Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Today is the day, the distant future, to which Marty McFly travels in Back to the Future Part II, hurtling through time with Doc Brown to October 21, 2015. As predicted in the first film, Marty sees some serious shit — hoverboards, Pepsi Perfect, Jaws 19 playing in the local Holomax Cinema. Paradoxically, if Marty were to actually arrive today he’d find Back to the Future Part II re-released in cinemas instead, depicting the story of the day he traveled to October 21, 2015. He’d sit in the theater and have his recent past recounted and his impending timeline spoiled, which is an obvious time-travel no-no. His actions in the future would be influenced by the movie depicting his actions in the future, which would in turn change the 2015-set scenes of BttF2, which would in turn jeopardize Marty’s presence in that very theater, which would in turn jeopardize our ability to hypothesize about Marty’s presence in that very theater, which would in turn [head explodes].

The actual plot of Back to the Future Part II isn’t actually much simpler. If there are Ten Basic Ideas about time travel — meeting yourself, erasing stuff from existence, etc. — then three of them made it into the first movie and all ten of them were crammed into Part II, leaving Part III to differentiate itself by pretty much not being a time travel movie. But simple time paradoxes (paradoxi?) are for wimps — let’s have Michael J. Fox play a billion different roles, including three versions of Marty McFly! So silly!

So yeah, today is the day everyone and their futuristic mom is running a blog post called “What Back to the Future Got Right/Wrong About 2015″. Hoverboards? Don’t have ’em. Roads? Still need ’em. Widespread gentrification following an influx of double-tie-wearing middle-class white-collar workers? Spot on! Except for the double-tie bit, unfortunately. But everyone’s talking about that stuff already, and sure, that’s fun. Double ties aren’t ever going to be fashionable any more than the high-waisted pants from the future of Her, but it’s fun, man, because it’s funny. Robert Zemeckis and Co. put a hell of a lot of work into tiny little stuff like that with the sole purpose of it being funny, and then the plausibility of a ridiculous prediction also becoming an accurate one is definitely an added bonus. Two ties at once? Pah! Cubs win the World Series? Pah!

But Zemeckis’s Back to the Future movies demanded a hell of a lot of work on a larger scale, too, and all of the newspaper clippings and Holomax screenings and fashion choices would have fallen flat if not for a solid setting. The environments throughout the BttF flicks had to not only be “convincing” for each time period but also had to be recognizable as the same place, whether it’s the town center or the McFly residence or whatever. This is especially true of Part II, which encapsulated the ’50s and the ’80s (and the Bizarro-’80s) and 2015. Why is no one talking about that? In getting hung up on flying cars and Nikes that lace up automatically, it might be easy to forget that the grandest, most ambitious predictions Part II made were about the ways in which the settings around us are shaped by the so-called people in charge.

First, pull back and admit that a place is not the same thing as a place on film. Take New York City. It’s been filmed a kamillion different ways, reverently, cartoonishly, lazily, as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, as a glitzy town of promise and opportunity, as a stand-in for another city altogether, and as a thing that gets eaten up by a natural disaster in a handful of movies every year. Sometimes, though, an iteration of Movie New York reminds you of another Movie New York that you already know. The ’80s were especially guilty of this, and it was obvious that Zemeckis himself has a sweet spot for that when the city of his most recent film The Walk heavily recalled the city from 1984’s Ghostbusters, or 1982’s Tootsie; it’s an exuberant, clear place where you’re likely to bump into someone you know around the next corner. But take your pick. Scrooged turned NYC into the Gotham from Batman Returns in much the same way as Conspiracy Theory turned NYC into the Gotham from Batman Forever, basically for no reason other than the fact that Richard Donner only knew how to film a Big Apple movie one way. Except, wait, no, he didn’t, because that NYC from The Walk and Ghostbusters and Tootsie is pretty much that same blustery NYC that Donner turned into Metropolis for Superman.

Back to Back, where we can use the famous clocktower as our touchpoint. Here is an entire article about the cinematic history of that clocktower, BttF saga included, worth reading if just to note that only Zemeckis ever had cause or willpower to turn the clocktower into something other than the clocktower. In the ’50s, it’s a clocktower; in the ’80s, it’s a damaged landmark; in the Bizarro-’80s, though, it’s Biff Tannen’s casino/hotel/man cave. 2015? Is it a futuristic eco-friendly holotower? Is it digital? Actually, it’s closer to the ’50s iteration than anything else, only there’s a metal framework set behind the columns and a reflecting pool out front. So there’s some cool restraint on the part of Zemeckis there, especially considering how bonkers everything else looks.

But the far more impressive element, again, is the way in which Hill Valley feels like a product of the times or even a product of one man, and yet still feels like Hill Valley. Life transformed by technology is a staple of futuristic fiction, but still Back to the Future Part II doesn’t just swipe old Hill Valley away to make room for sleek skyscrapers and glass atriums. The tech is infused with the existing structures and transit ways, with life as it already flows. Sure, the small-scale stuff is funny and often spot-on, like the Skype-esque videoscreens and the delicious hydrated pizza dinners. But that sweeping shot of downtown Hill Valley in 2015 is possibly the greatest and richest in the entire trilogy, and despite the flying cars it’s still probably the most “accurate”.

And the Bizarro-’80s perversion of the clocktower into Biff’s Pleasure Paradise is the more satirical side of that, funny on the larger scale rather than just the trinket-sized one. Bizarro Biff is Terry Benedict from Ocean’s Eleven or Pacino’s Willy Bank from Thirteen, he’s Randall Flagg from The Stand; if he had a little more screentime and a little less hair on his chest, he’d be the title character from Steve Jobs. Bizarro Biff is the anomaly, the one man who changes the landscape of a place — physical, technological, what have you — all on his own, whether he deserves that honor or not. Happens all the time in Vegas, apparently. Come to think of it Biff Tannen looks a hell of a lot like Donald Trump, a guy who has his name on shit all over the place. It doesn’t matter how the name got there.

By choosing the Hill Valley clocktower as the Pleasure Paradise Back to the Future Part II suggests this anomalous quality to our otherwise cute little societies, and it’s doubly accurate for being an increasingly prevalent anomaly (to future readers reading in 2075: how did President Trump do?); thankfully, that’s what Back to the Future is all about: one man changing everything. And thankfully it’s Marty, not Biff, who wins that honor when all is said and done. But he’s still more comfortable in the present, in the familiar setting of Hill Valley, and if asked to do the whole thing over again he might just say no.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Then again, that’s the beauty of time travel: it’s never too late.

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