Review: Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II is the vulgarity of postmodern pop culture in microcosmic form.

Back to the Future Part II
Photo: Universal Pictures

Gotta love Michael Gebert’s terse takedown of Back to the Future Part II: “If you liked Michael J. Fox’s mom trying to date him as a bobby-soxer at the malt shop in Back to the Future, you’ll love her as an alcoholic middle-aged slut trying to bang him in the sequel to 1985’s hit, apparently the first Steven Spielberg production written by Charles Bukowski.” While the accusation that Part II literalized the incestuous flirtations of the original film is a total fabrication (she’s alcoholic and a slut—and has some big, fake old tig biddies to boot—but she doesn’t ever try to use her credit card to ride Marty’s train), the Bukowski reference isn’t too far off the mark. Part II is a cluttered debasement of the original film’s charms, one which takes Doc Brown’s theories on the space-time continuum to their worst-case extremes. Director-producer-screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale pick up with the original’s “so bright I gotta wear shades” coda, but it doesn’t take long for the hackneyed (and appropriately underwhelming) sheen of future suburbia to give way to parallel presents, alternative pasts, and fixable futures.

While spending an afternoon in 2015 (in which cars fly and the Cubs have finally won the World Series again), Marty the dutiful consumer gets it in his head to buy a little insurance for himself; he buys an almanac containing the results of every sporting event between 1950 and 2000. Problem is, future Biff (Thomas F. Wilson, turning the original film’s bully into a nightmare Donald Trump) steals the idea and ruins 1985. Now, to prevent future Biff from giving the almanac to younger Biff, Marty and Doc have to go back to 1955 and destroy the almanac. (They also have to show up in a few dozen motion-controlled, Dead Ringers-style shots that allow them to interact with future/past versions of themselves.) In slicing and re-stitching its multiple eras, the film is kaleidoscopically self-referential, frenetic, and confusing, a desecration of everything held sacred from the prototype, and it often feels like a never-ending loop of repeated in-jokes about Marty being called “chicken” and Biff running his car into trucks of manure. (And in fact, in the movie’s climax, Marty is literally trapped in an expansive, almost Freudian tunnel as 1955 Biff tries to run him down with his car.)

In short, Part II is the vulgarity of postmodern pop culture in microcosmic form. The one thing the film got right was the crushed effect the media’s growing omnipresence has had on human existence. By the end of the movie, Marty and Doc no longer live in their own present or even seem consciously aware of its existence. Instead, they’re reduced to physically channel-surfing through their own lives. It isn’t too far a stretch to draw parallels between their anchorless, timeless existence and the impact of the Internet. To be continued, indeed.

 Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Crispin Glover  Director: Robert Zemeckis  Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale  Distributor: Universal Pictures  Running Time: 108 min  Rating: PG  Year: 1989  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Eric Henderson

Eric Henderson is the web content manager for WCCO-TV. His writing has also appeared in City Pages.

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