Today it's a double-feature, as we dissect the beloved sequels to the 80s adventure/sci-fi/comedy masterpiece Back to the Future. Yup, I'm probably gonna ruin these two movies for you. Don't misunderstand me though, I LOVE the Back to the Future trilogy. It's a classic series that still holds up as a tremendously enjoyable triumvirate of films, and the first one especially is required viewing for anyone who likes fun. However, when you reaaaaally sit down and think about the second and third movies, they're full of plot holes, tacked-on character motivations, genre cliches, and time-travel paradoxes (given how much dialogue is devoted to this subject, these are kinda hard to forgive completely).
So join me and dip your toes into the pool of overanalysis. Really, the water's fine!
Picking up right where the first movie left off, Doc Brown has just returned from the year 2015 (Christ, that's already in the past now!) and urgently needs Marty and Jennifer to go back with him to stop their kids from royally screwing up the McFlys' entire future. While in 2015 Marty (with the help of the villain Biff Tannen) inadvertently creates a rift that alters the last sixty years in horrible ways. What follows is a complex adventure that sees our heroes jumping to different eras in the hopes of repairing the damaged timeline. In the process Doc is accidentally displaced to 1885, and the third film (set in the Old West) sees Marty follow him back in the hopes of preventing his murder at the hands of Biff's ancestor Buford Tannen, so they can both get back to 1985 where they belong.
Wow, that paragraph made these movies sound damn near impossible to follow, but in actuality they're loads of fun and whenever I watch the first movie I have to watch Parts 2 & 3 to complete the experience. Time travel in general is a fascinating concept around which to build a story, and if you can avoid the obvious loopholes inherent in the genre it usually results in an interesting-at-worst kinda movie.
By this point we've grown to love Marty McFly and Doc Brown as protagonists. They have a wonderful father-son dynamic and are endlessly likable. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd clearly had amazing chemistry together and regardless of any script shortcomings we automatically care about what happens to these two characters.
|When are we getting these damn hoverboards???|
On the flipside, Thomas F. Wilson is perfectly cast as Biff Tannen and his various relatives. He's a fantastically loathsome bully the audience can enjoy hating, and we relish whatever misfortune happens to befall him.
|Mr. Tannen is a Grade-A Douchebag.|
Each time period in these movies has been beautifully imagined and realized so they all feel authentic, at least in an archetypal way. Hill Valley in the 1950s looks like what most of us who weren't yet alive probably visualize when we think of that era. The 2015 stuff is delightfully cartoonish and in 1989 it seemed at least a somewhat plausible approximation of the future. The Old West portions of the third film are horribly hackneyed and stolen from dozens of Western films and TV shows, but it all seems familiar and so we forgive the lack of accuracy.
Throughout these films the sets and costumes create a rich environment in which these stories unfold. Regardless how over-the-top and timeworn the details of these time periods, we accept them as creating believable settings.
As with the first film, the effects provided by Industrial Light & Magic in the two sequels are top-of-the-line. Aside from a few composite shots that look a little clunky nowadays, the visual effects completely hold up. The use of movable split-screen was also groundbreaking at the time, allowing Michael J. Fox to play multiple characters in the same shot fairly seamlessly.
|It was very unfortunate that Marty hit Marty with the door|
after Marty spent several minutes watching Marty play guitar.
Now for the shhhhhhiii......the SHHHHHHHHHHHHHIIIIIIIII--- ya know what, I can't say that word about these movies.
For some reason Robert Zemeckis decided to pepper these sequels with scenes that echo iconic moments from the first film. Marty's Part 1 skateboard chase from 1955 is repeated in 2015 with hoverboards, and again in 1885 with Marty on foot being run down by villains on horseback. The Part 1 scene where he wakes up in his teenage mother's bedroom is repeated in the alternate 1985 at Biff's high-rise apartment, and again in 1885 when he wakes up in the log cabin of his ancestors. Copying scenes almost verbatim from the first movie always struck me as very lazy screenwriting designed to get cheap applause from the audience.
Despite this never having once happened in the first movie, in Parts 2 and 3 Marty suddenly has this tacked-on character flaw wherein being called "chicken" by anyone magically turns him into an easily-manipulated daredevil who will literally take any risk no matter how obviously ill-advised. This happens multiple times in Part 2 as he's goaded into a fight with Biff's grandson Griff, and again when the 48-year-old Marty is duped by his co-worker Needles into an illegal business proposition, which leads to him being fired. We also find out that in 1985 Marty was dared into a car race that led to him permanently injuring his hand and shattering his aspirations of being a rock star. Then in Part 3 Buford calls Marty "yella" to coax him into a gunfight the day Marty and Doc are supposed to leave. I just found this whole concept very corny and not consistent with the Marty character as established in Part 1. Plus, no one in real life over the age of ten uses the word "chicken" in that context. That'd be like grown-ass men saying, "Oh you don't wanna fight me McFly? What are you, some kinda fraidy-cat??" Had they changed it to "pussy" I might've been ok with all of this.
Look, Liz is a very talented actress. Just watch Leaving Las Vegas if you don't believe me. But replacing the understated, soft-spoken Claudia Wells in the role of Jennifer with the animated, overly demonstrative Shue was very distracting to me. In no way was Jennifer portrayed as the same character. Shue is excessively hammy and that awful, AWFUL wig they gave her to look more like Wells just made her resemble a 50s housewife. And yes, I know she's a pretty minor presence in the story, but these things bug me. If you're gonna recast a role the new actor's performance needs to mesh with how the character's already been portrayed. That's one of the tradeoffs of taking over a role from someone else - you're kinda stuck continuing what they've already done.
|How bad is that wig?|
No Crispin Glover
I'm not sure who was at fault for Glover's exclusion from the project, but evidently there was a dispute over pay, and George McFly was all but excised from the sequels. His absence flat-out sucks, as he was one of the best things about the original.
Why did they have to set the climax of the second film in 1955 again, on the same night as the first movie's climax? I guess it was to allow the cannibalization of that movie's footage, but it just felt like covering the same ol' ground. As a backdrop it was anticlimactic after being introduced to the 2015 and Alternate-1985 settings. I remember thinking, "Oh cool, where are we going next....oh back to '55 again? We've already seen this." They should've set that portion of the film in the 60s or 70s so we'd experience some new flavor.
As I said above, considering how much dialogue is devoted to the idea of time paradoxes, the two sequels (in particular Part 3) have some pretty substantial ones that in some cases undermine the entire proceeding.
In Part 2, Old Biff steals the Sports Almanac and the DeLorean, travels back to 1955, gives his younger self the book, and returns to 2015. The act of giving the book to Young Biff drastically alters the timeline to the point that 1985 is now completely changed. However when Old Biff gets back to 2015 everything is unaffected, and Marty and Doc don't even notice until they get back to Alternate-1985.
There are two paradoxes in Part 3. One is fairly minor (and arguable), the other negates basically the whole film (and is ironclad), but they're tied together.
So at the end of Part 2, Doc and the DeLorean accidentally get transported back to 1885, stranding Marty in 1955. Marty then has to find Young Doc to help him get back to 1985, as Old Doc sends Marty a message from 1885 instructing him to leave Doc in the Old West and get himself back to his own time. Got it?
Old Doc informs Marty that he has buried the DeLorean in a cave so Marty can use it, but Marty and Young Doc also discover that Old Doc was murdered a week after arriving in 1885, and Marty decides to travel back to save Old Doc.
The first time paradox occurs here - when Marty arrives in 1885, Old Doc has no idea why he's there. The problem is that once Young Doc finds out he will eventually grow old and travel back to 1885, shouldn't his older counterpart now know that he's going to be murdered a week later and that Marty's going to come find him? And shouldn't he then take steps to avoid being murdered, or even avoid accidentally traveling to 1885? Does this need to be thought of from the perspective of the overall timeline itself, or Doc Brown's own timeline? I'm not really sure. One can injure their brain contemplating this.
That paradox is somewhat minor, but this one isn't: Upon arriving in 1885, Old Doc buries the DeLorean in a cave for Marty to find 80 years later. Marty and Young Doc find the car, fix it up so Marty can use it, and Marty goes back to 1885, where there should now be TWO DeLoreans - the one Old Doc hid, and the one Marty used to go back. When Marty arrives in 1885 he discovers the gas line is ruptured and the car now can't travel to 88mph. The rest of the movie is spent concocting a plan to have a train push the car to the necessary speed for getting Doc and Marty back to 1985. But the screenwriters have forgotten that Old Doc's original DeLorean is still in the cave where he hid it for Marty to find. Why not just use parts from that car and siphon the gas into Marty's DeLorean, and go back to 1985 right then? I guess that would've been a very short movie. This is why time-travel stories are hard to write - they invite paradoxical situations like this. But forgetting (or ignoring) the fact that there's another time machine available for them to use is some pretty sloppy writing.
-Do they really expect us to believe that a magazine-sized book would have every sports statistic from 1950-2000? I've seen single-sport almanacs that are like 1000 pages. If they needed the book to be easily portable, just make it a horse-racing almanac. At least then it'd be somewhat believable that it's so thin.
|That's like an issue of Newsweek, and there's 50 years of stats in there?|
How small a font did they use??
-There are multiple scenes in Part 2 where Marty is hiding in the back of Biff's car and talking over a walkie-talkie, while Biff is driving. Would Biff really not notice this?
-At the end of Part 1, due to Marty's tampering with the timeline, 1985 Biff has become a jovial, humble friend of the McFly family. How come when he briefly sees the flying DeLorean he goes all villainous, and by 2015 he's a total a-hole again?
-Marty touches on this, but when Doc comes back to 1985 from 2015 and tells Marty and Jennifer to go with him to fix their future kids, why did Doc bring Jennifer along if she was just gonna be in the way? Doc's explanation is that he panicked and had to include her, but why not just wait till Jen's not around to approach Marty about all this? He had thirty years before Marty's son was gonna be arrested, for Chrissake!
-Once it's determined that Jennifer is a liability, Doc uses an electronic device to render her unconscious and then the leaves her asleep in an alley. Really? You're gonna leave Marty's future wife passed out in an alley like a common vagrant and hope no harm befalls her while you're both on errands?
-Why don't hoverboards work on water? Since when does water cancel out magnetic properties?
-For a guy who's so concerned about affecting the space-time continuum, Old Doc sure is cavalier about engaging his younger self in cryptic conversation when they accidentally meet. "Perhaps I'll see you sometime in the future." "Or the past." What a hypocrite.
-Along the same lines, why would Doc agree to pose for a photo in 1885??
|What about all that talk about screwing up future events?|
-In the third film 1955 Doc helps Marty unearth the DeLorean 1885 Doc left behind, and it turns out they're right next to a cemetery in which Doc's dog Copernicus suddenly takes a keen interest in one of the headstones, standing near it and whining. Turns out that's 1885 Doc's headstone and we soon learn he gets shot in the back only one week after writing Marty the telegram. Thus the main plot of the third film is set in motion, as Marty has to go back to 1885 to prevent Doc's untimely demise. Wait a tick though, are we supposed to believe from this cemetery scene that Copernicus (again, a DOG) is able to fucking READ??? Look, I'll accept the far-fetched notion that a crazy, wild-eyed scientist is able to convert an ultra-rare automobile into a time machine, alright? What I won't accept is said scientist's canine companion apparently having taken a Berlitz course on reading comprehension.
-Somehow despite not having the technology to build a flux capacitor until 30 years after conceiving it in 1955, Doc is able to fashion one in 1885 and build a time machine train? If that's the case he could've just gotten to work on that when Marty arrived, and having the DeLorean at all would've been unnecessary. Or maybe after Marty left he remembered, "Oh yeah, stupid me - the DeLorean I hid in the cave is still there, with a flux capacitor!"
|This thing got built with 1885 technology???|
The Back to the Future trilogy is one of my favorite all-time film series, but in terms of flaws, the quality definitely drops off from the first movie to the other two. Had the first part not been so near-perfect would we all be such big fans of 2 and 3? I dunno. It seems like with a little more retooling Part 2 especially could've been much closer to the level of the first film. And while I really enjoy the third part on a "dumb fun" level, in some way the story does feel rather phoned in. It's basically the same plot as the first film but set seventy years earlier. Regardless the Back to the Future sequels are still light years better than most of the popcorn drivel Hollywood churns out nowadays.
That'll do it for this installment of Awesomely Shitty Movies. Check back at Enuffa.com for more dorky overanalysis of things that don't really affect anyone's lives.
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