About a year ago, over on my own blog, I briefly reviewed Back to the Future. I think it’s time to revisit the sequel. Back to the Future Part II attempts to do for its own franchise what The Empire Strikes Back did for Star Wars: take a darker approach to the original story.
The sequel definitely has ingrained itself into our collective memories recently thanks to the Cubs making the postseason in 2015, the very year depicted in the movie. Remember when the Cubs winning anything was a running gag? This movie does.
Running time: 108 min.
Release date: November 22, 1989
Marty McFly and Doc Brown are back, and so is the time-traveling DeLorean, in this sequel to 1985’s Back to the Future. This time, Marty and Doc are going forward in time to save Marty’s future self and his family, but trouble arises in the form of an older Biff Tannen and an ill-advised purchase of a sports almanac. With even more paradoxical time traveling headaches, Back to the Future Part II ratchets up the special effects eye candy, but loses a lot of the heart and warmth of the original film in the process, leaving us with mixed results.
The story starts off where the first one ended, with Marty (Michael J. Fox) back in good old 1985 after returning from 1955, where he narrowly missed giving it up to his mother (Lea Thompson). Doc (Christopher Lloyd) returns not long after to plead with Marty to return to the future with him in order to help with his future kids. Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, comes along for the ride, except this time we get Elisabeth Shue instead of Claudia Wells in that role. Pay no mind to Jennifer being left unconscious in an alley in one scene, and then in a porch swing (also while unconscious) later on. One can understand including Jennifer in the story, since you’re picking up where the original left off, but not doing anything at all with the character, when even Doc himself states that “this concerns her too,” is going to be noticed. This is all part of the issue where the story in Part II is really lacking in the warmth department, because just dumping Jennifer in the nearest alley in an uncertain future is not the smartest of moves. But I digress.
We meet Marty’s future family as well as Biff Tannen’s future grandson, Griff (Thomas F. Wilson), who has inherited Biff’s bullying demeanor. This provides Fox and Wilson the opportunity to play multiple roles, which they do mostly successfully. The plot takes a turn, however, when Marty purchases a sports almanac in the year 2015 that gives him all the major sports winners throughout history, thinking he could profit with this information. Unfortunately, it falls into the wrong hands, and now the whole timeline is screwed up, as Marty and Doc return to a 1985 that is vastly different from the one they left. This necessitates a return trip to 1955 to clean things up once again, but with less hilarity and creativity. The plot of Back to the Future Part II is far more stuffed with ideas than the original, but not all of them work. Not only that, the spirit of the original is hard to duplicate, especially when there is more of a focus on the gimmicks rather than the characters.
Robert Zemeckis goes for broke with the special effects and the madcap paradoxes related to time travel, which is fine for the most part, as the film never slows down. However, Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale have shoved aside characterization and decided to follow a formula. Once Marty buys the almanac, it’s pretty much predictable what will happen. Zemeckis also stuffs too many ideas into the future timeline and it tends to overshadow the plot and characters at times. The overall presentation is slick and shiny and looks good, but there isn’t much depth in this follow up to a story that was chock-full of depth and heart.
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd keep this story moving with their chemistry and charisma. They really make you want to like Back to the Future Part II and they are the reason why I ultimately did like the film. Regardless of what is happening on-screen in terms of story, Fox and Lloyd are capable of carrying the story on their backs to the next scene. In a plot filled with holes, gimmicks and hoverboards, it says a lot about the two leads to be able to keep most of this grounded. Elisabeth Shue and the Jennifer character are pretty much wasted, while Thomas F. Wilson, once again, proves himself to be one of the best on-screen bullies in recent memory.
Back to the Future was filled with humor, nuance, nostalgia and heart. Back to the Future Part II is not filled with much of any of that. In fact, parts of it are downright mean-spirited, such as when Marty returns to the altered 1985 timeline. However, Robert Zemeckis has put enough polish on this sequel to make it enjoyable, while Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd work well together to provide enough humor to keep things from falling apart, which this film could have easily done. A big step down from the original, but still a moderately enjoyable effort.
RATING: *** – disappointing but still enjoyable.
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