Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Future Part II

To continue our series of re-reviews of the Back to the Future trilogy, we’re going to cover Back to the Future Part II, released by Universal Studios in 1989. However, the timing of this review is also to commemorate a milestone, for if the posting has been timed right, it will be the exact date and time that Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in the future (or at least the future depicted in the movie): Wednesday, October 21, 2015 at 4:29 PM. This exact date and time will only occur once, so what better way to celebrate it than by posting thoughts on the movie itself?

Back to the Future Part II begins exactly where Part I left off, where Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is arriving at 1985 in the DeLorean to take Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Jennifer Parker (Elisabeth Shue) “back to the future” to prevent their future children from doing something disastrous. When they arrive in 2015, Jennifer is knocked out and Doc Brown gives Marty clothing to help him blend in, as well as specific instructions on what to do at Café ‘80s to prevent his (Marty’s) son from getting into trouble. Though the plan works, they later find out that an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) has stolen the DeLorean and used it to create a dystopian version of 1985, aka 1985-A, where his younger self is a multi-billionaire. Marty and Doc Brown must now figure out what exactly happened to cause this and use that knowledge to fix the timeline.

Behold, the proper day on the time machine.

Compared with the first movie, I felt that Part II was a bit sillier. While the movie has become more iconic over time for its unique vision of 2015, more on that later, it relies a little more on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief than before. For instance, how is it that Marty wouldn’t have been able to hear or notice the DeLorean being stolen by an older Biff Tannen? How is it that in the return trip to 1955, no one notices the various things that Marty does even when logically he would be heard, such as the case of communicating with Doc Brown via walkie-talkie while in the back of 1955 Biff’s car? The plot in general also requires Doc and Marty to be very inattentive with the Delorean, as they so easily leave the door open, creating an opening for 2015 Biff to steal it in the first place. Because of the number of these moments that can pull someone out of the film, it’s pretty obvious at times that there wasn’t meant to be a sequel and the only way to cover it up is to go through several time hops. For that, I’d conclude that Part II just simply isn’t written as well as Part I, which had a much tighter and better thought-out script.

While this movie may not be as well-written, that doesn’t stop it from being funny, albeit not quite as laugh-out-loud funny. The jokes still aim for smart humor that doesn’t stoop to appealing to the lowest common denominator, save for maybe the repeat of the famous manure scene. Character interaction is still a great source of humor, especially when it’s between Doc and Marty or between the 2015 and 1955 Biff Tannens. As with Part I, the science jokes are pulled off well and the minimal swearing that exists is done in a humorous fashion.

I also wish to point out that the movie seems to like hitting a lot of the same notes from the original. These include Marty regaining consciousness in a McFly residence and being confused about his temporal location, a Biff Tannen being covered in manure, Mr. Sandman playing when visiting 1955 and Marty being chased by Biff and coming out on top. For that last one, I could see the repetition of the hoverboard chase being justified as both versions are in different time periods and feature Marty against different technology. Whether these repetitions in general are good or bad is up to you.

With that said, I have to commend the special effects during the revisit to 1955. The scenes that were reshot are generally pretty convincing replications and it was very interesting how they were able to incorporate multiple copies of Doc and Marty into the appropriate scenes. Though it’s not perfect, it does at least help to sell the idea that the Doc and Marty of Part II were running around during Part I as well. As for the effects in general, the time travel is still good to look at and the variations in the sets for Hill Valley are rather impressive. The effects are also good enough to sell the 2015 technology as plausible, so it’s no wonder an audience watching it at the time would’ve wanted their own hoverboard or self-lacing shoes (or “power laces” as Marty calls them).

I should talk about the movie’s time travel logic, which is still fairly consistent from Part I. However, it seems to work a little differently despite this. Doc Brown mentions that 1955 seems to be a very crucial point in history, as 2015 Biff’s tampering skewed the timeline to create an alternate 1985, dubbed 1985-A. The idea, then, is that by going back and stopping 1955 Biff from maintaining control over a future copy of Grays Sports Almanac, the timeline created by the events of Part I will be restored. In some ways it feels like it shouldn’t work that way, but you have to be able to gloss over any inconsistencies for the sake of the plot, tying back into how this installment further stretches willing suspension of disbelief.

Despite what I have said already about the quality of the writing, the movie is still well-acted. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd still have a great onscreen chemistry that sells the friendship between Marty McFly and Doc Brown. If nothing else, you’d want to watch Part II just to see them act. However, I find it a little odd that Marty was suddenly given a trait where he doesn’t like people calling him a coward. It does help to reinforce the message that you shouldn’t let your emotions get the better of you, and Fox incorporated it into the character in a believable way, but it still felt a little out-of-character in comparison to the first movie.

Michael J. Fox (left) and Christopher Lloyd's (right)
interactions are the best part of the movie.

Newcomer Elisabeth Shue also proved herself in the role of Jennifer Parker, playing her with more of an onscreen presence than Claudia Wells. In this way, she seems to be better suited as Jennifer, but it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t really get to do much of anything in the movie to show off her skill. It’s fairly obvious that the writers didn’t know what to do with Jennifer as a result. Thomas F. Wilson had his own challenge as well, having to play multiple versions of the same one-dimensional jerk, Biff Tannen. Though Tannen is still a pretty flat character, Wilson manages to succeed in at least making each version of the character feel a little different, such as having 2015 Biff be noticeably smarter than his younger 1955 self. The other returning actors play their roles in reshot scenes very well and sell the revisit fairly convincingly.

Elisabeth Shue (right) replaces Claudia Wells (left) in the role of Jennifer Parker.

Before I conclude, I would like to take this space to talk about the movie’s vision of 2015, more specifically the way 2015 has turned out in real life versus what’s depicted in the movie, at least at the time of this posting. For the sake of brevity, I won’t mention everything that was depicted, as there’s too much background detail to get into, but I will focus on a select number of items.

For non-technology matters, we first have the idea behind Café ‘80s. We don’t have such a location today for ‘80s nostalgia, but we do have a Café ‘50s, which covers nostalgia for the 1950s. While Café ‘80s in the movie can be seen as a cover for a lack of inventing 2015 culture, it does serve a purpose in suggesting that people would be very nostalgic for the ‘80s by this time. People in fact are, although interestingly some ‘90s nostalgia has been slowly creeping in.

In the background of 2015 Hill Valley, one can see a poster that says “Surf Vietnam.” In real life, it is not as unlikely for people to take a vacation in Vietnam; the inclusion of this in the movie was probably a joke relating to the fact that when it came out, 1989, we had just gotten out of Vietnam. On a different note, the fashion sense displayed in 2015 Hill Valley isn’t exactly the same as it is in real life. Some things are still around, like acid-washed jeans, but the film could not have predicted the various “hipster” trends that have cropped up and we certainly don’t wear hats like the one Marty Jr. wears. Part of the fashion sense in 2015 Hill Valley also included self-adjusting jackets, which we don’t have, and self-tying sneakers with power laces. While Nike did end up making shoes that look like those in the movie, they were a limited run that was auctioned off and they certainly didn’t have power laces.

One thing that certainly didn’t match up is the rate of inflation. Marty is depicted as purchasing a Pepsi Perfect drink at Café ‘80s for $50. While Pepsi has released a limited run of Pepsi Perfect for $20.15 (essentially regular Pepsi but in the Café ‘80s packaging), regular soft drinks can still be bought at a price of ~$1-2. One other particularly notable thing displayed in the movie is the Cubs supposedly winning the 2015 World Series in baseball. While the 2015 World Series has yet to occur at the time of this posting, the Cubs are participating in the 2015 National League Championship and are also the favorite to win the World Series, though they won’t be able to face Miami.

On the subject of technology, there are a number of things I can quickly get out of the way. While hydrators for fast meal prep are used in Marty’s future household, we do not yet have the technology in real life, though scientists have been working on 3D-printed food; Pizza Hut is still around. Cars in real life 2015 still run on fossil fuels and we have yet to create the Mr. Fusion technology; although Mr. Fusions do exist in real life, they are merely prop replicas. 3D movies are rather popular at the moment, being prominently advertised and integrated into newer television models. In that vein, widescreen TVs are pretty much standard and we do have the ability to watch multiple channels at once, but only through channel mixes where you can only hear one source at a time. We also do not have Jaws 19 in the theaters, but we do at least have an official faux trailer.

"The shark still looks fake."

Fax machines, though still used, have been all but phased out at this point, with texting and email taking its place. Landlines are still heavily used, but videophones haven’t really caught on, unless you count video chat through smart devices or other internet services such as Skype. Food kiosks like the ones shown in Café ‘80s are becoming more of a reality, with McDonald’s testing them in the US after finding success in the UK. Lastly, although we are capable of playing video games without a controller with such devices as Sony’s EyeToy and Microsoft’s Kinect, they haven’t really caught on as much as the companies had hoped and controller/mouse and keyboard use is still very predominant. And while we don’t have Doc Brown’s rear-view glasses, we do have Google Glass as well as the Oculus Rift and other such devices.

With those out of the way, I can mention the two biggest technologies shown in the movie, those being flying cars and hoverboards. Flying cars have been around for a while as a concept but at this point there are no consumer models. I found out there is a company called Terrafugia that is working on making one as the wave of the future, but they have yet to create something ready for purchase. I’m also aware of the idea of flying ambulances, but as far as I’m aware they’re also not ready for widespread use. As for hoverboards, which was introduced as a concept in this movie, models are being developed, but are still very much in the prototype stage. Lexus released a video about a fully functional super-conductor model they have created, but it only works within a specially designed skatepark that has magnetic rails built underneath. As such, it may be quite a long time before the public can get their hands on one. Until then, there are replicas of the Mattel hoverboard from the movie, but it could set you back a small fortune.

Back to the Future Part II, while iconic and somewhat enjoyable, isn’t quite as good as Part I. The characters may be well-acted, but the story has a looser plotline and requires more willing suspension of disbelief than before to work out. Often, it is very obvious that Part II wasn’t intended to exist. If you’re watching this unnecessary sequel for pure entertainment and can overlook the logical errors and inconsistencies, you’ll likely enjoy it. For others, the logical flaws could be enough to break the immersion, which is something that a good movie shouldn’t do. It’s fun to see the futuristic vision of 2015 from the perspective of 1989, but you’re otherwise better off sticking to the original film. Of course, the ending of Part II also contains a teaser reel for Part III, so if you watch it, you’re pretty much committed to finishing the trilogy anyway.

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