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MMYIF: Back to the Future Part II

 My Misspent Youth In Films...

Back to the Future Part II
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Released: November 22, 1989

After visiting 2015, Marty McFly must repeat his visit to 1955 to prevent disastrous changes to 1985...without interfering with his first trip.

What I Thought Then

Weirdly, this was on the only movie out of the BttF trilogy that we owned a copy of, having--ahem--time-shifted it off of a rental. And at some point someone (probably me) accidentally taped over like ten seconds from the middle of the Cafe 80s sequence. I remember it being fun and kinda scary in the middle

What I Think Now

Everything about this movie is an over-the-top romp and I absolutely love it. The characters are big and boisterous, the plot is bonkers, and the film's depiction of the future is just a big, fun, wacky mess. Even when things go dark and dystopian in Act II, it's hilariously so, with cop cars randomly crashed in front of houses and everything burnt and coated in graffiti. It ain't subtle. Michael J. Fox and Thomas F. Wilson not only portray themselves across different eras, but also their families. I hadn't realized before that Fox is not only playing Marty and Marty Jr, but also his daughter. Not to be outdone, Wilson is young Biff, friendly middle-aged Biff, evil middle-aged patterned-after-Donald-Trump Biff, old Biff, Biff's grandson Griff, and the voice of Biff's grandmother Gertrude. But my favorite little detail is how Doc Brown takes off his "disguise" right after they arrive in the future. It's presented as an eccentric character moment, but it's obviously there so Christopher Lloyd won't have to wear old man make-up for the entirety of films two and three.

Structured like a heist that keeps going terribly awry, the film does a lot of storytelling through situational irony and ironic parallelism. When a police officer in the future says "Be careful in the future", we know she doesn't mean it that way, but Jennifer clearly takes it that way. We see a lot of the beats from the first movie re-told from an outside perspective, as Marty is sneaking around the finale of film one trying not to be noticed. And the movie plays this up, featuring a lot of story moments where the foreground action and background action play off of each other. Even the structure uses this parallel conceit, as iconic scenes from the first movie are re-staged in a new context. Biff is defeated and runs into a manure cart. Marty passes out and is awakened up by his mom, but not as he expects to see her. These beats happen in different places in the story, but they're clearly recognizable.

As a sequel, it's highly, highly dependent on knowledge of its predecessor. This film makes basically no sense if you were to go into it knowing nothing. And while it has a satisfying resolution to its own story, it ends on a massive cliffhanger setting up film three--so much so that this movie and the third film were shot back-to-back and there's a trailer for the third film shown before the credits roll. This may not seem that radical in the contemporary era of mid- and post-credit stingers, but this isn't even a whole scene. It really is a trailer. And there are a lot of little things setting up the third film as well, including a still image of Biff's ancestor Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen and a scene of Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This is the only film in the trilogy without a written-for-the-movie featured pop song and artist cameo as well. (Kind of a shame Sammy Hagar isn't riding a motorcycle while I Can't Drive 55 is blaring, though.) And while we're on the topic of music, I must give a shout-out to Alan Silvestri's score, which is so iconic my wife and I just assumed it was John Williams.

So how has it aged? Oddly well. From an effects standpoint, there are a lot of visible matte lines, and the optical compositing is sometimes a little janky, but on the whole it's not too bad. The film's vision of the future is laughably off, but it was never going for realism anyway, and then you see Elijah Wood in the cafe (Oh, hey, Elijah Wood's in this!) and you kind of don't care? One of Griff's future cohort feels a little close to an Asian stereotype, but apart from that it's decent-ish representation-wise for a film from the 80s. And there's nothing cringe-inducing because on the whole it's not a mean movie. Except to Biff. The movie is very mean to Biff. I felt a little bad for him, since he got $300 (in 1955 dollars!!!) worth of manure damage done to his car twice just for being a bully.

Recommendation?

Yeah, although it's probably worth rewatching the whole trilogy rather than just this one.

Tune in next week to meet a guy who has a lousy job...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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