WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: During a short trip to 2015 to sort out a problem with his future family, Marty McFly’s error of judgement unleashes a disastrous re-working of fate: in an alternative 1985, his father’s former nemesis, Biff Tannen, becomes the vulgar plutocrat of Hill Valley and only Marty – accompanied by ‘Doc’ Brown, of course – can put the ‘present’ back to the way it should be.
If you thought that 1985’s Back to the Future was a smashing little nugget of 80s entertainment – and that the final scene was nothing more than a jokey pay-off – you were far from alone. However, box office returns made a comeback inevitable, so four years after we left Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Emmet Brown (Christopher Brown) outside the newly-refined McFly household, we come back at the exact moment that Doc whisks Marty and girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue, replacing Claudia Wells) off to 2015 in the now-flying DeLorean, in an effort to prevent Marty’s son Marty Jr. from screwing up his life. Doc hypnotises Jennifer, Men in Black-style, to calm her down whilst Marty Sr. sorts out their oblivious son’s issues in time-honoured fashion, giving a strangely familiar Griff (Thomas F. Wilson) the run-around in the colourful centre of Hill Valley.
Meanwhile, the prostrate Jennifer is taken ‘home’ by the police, where she glimpses the McFly family’s less than idyllic future before Marty stages a rescue. Worse, Marty’s cunning plan to make a quick buck by taking a sports almanac back to 1985 backfires horrendously when an aged Biff (Wilson again) takes the DeLorean and delivers it to his young self in 1955. When Marty and Doc Brown arrive back in 1985, Hill Valley is altered out of all recognition: Biff’s infallible gambling has made him the unfettered ruler of the town, his seedy casino dominating the place; not only that, but Biff is Marty’s bullying stepfather, Lorraine McFly (Lea Thompson) suffering for the sake of her kids in the absence of George, cruelly murdered back in the seventies. This present is hardly one worth living in, so Marty and Doc resolve to retrieve the almanac from young Biff back in the fifties – without (for their own good, and the survival of the time-space continuum as a whole) running into their previous incarnations.
Rarely has a movie front-loaded its weaknesses like Back to the Future Part II. As is often the case with unplanned sequels, the plot quickly becomes complicated and contrived, and while the rehash of the diner scene (here, Marty rescues his son from Griff, not his dad from Biff) is reassuringly familiar, the venture into the McFly family home feels half-baked, with a redundant plot about Marty’s work troubles and an equally pointless appearance from his parents (though not, famously, Crispin Glover). Furthermore, Marty’s uncharacteristic moment of avarice in buying the almanac prompts us to feel that the disastrous consequences that follow serve him right. Another issue is that the opening – the whole film, in fact – leans heavily on Thomas F. Wilson as both Griff and Biff at various stages of his life; he’s not terrible, but he struggles to muster the presence required from his vastly expanded role. Shue is also surprisingly annoying as Jennifer, though it must have been difficult to step into another actresses’ shoes.
Because Part II starts so poorly, the attention wanders from the plot and some decent guesses as to what 2015 might look like – the in-joke about Jaws 19, the prescient flat-screen TVs, the much-loved hoverboards* – towards less successful details: the retro-80s café, for example, doesn’t work at all (video waiters?), and the product placement is horrendous – since many of the brands are the same, I wonder whether this was the film that suggested Wayne’s World’s unsubtle mockery. Unfortunately, matters don’t improve much in the ‘new’ 1985, with Biff and his moronic cronies keeping Marty and a surgically-enhanced Lorraine (Thompson, acting gamely but looking ridiculous) under their thumb, and Marty discovering the terrible truth about his father – and I don’t mean the fact that the studios wouldn’t pay Glover what he asked for yet used his face anyway. This section, with Biff’s bathmates and his murderous confessions, is particularly un-family-friendly, though other adult-oriented and off-key jokes mean the same is true of the film as a whole.
Although the movie’s defects initially overwhelm the things that are still great about Back to the Future – Fox’s natural warmth, Lloyd’s bug-eyed dramatics, the theme tune – Part II redeems itself almost completely as it shifts into its final Act and Marty and Doc return to 1955 to retrieve the almanac. To do this, Marty has to re-visit the ‘Enchantment under the Sea’ Dance where he is already saving the day for his parents and rocking out on guitar; and the ease with which Zemeckis orchestrates the action, so that the events of the first film are replayed with fresh layers of interaction from ‘Marty II’ and ‘Doc II’, is little short of genius.
The paradoxical implications of the whole thing should be mind-bending, yet the climax plays out with the lightness and intelligence of comparable work such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (the Bill and Ted movies are a different kettle of fish, so I won’t go there). Moreover, this section concentrates on Fox’s efforts to save the day in a series of semi-comic action scenes, which is undoubtedly what the director directs best.
Back to the Future Part II is a movie beset with problems, some of which I’ve not yet mentioned: what happens to Doc’s insistence on not interfering with history (and presumably, by extension, the future)? More importantly, if he’s forsaken that rule, might Doc not just tell 1985’s Marty and Jennifer what pitfalls to avoid when raising their kids? And it’s deliberately constructed around pointers towards the Wild West theme of Part III, meaning that the end isn’t a proper end at all, just a demand for more of your money at the box office in six months’ time. Finally, the effects are generally good but distinctly unspecial in places. However, while it’s as compromised as most sequels made because of a financial imperative, Part II has just enough going for it to be worth a watch and – due in large part to the cleverness of the last act – maintains interest in the final instalment.
NOTES: This doesn’t count.