Back to the Future Part II

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Bob Gale (story by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale)
Stars: Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Marty McFly Jr. / Marlene McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen / Griff), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland), J.J. Cohen (Skinhead), Casey Siemaszko (3-D), Billy Zane (Match), Jeffrey Weissman (George McFly), Charles Fleischer (Terry), E. Casanova Evans (Michael Jackson Video Waiter), Jay Koch (Ronald Reagan Video Waiter), Charles Gherardi (Ayatollah Khomeini Video Waiter), Ricky Dean Logan (Data)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1989
Country: U.S.
Back to the Future Trilogy Blu-Ray Box Set

Back to the Future Part IIBack to the Future Part II, the highly anticipated first of two sequels to the unexpected smash hit of 1985, is one-half a very bad movie and one-half a very good movie. Interestingly, the badness of the first half of the film can be laid squarely at the feet of the original film, in which cowriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who had no idea their screwball time-travel story would become a blockbuster and inspire--nay, demand--sequels, wrote themselves into something of a corner in the film’s last five minutes.

In that final scene, ’80s teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) had successful traversed the space-time continuum by ensuring romance between his parents back in 1955 and, in the process, inadvertently made life better for himself materially and emotionally. Zemeckis and Gale then wrote in a last-minute joke in which his wild inventor friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), returns from the future in his time-machine DeLoreon and informs Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer that “something has to be done” about their kids! The film then ends with Doc, Marty, and Jennifer literally flying off into the future, a scenario on which Zemeckis and Gale had no intention of following through because they never imagined they would make a second film (they were just hoping to break even). Thus, when it came time to write the sequel, they had no choice but to make good on the original’s ending, which seems open enough to yield plenty of possibilities, but apparently hamstrung the filmmakers into a silly and illogical sequence of events in the year 2015.

Granted, there is always something inherently intriguing and exciting about seeing the future envisaged on screen, and Back to the Future Part II certainly has its way with the small town of Hill Valley in 2015, imagining it as a brightly colored, bustling burg of tomorrow filled with crazy fashions, robotic gas station attendants, and holographic movie marquees. There is something decidedly Disneyesque about the film’s depiction of the future, as if the production designers took most of their inspiration from Tomorrowland’s idea of what the future would look like back in the ’50s. Since they flew off at the end of the first film, it is inescapable that there must be flying cars in the future, quite possibly the biggest cliché of futuristic stories (the only movie I can think of that made them seem anything other than implausible and distracting is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner). The ending also forced Zemeckis and Gale to include Jennifer, a generally uninteresting peripheral character who they quickly dispense with via a fainting episode that lasts the better part of two whole movies (it also doesn’t help that actress Claudia Wells, who played the role in the original, was not available, so she had to be replaced with Elisabeth Shue).

The real problem, however, is the scenario that Zemeckis and Gale concoct, which involves Marty having to impersonate his goofy twentysomething son and turn down an invitation to take part in a bank robbery being planned by Griff (Thomas F. Wilson), the grandson of Biff (also played by Wilson), Hill Valley’s perpetual bully. We can imagine that Marty Jr. might look quite a bit like his father looked around the same age, but the idea that the latter could impersonate the former with a simple change of futuristic clothes and get away with it is asking for a little too much suspension of disbelief, especially since we have already had to work quite hard to believe that Fox, who was 28 at the time, was still a teenager (that is, when he’s not awkwardly playing his own daughter or himself in middle age, a loser of a character that defies Doc’s admonition at the beginning that he and Jennifer turn out “fine”).

The scenario doesn’t work at all, especially on repeated viewings when it becomes patently clear that it exists solely to (1) allow Zemeckis to engage in a goofy recreation of the original’s skateboard chase scene around the town square, except this time with hoverboards, and (2) to set up a series of events that will set into motion the film’s real agenda, which involves old Biff hijacking the time machine, going back to 1955, and giving his teenage self a sports almanac that will allow him to bet on any sporting event and never lose, thus ensuring massive amounts of wealth that cause the creation of an alternate 1985 where Biff is a powerful and corrupt magnate who has turned Hill Valley into a Mad Max-like ghetto. In this alternate 1985, Marty’s father George (played in make-up and from behind by Jeffrey Weissman since Crispin Glover declined to reprise the role) has been killed and his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is now Biff’s bitter wife, which leads to this section’s one truly funny moment, when Marty responds to her obvious breast implants with, “Mom ... you’re so ... ah ... you’re so ... ah ... big.”

It is a strange turn of events, but one that works, especially when it drives us into the film’s second half, which involves Marty and Doc going back to 1955 (again) to stop Biff from getting the almanac. This allows Zemeckis to not rehash the pleasures of the original film (as in the hoverboard chase sequnce), but to literally revisit them from an entirely different perspective. Thus, we have Marty navigating the same events that we saw in Back to the Future, but this time he must avoid his other self from the first movie to keep from messing up that sequence of events while carrying out the mission of getting the almanac back from Biff and thus avoiding the alternate 1985. If you don’t think about it too much, the logic holds up pretty well, and Zemeckis invests more than enough energy in the suspense and comedy to keep us from asking too many questions. There might be a little bit too much going on at the end--a case of bigger not necessarily being better--but it moves along smoothly enough to the surprise, cliffhanger of an ending that, thankfully, led to a better sequel in Part III.

Back to the Future Part II Blu-Ray
Back to the Future Part II is available on Blu-Ray in the “Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy” Blu-Ray box set, which also includes Back to the Future (1985) and Back to the Future Part III (1990). Each film is also available in the box set as a downloadable Digital Copy on a second disc.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish DTS 5.1 surround
  • French DTS 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Q&A commentaries with director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale
  • Audio commentaries with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton
  • Tales from the Future six-part retrospective documentary
  • “The Physics of Back to the Future” featurette
  • Nuclear Test Site Ending storyboard sequence
  • 16 deleted scenes
  • Michael J. Fox Q&A
  • “Making the Trilogy: Chapters One, Two & Three” original 2002 DVD documentary
  • “The Making of Back to the Future Part I, II & III” featurettes
  • “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy” TV special
  • Behind-the-scenes
  • Outtakes
  • Original makeup tests
  • Production design
  • Storyboarding
  • Designing the DeLorean
  • Designing Time Travel
  • Hoverboard Test
  • Designing Hill Valley
  • Designing the Campaign
  • Back to the Future: The Ride footage
  • Huey Lewis and the News “Power of Love” music video
  • ZZ Top “DoubleBack” music video
  • Photo galleries, including Production Art, Additional Storyboards, Photographs, Marketing Materials, and Character Portraits
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorUniversal Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 26, 2010

    All three films in the Back to the Future trilogy have been given impressive new 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfers in their original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio that look simply wonderful. Granted, the transfers have not given the films the ultra-sharp look of contemporary cinema, but that is probably the best thing you can say about them: They look like they did when first released in 1985, 1989, and 1990, which is to say there is a certain amount of softness to the image that is inherent to both the original cinematography and the heavy reliance on optical effects that naturally degrade the image (although the two sequels do look slightly sharper than the original). The high-definition transfers have all three films looking better than they ever have on home video, and they represent a nice step up from the previously available DVDs (especially Part II and Part III, which were misframed during the transfer in some scenes). Without any noticeable DNR or artificial sharpening the images provide a strong level of detail and nuance, and colors look richer and brighter than ever, particularly in the second two films (notice how vibrant the red dirt is in the Monument Valley scenes in Part III). Black levels look good, with just enough grain to remind us that, yes, these films were shot on celluloid. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtracks are likewise impressive, giving Alan Silvestri’s immediately memorable orchestral score an appropriately grand sense of scope and depth (the more I watch these films, the more I realize how absolutely vital his music is to their effectiveness). The various sound effects, from the familiar whirl of the DeLoreon’s engine to the clanging of the clock tower, are immersive and clean. Universal has done an outstanding job in presenting these films, and at this point, I can’t imagine we could ask for them to look or sound better.
    The worst thing you can say about the impressive array of supplementary material included in this multi-disc set is that there is a fair amount of redundancy, but that is to be expected when you have this many supplements covering every element of the films’ conception, production, reception, and eventual legacy. Back to the Future fans should be very pleased with the effort Universal has made in treating the trilogy’s 25th anniversary with great fanfare.

    Let’s start with the new stuff. The big addition is Tales from the Future, a new six-part retrospective documentary that runs more than three hours total and includes interviews with most of the major participants: actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson, director Robert Zemeckis, producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, and executive producer Steven Spielberg. There isn’t necessarily a lot of new information here, but it is great to see everyone talking about the film a quarter-century later. The other big deal with this documentary is the fact that it includes a few bits of the fabled Eric Stoltz footage, although it amounts to less than a minute total and has no accompanying sound, which is a bit of a disappointment. I understand why this footage is not being made available in its entirety, but it sure would be cool to see it. Also new is “The Physics of Back To The Future, a featurette in which best-selling physicist (and obvious Back to the Future fan) Dr. Michio Kaku discusses the scientific realities behind time travel as depicted in the films. Another noteworthy addition is a storyboard sequence (with optional commentary by Gale) for the never-filmed originally intended ending of Back to the Future in which Doc and Marty go out to the New Mexico desert to drive the DeLoreon into a test nuclear explosion to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity (thank God it was too expensive and the idea was scrapped). This section also includes outtakes and a few minutes of video make-up tests from the original for old Biff, Doc, and Lorraine. Each film also gets its own new screen-specific commentary with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, which supplements the previously available Q&A commentaries by Zemeckis and Gale, which were recorded after screenings of the films at USC. Blu-Ray technology also allows for the inclusion of U-Control, which offers optional pop-ups items throughout the films: a basic trivia track, a “Setups and Payoffs” feature that shows you how elements throughout the trilogy are interwoven, and a storyboard comparison view.

    The rest of the supplements will be familiar to those who bought the DVD box set back in 2002, but it’s nice to have everything included in one place. So, we get a Q&A with Michael J. Fox, a total of 16 deleted scenes from all three films that have been culled from the cutting room floor and are presented with optional commentary by Gale (the quality of these scenes range from old videotape to very nearly pristine), and a host of shorter featurettes on Production Design, Storyboarding, Designing the DeLorean, Designing Time Travel, Hoverboard Test, Designing Hill Valley, and Designing the Campaign. Also included is the original footage shot for Universal Studio’s now dismantled Back to the Future ride, music videos for Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” and ZZ Top’s “DoubleBack,” extensive photo galleries (Production Art, Additional Storyboards, Photographs, Marketing Materials and Character Portraits), and theatrical trailers for all three films. It is also nice to have on hand the original 2002 multipart retrospective documentary Making the Trilogy: Chapters One, Two & Three, as well as vintage making-of featurettes for all three films made during the time of their release. Also of interest (and amusement) is footage from two NBC television specials, “Back to the Future Night” hosted by Leslie Nielsen and “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy” hosted by Kirk Cameron, that were aired to help build momentum toward the release of the two sequels.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Universal Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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