It should almost be a mantra by now, that middle films in a trilogy are the weakest ones because they are denied the focus of a beginning or an end. The Back to the Future Trilogy fares better than most because it isn’t telling an integrated story over three films but rather a succession of complete but interlinked stories consecutively. This allows Part II to stand up on its own to a higher degree than most such films, and it does go into territory unenvisaged by the first film before dropping back into its original scenario. But it not only tries to go to too many places for a single film, but its complex storyline ends up depending entirely too much on the first film for it to really stand alone.
We begin at the end of the first film, except that it’s not re-used footage, because Claudia Wells isn’t reprising the role of Jennifer Parker and has been replaced by Elizabeth Shue (and I didn’t notice, that’s how alike they made her). The whole thing has been re-shot, practically identically, except for an additional couple of shots to show Biff Tannen seeing the hover-DeLorean disappear.
Both Director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale have gone on record regretting tying their own hands by having Jennifer accompany Marty and Doc to the future of 2015, and as a result, Jennifer is quickly dumped on arrival (one reviewer declaring this an act of rampant misogyny), though she does get her own sequence when 1985 Jennifer Parker is taken to the home of 2015 Jennifer McFly and her family and sees just what a future awaits her, and it’s not good. Clever, maybe, with Fox playing himself aged up thirty years, his near-identical loser son, Marty Jr and Marty Jr’s sister Marlene, dragged up. But things have… er, will have gone disastrously for the McFly family, thanks to Marty’s newly-introduced inability to handle being called chicken, which in 1985 or somewhen close, caused him to accept a challenge to a drag race in which he suffers a hand injury that denies him his future as a major rock guitarist and turns him into George McFly version 1 (and Marty Jr. into a total klutz and loser that comes over as if on stupid drugs throughout.
But Doc has dragged Marty into his future to keep things from getting worse. Marty’s near-exact resemblance to his son (which ought to be weirder than its played given that I infer very strongly that Marty hasn’t yet had sex with Jennifer. or maybe I’m just extrapolating too much, given I have written about a very similar situation in my Tempus Infinitive novel) should enable Sr. to impersonate Jr. to turn down an offer to join in a robbery organised by Griff (Biff generation three). If unchecked, both McFly children wind up in jail.
The film introduces the ‘chicken’ motif here to generate another slapstick chase around the modernised Hill Valley town square, ending with Griff’s gang being arrested for massive criminal damage and, once Jennifer is retrieved, heading home.
Thus will end phase 1. Zemeckis didn’t like this bit at all, as he hates all films that try to predict the future. The tone was to present a normal scene, neither dystopia nor utopia, so as not to wind up looking stupid when set against the real 2015 when it hove into view, though a great many technological developments were accurately foreseen. However, the look, in terms of fashion, were outlandish to a degree that I can only think was deliberate – Marty Sr. wears two ties, side by side – and that visual idiocy undermines the whole sequence.
It was no doubt this lack of enthusism for the Future that led to this phase being so brief, and the film’s ostensible purpose being achieved so quickly. The whole treatment tries to have fun in itself in a slightly mechanical fashion but it can’t escape a sense of relief at being a McGuffin for the real story.
Because Marty buys a souvenir of 2015 in the form of a Sports Almanac giving ALLmajor sporting results from 1950 to, don’t look now, 2000. Ought to be able to make a buck or two betting on foreknowledge. Doc, of course, won”t let him do it, but the argument takes place in the hearing of old Biff who, whilst Doc and Marty are recovering an unconscious Jennifer who’s shocked by meeting her 2015 self, he steals and returns the Time Machine.
So Doc and Marty return to 1985, dump the shocked-out Jennifer on her porch swing to keep her out of the rest of the film, and go back to normal. Except that this isn’t 1985, it’s 1985A, and for the middle sequence we are granted a tour of Hell, as Zemeckis and Gale go wild on the complete Pottervillisation of Hill Valley.
You see, old Biff went back to 1955 to pass the Almanac onto his high school self, who makes billions betting on sure things and makes over Hill Valley into his crude, vicious and stupid self. Along the way, he has secretly murdered George McFly and coerced Lorraine into marrying him (not to mention having monstrously large – and unconvincingly plastic – breast implants fitted: Lea Thompson sells herself as a broken woman, an even worse alcoholic than the first Lorraine), and once Marty starts asking about the secret almanac, tries to kill him.
Guess what that means? Back to 1955, November 12 to be precise, the day of the dance and the initial return to the Future in film one, giving the film its cast iron climax as Marty has to retrieve the almanac from Biff without interfering with any of the events of that day, or even being seen by George, Lorraine, Doc or ‘Calvin Klein’.
It’s a well put together slapstick, though it runs a bit long, and through too many setbacks to fully work. Marty has too many setbacks to overcome, all the while flitting around the edges of, and in between, the first film’s setpieces, which we see from different angles. It’s very clever and the whole sequence is played with conviction, but the problem is that at least one viewer was sat there admiring how clever the film was without getting into the story as a story as opposed to an exercise in ostentatious smartness.
Still, all’s well that ends well, with the disturbed past left without further disturbance, the Almanac burned and the ‘real’ (i.e. disturbed) 1985 resolving itself around Jennifer who, let us not forget, has been left sleeping on a porch swing for two-thirds of the film (maybe that guy was right…)
Now, contrary to what I said last Sunday, Back to the Future was made as a standalone film, the ‘cliffhanger’ ending being just a piece of fun. Part II came about as a deliberate attempt to cash in on a massive commercial phenomenon, so the fact it’s as good as it is, despite the flaws, is a testament to the people involved. But Zemeckis and Gale were ambitious. There wasn’t just going to be a sequel but an entire trilogy and, in parallel, Part III was being filmed. We just need a link.
Doc’s in the hover-DeLorean, trying to negotiate the high winds that precede the storm to land safely and pick up Marty. And just as Marty’s warning him not to get strucck by lightning, he’s struck by lightning (that is so bad writing) and disappears. Leaving Marty stranded in 1955.
But at that very moment, as it starts to absolutely pelt it down with rain, a car drives up behind Marty and a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be from Western Union, delivers a letter they’ve had since 1885 with instructions to deliver it to the guy who looks like Marty on this spot at this exact time. It’s from Doc who, as foreshadowed a couple of times, is in the Old West. That’s where we’re heading next, once Marty races into town and finds 1955 Doc who, having just sent Marty back to the future, sees him back within ten seconds and faints in shock…
Back to the Future Part II, as you’ve now seen, is at one and the same time a discreet episode, and part of a sequence of adventures that ultimately add up to a long story. It avoids several of the pitfalls of a middle film, but its convoluted story, and its own internal crossings between three distinct time periods (four if you count the reshot opening, which takes place in 1985 instead of what the film calls 1985A, ignoring the fact that 1985 is itself an A-version).
Ultimately, whilst it’s good in parts, it tries to be ultra-clever with its time manipulations that are meat and drink to the SF fan, but which the film deliberately treats simplistically for fear of losing its audience. And having been conceived as an attempt to replicate a big hit instead of a genuine enthusiasm for what happens next to the characters of the first film, it creates limitations for itself that it can’t exceed.
Four of the first film’s five stars return, though Lea Thompson only has a very limited amount of screen-time, bolstering the misogyny argument. Crispin Glover turned down a reprise, alleging he was being offered a fee less than half of the rest of the cast: hence George McFly was dead in 1985A, and the extremely limited use of George in other parts of the film were made-up of either previously unused footage from the first film, or a very-heavily made-up Jeffrey Weissman, whose only extendedappearance was spent upside down. Glover sued the Producers and won a verdict that led to Screen Guild rule changes prohibiting things such as these to manipulate an actor’s apparent appearance.
So: back to the mantra about the middle film. Unfortunately, it still applies. But, as we all now, third time pays for all. It’s Old West time next Sunday…