the franchise that travels to the future, it has become the subject of articles describing what it gets wrong and what it gets right about 2015. We haven’t yet had 18 sequels to Jaws (1975), for example, but uniquely, the film gets right our march of technology in regards to entertainment. 

Today we don’t have Holo-Max, but we have I-Max, and that seems a close enough reckoning about our age, doesn't it? Consider together the Jaws name attached to a sequel, and the update of Holo-Max technology and you get an accurate comment on 2015 film-going. 

Basically, we’re seeing sequels and remakes (Star Wars VII, Mad Max IV, Jurassic Park IV) instead of new cinematic visions, but they’ll have a fresh coat of paint thanks to technology (I-Max and 3-D).  

So Back to the Future Part II gets the franchise and sequel number wrong, as well as the technological nomenclature...but it gets the idea absolutely right. The year 2015 is mired in high-tech un-originality.  In a sense, this idea is reflected, too, by the "remake" aspects of the film's first action sequence.  We get the skate-board chase in the town square of Back to the Future all over again in this sequel...but this time with hover boards (from Mattel).

And no, we don’t have self-drying clothes or hover boards in 2015, and we don’t live in houses filled with Fax machines (“You’re FIRED!”), but we do have large flat screen TVs, and Doc Brown makes an intriguing point about fashion. 

In particular, he notes that in 2015, all the kids wear their pants inside out. Again, that’s not technically accurate, but it seems like a reflection of the idea that so many folks of a certain generation where baggy pants that dip on their hips and reveal their underwear.  In other words, something that would have seemed baffling and unthinkable in 1985, perhaps, seems to have come to pass in terms of fashion in 2015.  To put it another way, the actual detail is wrong, but the idea is spot-on.

Certainly, Back to the Future Part II gets much right in terms of 1980s nostalgia; the enduring myth of St. Ronald Reagan being a prime example in 2015. It doesn’t matter that President Reagan raised taxes (several times), granted amnesty, or exploded the deficit, the myth of his conservative perfection (as opposed to practical pragmatism) persists. 

The Café 80s segment of the film -- with Reagan, Nintendo, Michael Jackson and Ayatollah Khomeini -- is one of the most amusing in the film, and aptly notes that thirty years seems to be the perfect span in which to forget a decade’s flaws, and remember only the good stuff. 

That means, in 2045, we should all be waxing nostalgic about this year. I’ll be 75 at that point…

Ultimately, how wrong or how right Back to the Future Part II is about 2015 probably doesn’t matter. The film can be judged a remarkable success for a number of reasons.  

First, it brilliantly serves its purpose of taking the trilogy from triumph to tragedy, just in time for the emotional rally in Back to the Future Part III (1990).  

Secondly, it establishes -- despite the mythic villainy of Biff -- the fact that Marty is, in fact, his own worst enemy. And for me, that idea very much plays into the franchise’s over-arching commentary on family.  How often have we seen those we love make the same mistakes?  How often have we wished that they could change?  How often do they fail to change?

In some sense, Back to the Future Part II is about the difficult time between teenage years and adulthood when we become set-in-our-ways, no longer pliable. Instead of bending, we break.  Instead of being willing to adjust and change, we fall back on old beliefs and behaviors instead. We might grow up, but we also grow rigid; we grow old.

Marty himself is on the verge of that point here, about to make a mistake that he will pay for later in his life.  

Back to the Future Part III brings this idea into focus, and Marty gets one last chance to escape an unpleasant destiny.  

We start to see then, in this remarkable sequel, that 1985 is Marty's pivotal year, as 1955 was George and Lorraine's pivotal year. 

In my review of the original Back to the Future, I wrote about the same events happening over and over again in Hill Valley, film to film, but to different generations. That same idea carries on in this sequel, with the torch of mid-life crisis and disaster passed on to our main protagonist.

Next Tuesday: Back to the Future Part III (1990).

1 comment:

  1. I always liked Part II the best because it really got into the "paradoxes" of time travel, an area few Sci-Fi films had explored with such wit and depth up to that point. I love the scene where Doc explains everything on a chalkboard, explaining the "timeline has skewed into a tangent." Brilliant acting from Christopher Lloyd. Anyway, if the Cubs win the World Series this year (highly unlikely) I might start to wonder if time travel is possible!