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Twice upon a time?: Back To The Future Part II (1989) ~ Review

October 18, 2010

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F Wilson, Elisabeth Shue

Screenplay by: Bob Gale/ Story by: Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis

US; 108 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

~~~

It’s a tricky thing predicting the future. In 1948, George Orwell suggested that Britain 40 years on would be under the thumb of a fascist overlord and overseen by ‘Big Brother’, while in 1968, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke foresaw that 30 years on from then mankind would be walking about in mega-space stations while searching the recesses of space and creating computers that seem to have souls. All right, admittedly the depictions of what was to come in both the novel 1984 and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) may have been created to make clever points rather than straight-out future predictions, but they were still very wide of the mark. And, unfortunately, the depiction of the year 2015 in Back To The Future Part II doesn’t exactly stand up to the limits of semi-believability either.

But what’s wrong with that, you may ask? And it’s a decent question; after all, this first sequel to the eponymous mid-’80s time-travel comedy adventure is clearly not supposed to be taken anywhere near wholly seriously, just like its predecessor. Yet, surely any form of fiction depends on not stretching the realms of believability too far in case it loses its audience (unless its deploying surrealism, absurdity or the such like, I guess) and for me, BTTFII has really always had this problem.

Picking up where the first film left off, this unquestionably successful sequel sees a just-returned-to-the-present-1985 Marty McFly (Fox) jet off – quite literally – with his girlfriend Jennifer (Shue) and inventor friend ‘Doc’ Emmet Brown (Lloyd) in the latter’s DeLorean-motor-car-converted-into-a-time-machine-converted-into-a-flying-vehicle and forward to the year 2015. There, Marty must pose as his own son to put right an event that will have catastrophic circumstances for his future family, while he also takes in the sights and sounds of his home town 30 years into the future.

Fair enough, there’s no question a lot of thought, planning, imagination and wit went into the creation of Hill Valley c.2015. And, while essentially silly, the notion of vehicles converted and manufactured to fly as well as be road-worthy is charming, fun and well executed, the ‘futurising’ of other aspects of daily life are, for me, just too silly. Screenwriter Bob Gale was apparently definite that the future reality shown in BTTFII should be lightweight and knockabout, and clearly the other creatives behind the film (Zemeckis certainly and the likes of executive producer Steven Spielberg) were sold on the idea too. After all, they got it so right with the original film, why wouldn’t they trust their instincts this time around too?

However, the choices to re-do or – because they’re re-done with such tongue in cheek – to pastiche crowd pleasing sequences from Back To The Future in, er, the future here, come off, well, a little naff. And that’s not to mention the inclusion of hydrating pizzas, utterly wacky fashions including men’s suits replete with two ties hanging from the collar, robotic dog-walkers and hovering back supports for the elderly that see the wearer hung upside down. Perhaps worst of all, though, is the casting of Fox as both his character’s future son and daughter. Fox is clearly more than eager and hams it up like a good ‘un, but then maybe that’s the point – and the wider point with BTFFII‘s entire future world – it feels as if the makers had more fun making the movie than you are watching it. Hey, it’s no cinematic crime and all that, but it is a shame.

And that’s because the flick’s next two acts are fine stuff. Following the (as it was at the time of the movie’s release) much hyped trip to the future, we have a return to a messed-up, dystopian 1985 present and another return to 1955. The 1985 section, like the 2015 one, is admittedly silly, but throws less caution to the wind and – as the plot starts to crank up and the film’s villain  is unveiled – proves more engaging.

Yet, BTFFII‘s genuine success is, perhaps surprisingly, its return to ground well trodden in the original film – the 1955 setting. And well trodden is the term, for half of this setting revisits story and literal scenes that were created for the first film. Undeniably then, this is the section of the film one would most expect the filmmakers to mess up, but it’s testament to their plotting, attention to detail, technical brilliance and sheer love of their material, story and characters that they don’t. More like they pull off a thrilling, tense last third that entirely recaptures the sense of wonder and magic of the original flick – by doing something almost entirely different. All that, and there’s a sort-of-twist ending that’s so clever-clever it never fails to impress however many times you see it – it’s simply outstanding stuff.

Outstanding too are the sets and special effects – of which, what with so much time-travel, there are substantially more than in the first film – while Alan Silvestri’s score carries the action along nicely, with its oh-so recognisable main theme sweeping you up at choice moments (important considering, unlike the original, this flick features no publicity-generating chart hit). Of deserved mention too are the main players. Fox – when not playing Marty’s kids – and Lloyd make for strong, effortlessly likeable leads once more, while both Thompson and Wilson, with arguably more to do this time around (Thompson plays three different versions of the same character; Wilson two different characters), really impress.

So, overall then, Back To The Future Part II is something of a mixed bag. While the first half-hour or so is far from future-perfect, the rest – like Marty McFly on a hoverboard – manages to glide above it, more than redeeming the film and turning the piece, as it does so, into a memorable slice of entertainment – and, naturally, a nice set-up for the trilogy’s third and final flourish.

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