Great Scott! The dazzling design of Back To The Future Part II
Mark Harrison | On 17, Dec 2017
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F Wilson, Lea Thompson, Elisabeth Shue
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“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” The ending of Back To The Future was never meant to lead directly into a sequel. But when the film became the biggest box office smash of 1985, earning four Oscar nominations and universal acclaim, follow-ups were all but inevitable.
At the end of the previous film, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) comes back from the future to whisk Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) and his girlfriend Jennifer (fluctuating from Claudia Wells to Elisabeth Shue in the pre-titles scene here) off to the future to do something about their kids. The first of two sequels, filmed back-to-back in 1989, Back to the Future II kicks off into 2015, visits an alternate 1985 and then returns to 1955. You could never say that it’s short on ideas.
But the sequel is perhaps best remembered for its 30-year flash-forward in the first act, and that’s largely down to the superb production design. One of the big visual tricks in the first film was to dress the Hill Valley town square differently for two different time periods, 1955 and 1985, while still being recognisable as the same place. We get more than one reprise of that here, starting when Zemeckis, Gale and production designer Rick Carter imagine a positive future for the town, as opposed to the dystopias that usually pre-occupy sci-fi cinema.
Inspired by the way in which World’s Fair memorabilia would show overly optimistic predictions for the future, they decided to have a little fun with their vision of how things could change in just 30 years. They were committed to the flying car, after the final shot of Part I, but this was also a world with hoverboards (in a chase scene that rhymes with Marty’s previous skateboarding exploits), self-lacing shoes and 19 Jaws movies.
“It’s an attempt to stimulate in the time it was made. It wasn’t made for now,” said Carter in 2015. “It was about projecting from a very exuberant sense we had at the time being young until now.”
Taken in good faith, it’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t actually anticipate that this would all come to pass, as so many joked about when 2015 came and went without flying cars or movie marquees bearing a giant hologrammatic shark. But they did anticipate that 3D would make a comeback in the 2010s, and when you think about it, they designed a fair few innovations that really have come to pass.
By 2015, we really did have multi-channel TV, flat-screens, unmanned miniature drones, tablet computers, fingerprint scanning technology, video chat, targeted animated billboards and wearable technology, such as VR headsets. Carter, who would later win Oscars for his work on James Cameron’s Avatar and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, brought all of this to life some 25 years ahead of time.
But it’s not just about the future. Most of the cast play their characters at different ages here with somewhat mixed results, but it’s absolute comedy gold every time Thomas F. Wilson gets to play the same asshole, interacting with himself at different points in his life to help change his own history and get rich off of sports results.
This Crisis Of Infinite Biffs leads to the second town square redressing, as it’s demolished for the alternative 1985 where he rules the town. By planting the dystopia in the relative present, there’s an interesting subversion of the usual time travel tropes, which rings especially true today, given how Biff’s dreadful playground was so obviously inspired by one very tacky rich guy of the 1980s. If Doc and Marty didn’t restore the timeline with an audacious revisitation of the first film’s ending, Biff might even have wound up being President one day.
The threat to the space-time continuum here shows boundless imagination, but without the lengthy development period that went into the first film’s script, Part II struggles to contain itself and winds up being a messier, more hyperactive affair. If we could pinpoint one major difference that makes this a weaker film than either Part I or Part III, it’s that time travel is always the cause and solution to all of the dramatic problems, and there’s less tension as a result.
The romance of the first film is seriously lacking too. Gale has admitted that they never would have let Jennifer get into the car at the end of Part I if they knew they were making sequels, but she’s squandered here, despite Shue being a very game newcomer. She’s knocked out almost immediately and Marty pretty much forgets about her so that the film can.
The movie paradoxically crosses itself a lot, but forsakes the romance of the original in the process. However, it’s saved by its sense of humour and the cliffhanger, a deliberate one this time, is a doozy too. 1955 Doc’s perfect reaction to Marty coming “back from the future” immediately after sending him off is hilarious every time.
Back To The Future Part II is still a fast and funny follow-up to the classic first movie, even though you can see why it has a reputation as the difficult middle chapter. Still, its design credentials are impeccable, and it’s a romping visual effects showcase that never fails to delight.
Back to the Future Part II is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.