Big Screen Streaming: DOUBLE FEATURE!

msdbato-ec002Back to the Future

Parts II & III

-Films reviewed by Roger Market

NOTE: The following review is a double feature and concludes our look back at the classic Back to the Future trilogy. Check out part 1 for a refresher on the movie that started it all. Keep in mind that each review may contain spoilers for the other parts of the series.


Marty McFly spends the majority of Back to the Future stuck in the year 1955. After making a daring and entertaining escape in the lightning charged Delorean, he safely returns to a slightly improved present (1985). Marty’s respite is brief, however. Another time-space adventure begins the following morning when Dr. Emmett Brown returns from a trip to the future. It seems that “something’s gotta be done about [Marty and Jennifer’s] kids” in the year 2015. While “Doc” has a rule about not altering the past, apparently it’s OK to alter the future, at least if the situation is dire enough. So Marty, a confused Jennifer, and Doc Brown all jump into the upgraded Delorean, now complete with a built in fusion system that creates the energy necessary to commence time travel. When Marty mentions that they don’t have enough road to reach the critical velocity of 88 mph, Doc utters one of his most famous lines: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Doc Brown hits a button and the car hovers above the earth. As he pushes on the gas, the Delorean flies through the air until it finally disappears, leaving behind a set of fiery tire tracks. This entire scene is recreated at the start of Back to the Future Part II.

This re-shoot reminds viewers of how the first movie ended but also introduces two new elements that distinguish the second part of the trilogy.

  1. Jennifer has been recast.
  2. Biff has been added to the scene, coming out of the house just in time to see the Delorean rise up from the ground, zoom forward, and vanish into the sky.

Bonus features on the series’ DVD release reveal that both of these opening sequence changes were made essentially because the popular films were never intended to be a trilogy. Claudia Wells, who portrays Jennifer in Back to the Future, was unavailable to participate in filming the first sequel four years later. Because the writers had already included Jennifer on the trip into the future, not only did they need to find a suitable replacement actress, but they also needed to come up with a way to minimize her presence and keep her from asking questions. The obvious solution: incapacitate Jennifer and leave her somewhere “safe.”

Similarly, Crispin Glover, who played Marty’s dad (George) in the first film, does not appear in the rest of the series, although a replacement actor does play George for a few minutes in the 2015 scenes. Apparently, there was a semi-major controversy surrounding Glover’s omission, something that has stretched on since the original movie was in production in the 1980s. For better or worse, the George McFly void prompts the storyline of the second film to veer into darker territory, beginning with Biff’s insertion into the re-shot opening scene.

So what happens in the second installment? Let’s take a look.

Several running gags from the first movie make it into the second (and third, but more on that later). Arguably, the most prominent of these is Marty’s repeated macho stance against anyone who dares call him “chicken.” Each time this implication rears its ugly head, Marty is compelled to prove he isn’t afraid of anything; this attitude is what gets Marty into some of the biggest predicaments he faces in the trilogy.

Upon arriving in 2015, Marty has one such encounter with Griff, who is Biff’s grandson and is played by the same actor. A wild chase through town commences, reminiscent of the chase from the first movie. In 2015, however, Marty’s vehicle of escape is not a skateboard, with wheels that touch the ground, but a newfangled “hover board,” which is essentially a pink skateboard that hovers over the ground. “There’s something very familiar about all this,” Old Biff says, remembering his encounter with “Calvin Klein” (Marty) in 1955. By now, it’s clear to viewers that Old Biff is becoming a problem and his growing insight into Marty’s time travel adventures will have repercussions later. This problem is exacerbated by Marty’s secret purchase of a sports almanac telling the outcome of every major sporting event from 1950 to 2000; of course, Doc catches Marty scheming and throws the magazine in the garbage. Old Biff, however, has overheard the conversation. He takes the almanac, and later, he steals the Delorean while Marty and Doc trail a dazed and confused Jennifer, desperate to keep her from meeting her future self.

After finding Jennifer, Doc and Marty take her back to the present and then part ways, hoping they have averted any cataclysmic space-time disasters… But everything has changed. Their town, Hill Valley, is a hellish nightmare. Marty’s father is dead, and his mother is married to Biff, now a multi-millionaire casino owner with the police wrapped around his finger. Viewers will know right away that the present has changed so dramatically because of something Old Biff did with the time machine. The adventure continues as Doc and Marty realize that Old Biff stole the Delorean and took the sports almanac back in time to change the course of his life. Marty all but blackmails alter-present Biff into telling him when he got his hands on the sports almanac, and after a dangerous and narrow escape, he and Doc travel back to 1955 to right the past.

While the 2015 sequence of Back to the Future Part II is a fun way to rehash the first movie’s major themes and gags with a fresh spin, the alternative present sequence is dark and very over-the-top—a far cry from the tone of the first movie in the series. In contrast to both the future and the present, the 1955 sequence is an interesting redo of Back to the Future, featuring Marty and Doc in the same scenes but with new angles, extra nuances, and even higher stakes. Marty has to steal the almanac from Biff without interrupting the events of the previous movie. In one memorable scene, Marty has to stop Biff’s goons from attacking his past self on stage during his infamous rendition of “Johnny B. Good.” Marty climbs into the rafters of the stage, watching as his past self shocks the audience with anachronistic rock music and Biff’s goons lie in wait, ready to pounce when the song is over. Marty pulls a rope, unleashing a pack of sandbags, which crash down on the bullies, knocking them out. Viewers are also treated to a new angle on the “Hey you, get your damn hands off her” scene, Marty’s original goodbye to Lorraine and George from the end of the first movie, and countless other classic moments. In essence, the second act of Back to the Future Part II is a love letter to the original film. Ultimately, Marty makes one last attempt to steal the almanac from young Biff, and the result is a scene that combines unforgettable moments from the first two movies, with Marty being chased on a hover board and Biff (and his car) winding up under another pile of manure. By now, “I hate manure!” should be Biff’s slogan in every timeline.

There’s one more running gag throughout the second movie that seems inconsequential at first, but gradually becomes more important. At least three times, the viewer is treated to a depiction of the Old West. One of these scenes takes place in the altered present, when Marty watches a documentary about the millionaire Biff and his ancestors, one of whom is Buford Tannen, an outlaw who lived in the late 1800s. In a later scene, alter-present Biff watches an old John Wayne western in which Wayne’s character outsmarts a gunslinger. This small film clip reveals a secret, ultimately foreshadowing a major turning point toward the end of Back to the Future Part III.

So as not to completely spoil the ending of Back to the Future Part II, let’s just say that the cliffhanger leaves viewers wondering, yet again, how Marty will escape from a time in which he doesn’t belong. The answer comes in the first act of Back to the Future Part III, when a past version of Doc once again helps Marty fix the time machine. This time, Marty discovers that instead of going back to his own epoch, he must to travel to the year 1885 so he can save the present Doc from certain doom. Now all those setups from the second movie are beginning to pay off. Marty steers the Delorean all the way back to 1885—the Old West—and, consequently, his final adventure in time. As always, Marty almost immediately has a close call with Biff’s alter ego upon arrival. In this case, however, the viewer has already met him: it’s Buford Tannen, in the flesh, Biff’s outlaw ancestor who was shown in the altered present storyline of Back to the Future Part II. The wild chase this time is on horseback, but Marty doesn’t have a skateboard or hover board handy….

Not to worry—Doc is here to save the day! The viewer isn’t very far into the final movie yet, but already, the tone and themes are proving to be quite different. Watching in singular installments, viewers reflect that the first film is about saving the love between Marty’s parents. The second reveals the dangers inherent in time travel, and the final movie of the series is all about putting Doc in the limelight. In Back to the Future Part III, viewers witness a more confident Doc, a man who is (at least until he finds out he’s going to die) comfortable with the time period he’s living in, a man capable of love. Indeed, Christopher Lloyd (Doc) shared his first on-screen kiss in this movie, with Mary Steenburgen as schoolteacher Clara Clayton.

The in-jokes of the series, both small and large, surface once again in Back to the Future Part III. First, the Hill Valley clock tower, a symbolic fixture in the previous movies, comes back for the conclusion; this time, viewers glimpse the building amid construction. This historical intrigue serves to round out the series, demonstrating the rise and fall of Hill Valley’s cherished icon over the course of connected generations.

Marty’s macho pride is another recurring joke that comes back for the last film. Buford Tannen is the main instigator and appropriately calls Marty “yella” instead of “chicken.” Marty’s response here is classic, though subject to an Old West twist: “Nobody calls me . . . yellow,” he utters. And so the feud that now spans an entire century—between Marty and Biff’s ancestors (past, present, and future)—runs its course. Remember that John Wayne scene from the second movie? The Duke provides sound advice when Marty must first outwit a dangerous outlaw before attempting another daring return the present.

Meanwhile, the love story between Doc and Clara blossoms, and the two storylines are equally important in the buildup to the finale. Viewers fear for Marty’s safety and hope that Marty and Doc can escape back to the present, but are also conflicted over the developing romance between Doc and Clara. Can Doc leave his beloved behind, or will he take her with them back to 1985? The (literally) explosive finale promises answers and one final twist in the saga of Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown.

Viewers exhibit mixed feelings concerning Back to the Future sequels. On the one hand, the existence of the sequels means there’s three times the fun. On the other hand, the sequels introduce so many paradoxes that even the brilliant Doc himself might have a hard time understanding why moviegoers enjoy them. A rather glaring example is the basic premise of the second film, which was recently lampooned to great effect on the How It Should Have Ended channel on YouTube. Critics question the fact that if Marty and Jennifer venture thirty years into the future in the opening scene of Back to the Future Part II, why do they arrive in the same future that Doc had already witnessed? Upon their departure from the present, they should have ceased to exist for the last thirty years. In theory, therefore, the future would be very different simply by virtue of their absence. In other words, the whole second movie is (technically) pointless.

Luckily, while they have moderately different tones and very different settings, and are arguably weaker overall, the Back to the Future sequels manage to retain the two qualities that made the original movie a hit:

  1. Heart
  2. Rousing performances by a (now) all-star cast

The idea of love and friendship transcending the time-space continuum is powerful, and this theme runs throughout the series, most notably in the relationship between Marty’s parents and in the friendship between Marty and Doc. As for the cast, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are an incredible duo, and it’s no wonder that this trilogy launched a young Fox into the Hollywood stratosphere. Lloyd’s and Fox’s portrayals of their characters are incomparable, so much so that fans are vehemently against any reboots or remakes of the beloved hit films. In fact, the trilogy’s creators have similar feelings. When asked about a potential Back to the Future remake recently, director Robert Zemeckis shut down the conversation with a pointed, “Oh God, no . . . [a remake] can’t happen until both Bob [Gale, the series’ writer] and I are dead.”

That doesn’t mean the series is dead. Of course, the movies live on in the form of home video and cable syndication, not to mention viewers’ memories, but exciting new avenues are cropping up this year. This week in particular—October 21, 2015, to be exact—is an important time for Back to the Future. Fans may recognize this date as the exact day on which Marty and Doc arrive in the future in Back to the Future Part II. Right now, around the world, theaters and movie festivals are screening the trilogy in marathon or à la cart form to celebrate “Back to the Future Day.” Even without the celebratory screenings, though, it certainly has been the year of Back to the Future. For months, fans have also been recounting the “predictions” that the second film got right or wrong about the future. We don’t have any commercially available flying cars, and although technical progress is obvious, we still don’t have a hover board that meets fan scrutiny. On the flip side, the dates don’t exactly align with the movie’s timeline, but the Chicago Cubs are indeed still in the running to win the World Series of 2015. It could happen. And what else might happen? During an interview on October 14, Christopher Lloyd said he would reprise his role as Doc in a heartbeat if the same actors, writers, and director came back for a fourth movie. If that happens, this reviewer will absolutely be back for another installment. For now, viewers are better of waiting for that elusive hover board and biting their nails over the 2015 World Series. Go Cubs!


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