After years of having to deal with false Facebook posts, today is finally, for real, Back to the Future day. Today, October 21, 2015 (at 4:29pm) is the day when Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and Jennifer Parker arrive at the future in Back to the Future Part II. The Back to the Future series has long been one of my favorites, and I’m looking forward to seeing Part II on the big screen this evening for the first time. But while I’ve written about the first film previously on the blog, I’ve never taken a look at Part II before and today is as good a day as any. I’m sure Back to the Future will be all over the internet today, and most of the articles will focus on how 2015 looked to those in 1985 (which is always the fun of time travel movies), I’d rather look at the film itself, its place in the story, and how it ties into and enhances the themes of the series.
Back to the Future is practically a perfect film, and I could spend pages and pages writing about every aspect of the film. The Delorean is one of my all-time favorite movie vehicle, the casting has become iconic at this point, and the writing has only continued to improve and grow funnier with age (“Ronald Reagan? The actor?!?”) and the passing of another generation between its release and today. It has one of my favorite scores of all time, particularly in how different it feels from other movies of the era. Alan Silvestri is a musical genius, and his score can make a simple skateboard chase feel like and edge-of-your-seat action sequence. The melding of Huey Lewis and other 1980s music with classics from the 50s works so well that I can’t imagine a modern version of Back to the Future working at all. Add in loads of quotable dialogue, excellent and often overlooked makeup work, and the greatest cliffhanger ending in all of cinema, and the result is in my mind a masterpiece.
The mistake that most people make with the Back to the Future movies is the same one made by most writers of time travel: they focus on the sci-fi trappings and ignore the characters and the story. Time travel as a plot device (just like any plot device) is only as good as its ability to make you feel. I love the Delorean, and I have great fun watching a kid from the 1980s trying to fit in during the 50s, but what makes Back to the Future special is the way time travel is just a device to allow Marty to reexamine his assumptions about his parents, his life, and how he came to be, all while learning a little something about himself in the process. The climax of Back to the Future doesn’t take place at the clock tower with a bolt of lightning, it takes place in a high school gym, where Marty picks up a guitar and finally lets go of his self-doubt in order to embrace what was inside him all along, something he had just witnessed his father do moments before. Everything that happens afterwards, despite how exciting and fun the film’s conclusion is, is merely the resolution of the story. Marty returns to the future with a new respect for his parents, a new respect for himself, and a new outlook on life.
Part II, however, takes a decidedly different tack. While the first film uses time travel as a bookend and setup for Marty’s growth (both personal and in his understanding of his family), Part II puts the time travel element front and center, covering three different eras, alternate timelines, plots to change the future, paradoxes, and a few inevitable plot holes. It’s more of a “time travel movie” than either of the other films, splitting up its time fairly evenly between 1955, 1985, and 2015. Yet like its predecessor, the time travel is merely a tool for more emotional storytelling. While the first film focused the personal journey of a single character, Part II is concerned with larger questions that affect us all yet still viewed through the lens of Marty’s own experience.
Part II revolves around the lifelong consequences of a single decision or moment, and how our personalities and attitudes can affect the future. The look at a futuristic 2015 is fun, but the meat of the story is the look at 47-year-old Marty’s life. Marty’s life looks idyllic, with all the trappings of a “modern” 2015 life, but we quickly start to see cracks in the façade of his life. The technology that runs his household is in disrepair and he has an unfulfilling ordinary job, far from the rockstar life he’d imagined. And it’s all because of one fateful moment where he crashed into a Rolls-Royce, alluded to throughout Part II and Part III. Marty’s never-back-down attitude and the ability of others to goad him into doing anything by calling him chicken seem like inconsequential personality quirks, but viewed 30 years down the road that attitude has changed both Marty and the life he wanted for himself and Jennifer.
Armed with this, somewhat unclear, knowledge of his possible future, the question becomes what will Marty do with it. If we knew the full consequences of our choices, would we change them and go against our instinct? It’s an idea that is set up in Part II, offering one clear example of the consequences of Marty’s actions with the “Grays Sports Almanac” that almost cost him his very existence. It comes up again in Part III in 1885, when Mad Dog Tannen calls Marty out as a chicken, setting them up for a shootout with Marty’s pseudonym appearing on the picture of Doc’s gravestone from the future. With photographic evidence of his death, Marty avoids the fight, changing his future and showing he can go against his nature when his life depends on it. But the ultimate test is whether he can make that same decision again when he doesn’t know the immediate stakes, a test he ultimately passes at the end of Part III, when he refuses to be goaded into the very drag race that would have sent him headfirst into the Rolls-Royce, setting up the depressing future he’d built for himself. The vanishing of the “You’re Fired” printout from the future is the payoff to both a character journey and a philosophical exercise that have their foundation in Part II.
The other half of the coin with Part II takes place in the past, and is an expansion on ideas from the first film. At the end of Back to the Future, Marty returns home to a new family and a new life due to his actions on November 12, 1955, clearly surprised at the impact a few small changes could have. When he returns to 1985 to 2015 in Part II, he sees a different sort of change, with his present turned into a hellish landscape lorded over by Biff. So when he returns to that fateful night in 1955, he has an entirely different perspective on events. The second half of Part II is all about how a particular moment might not seem special at the time but in hindsight becomes hugely significant. Doc even makes a reference to this, stating “Unbelievable that old Biff could have chosen that particular date. It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance.”
The obvious answer is the one Doc gives a moment later, “On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.” But the lesson of Part II is that there are some moments in our lives that are “bigger” than others, that have a more important part to play. And while Marty now knows that that particular night has extra significance to not only his life but the lives of those around him, we don’t know just what moment might be our Enchantment Under the Sea dance, so we have to live each moment as if it might be. But the truth is there will be moments that stick out in our minds when we look back at our lives, whether for good or bad. Just as Marty and his parents would look back at the dance as a positive, where they took big steps for themselves and their families, Biff would look back at it as a lost opportunity, so it makes sense that he’d chose that moment to which to return. Much as Marty’s future was changed by his choice not to race, the choices we’ve made or didn’t make in the past have helped shape who we are today. Learning and accepting that helps us to treat each moment as special, because we never know what impact it might have.
Of course, Back to the Future Part II is also just lots of fun. From hoverboards, self-lacing shoes, and Pepsi Perfect to nightmarish, Donald Trump-esque alternate realities to replaying the past from a new angle, there’s a lot to love in Part II. And that’s not even looking into Part III, which ties the trilogy up nicely while taking things in a completely different direction. But on this day when the past meets the future here in the present, I couldn’t let today pass without taking a look beyond the surface of the middle film of one of my favorite film series.