Even during his 80’s blockbuster phase, director Robert Zemeckis seemed to relish making things ridiculously difficult for himself. Even before he was manipulating technology to forcibly insert Forrest Gump into history or to figure out how to twist Meryl Streep’s head all the way around in Death Becomes Her, he was driving himself and Bob Hoskins to the point of a mental breakdown by making believe the toons from our childhood were as real and solid as you or me thanks to the unparalleled genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However, even these feats pale into comparison in the face of Back To The Future Part II, arguably one of the most complicated blockbusters of the 80’s both technically and in its brain searing plot that sees us hurled (at 88 miles an hour, of course) through numerous time periods as its cast portrays numerous versions of their characters over a 60 year period. But does such a complex boost to the beloved, 1985 classic overturn the original’s farcical simplicity, or to use Marty’s catchphrase, do things get way too heavy?
After the events that saw hyperventilating, 1980’s teen Marty McFly take an inadvertent trip to 1955 in his inventor buddy’s Delorean time machine and accidentally screw up the coupling of his own parents, all finally seems well as Marty’s adventure seems to have changed everyone’s present for the better. However, when the eccentric Doc Brown returns from the future with dire news of what lays ahead for Marty and girlfriend Jennifer’s family in the year 2015.
Using the Delorean (which naturally now flies) to zap thirty years into the future, Doc, Marty and Jennifer embark on a typically chaotic, Back To The Future style caper that involves hoverboards, bionic bullies and a revelation that Marty’s future ends up not being as glamorous as he hoped. However, in an attempt to make a couple of sly bucks on the side by purchasing a sports almanac that details every team wins from the previous decades, Marty acciedently causes an alternate 1985 where notorious bully Biff Tannen is one the richest men in the world as is married to Marty’s mother after his father’s suspicious death.
Doc Brown surmised that at some point (pay attention now), 2015 Biff must have taken the almanac all the way back to 1955 and given it to his younger self which in turn has caused this nightmarish present, so both Marty and him have to back to the past to make sure Biff never hands that bloody book to himself – however, the catch is that the time Biff went back to is the exact same week Marty originally got stuck in the past. In order to save 1985, Marty is not only going to have to get the almanac, but make sure he doesn’t affect the other version of himself who is desperately trying to get… back to the future.
Kind of an anomaly within the Back To The Future trilogy where Parts I & III are relatively simple (in comparison) and deals with Michael J. Fox’s hot headed Marty merely being stranded in a single time with a ticking clock in place to ratchet up the tension, Part II is almost overwhelmingly frenzied, breathlessly ricocheting between not only 3 separate time periods and an alternate present, but also sees members of the cast play past, present, future and alternate versions of themselves and in some instances even their own kids. It’s a monumental amount of detail to cram into a single blockbuster and it’s made infinitely more complex by staging its final third parallel to the events of the first film and it’s an accomplishment that really doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Is it simply too much to absorb? Maybe. In fact there’s times when you think that Christopher Lloyd’s breathless Doc Brown is in very real danger of succumbing to a massive aneurysm while delivering any one of the numerous exposition dumps required to keep any stragglers up to date with the constantly shifting status quo, but on the other hand this is blockbuster cinema that essentially has the unmitigated chutzpah to move in four fuckin’ dimensions in order to pull off a spot of paradoxical slapstick. So there’s that.
Refreshingly, Zemeckis manages to counteract exploding any of the frontal lobes of the audience by channeling such a advanced concept into a bunch of deliriously plotted action set pieces that riff on the original movie in ways that no sequel had managed to do so before.
The entire cast seems to be having a ball and Fox in particular is obviously getting a kick out of playing his own dopey kids and a washed up version of himself (who hangs around with a middle aged Flea, for some reason) and Thomas F. Wilson’s villainous Biff reaches suprisingly dark heights.
If there’s any issues to be raised, it’s that in its efforts to overlay its action almost solely within the framework of the first movie (even the 2015 set piece is a futuristic redo of the skateboard chase of the original), Back To The Future Part II almost neglects to create any of its own, therefore leaving itself weirdly unable to separate itself from its predecessor and stand on it’s own feet like Part III does. There’s also the strange matter of some of the future section burying itself under tons of dated in-jokes and questionable tech – I don’t particularly trust motorists on the ground in 2022, let alone airborne ones in a fictional 2015 and is it really wise for just anyone to have access to gadget that instantly can just render someone unconscious? The final issue that Part II has to gird itself is one that which plagues all trilogies and that’s the fact that the dreaded “middle film” syndrome means that Part II simply doesn’t have an actual ending to technically call its own (although a pre-credits coda helpfully informs us that matters with eventually be resolved in the Old West).
But even with a huge weight of its gonzo premise causing the the structural integrity of the plot to groan a time or two, the technical expertise used to get different versions of the characters to interact is jaw dropping seamless, especially when you consider that it was made in 1989 and it makes a mockery of all those shoddy split screen antics movies had to contend with years prior.
While admittedly hobbled a tad by the sheer enormity of what it’s trying to realise on screen, Back To The Future Part II mercifully never forgets to sacrifice fun while obsessively expanding and experimenting with the limitations of what a sequel can be (I was tempted to give it five stars for its balls alone) and as a result, offers up a truly original experience while mainly crazily riffing on old ideas that results in a spirited blockbuster that’s fittingly… ahead of it’s time.