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Empire List #498: Back to the Future Part II

With movie trilogies I often find that the second part is always the best. Think about it: The “Godfather Part II,” “Shrek 2,” “Blade II,” and “The Dark Knight.” “Back to the Future Part II” confirms that theory and actually does what no other sequel has ever done before by literally going back to the first movie.

I first saw this movie in Peru in the late 90s with four fellow French-Canadian expatriates. We didn’t have many friends so every weekend or so I would drop by their house and we would kill as much time as possible before school would start again by swimming in their gigantic pool, jumping on the trampoline, and watching movies on VHS. That’s right, back then we were still using the good old VCRs, in which you insert a cassette, fast-forward through the commercials, watch the movie, and then rewind the tape for the next time. Sometimes we would watch some of the more violent movies from my collection, such as “Air Force One” and a few James Bond movies, much to the pleasure of the one boy in the group, and sometimes we would watch something from their collection, including the “Back to the Future” trilogy.

Picking up right where the first one left off, with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) realizing that his last trip in Doc Brown’s DeLorean has dramatically improved his life in 1985 and the doctor (Christopher Lloyd) picking him up and his girlfriend Jennifer (this time played by Elisabeth Shue) to take them to the year 2015 in order to help their future kids. So far so good. The doctor is using his machine for good and he wants to help the future children of his friend Marty. It’s an honourable way to use such a powerful device.

But along the way Marty gets greedy. At an antiques store he sees an almanac containing sport statistics of the last half of the 20th century and imagines how much money he could make gambling on what he and no one else will know. The doctor discovers his plan and is horrified that his friend would use his invention for such greedy purposes. Marty apologizes and throws the almanac away, but Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) Marty’s nemesis throughout the trilogy, overhears the plan and chooses to use it since he has no scruples about altering history for his own financial gains. He steals the DeLorean to give the almanac to himself in 1955 thus making him a millionaire in 1985.

When Marty and the Doc return to 1985 the town of Hill Valley looks like Las Vegas gone insane, hard as that may be to imagine. Biff has legalized gambling, taken control of the police, and worst of all married Lorraine (Lea Thompson), Marty’s mom. During a simple exposition scene involving a blackboard and chalk lines, the Doc explains to Marty that the only way to fix this mess is for them to figure out when Biff gave himself the almanac and destroy it before any damage is done to the timeline. Little do they know that the exact date is the one when Marty escapes from 1955 to go back to 1985, meaning that Marty could run into the version of himself from that day.

This is one of the many ways in which this movie is so clever. By going back to this exact date, it is as if the filmmakers are revisiting the first movie and there are scenes where the two Martys almost run into each other, which would be disastrous as it could cause a time paradox. Even the Doc hands a wrench to his doppelganger, who is busy setting up the lightning rods that will power the DeLorean to send Marty back to his rightful decade.

One of the joys in watching this movie a second or even a fifth time, and the entire trilogy for that matter, is spotting the many differences and similarities on the sets. Each movie takes place in the same city, Hill Valley, but at different points in history. In 2015 cars can fly, a 3D version of Jaws is being released, and skateboards can hover off the ground. In the alternate 1985 gangs roam the streets, the school has been shut down, and Biff lives in a hotel/casino. In 1955, you can hear a barbershop quartet singing “Mr. Sandman,” a black man who is the mayor in 1985 is working at the local ice cream parlour, and skateboards have not been invented yet. What never changes is the Doc who always has a dog named after a historical scientist, Biff who wants to own Lorraine, and Marty who can be provoked into a fight by being called a chicken, no matter the decade in which he is travelling.

When I saw Part II for the first time, I loved how director Robert Zemeckis managed to create thrilling moments, such as when Marty takes the almanac back from Biff’s car in a tunnel, jumps out and then realizes that Biff has turned around and intends to run him over. Marty looks ahead, sees the distance between him and the tunnel’s exit, and tries to make a break for it with the hover board from 2015. During moments like these Alan Silvestri’s great score really amps up the tension.

The ending is amazing since for a moment you believe that the Doc is gone, but then out of nowhere SCTV comedian Joe Flaherty shows up as a Western Union employee to deliver an envelope to Marty setting up the sequel to be in 1885. Indeed right after the last frame, the words “To be Concluded” appear on screen followed by a trailer of “Back to the Future Part III” which is set in the Wild West. I can only imagine what audiences in the 80s must have felt when they saw the world’s biggest movie teaser, but I was excited since I didn’t have to wait a year to see the conclusion: my fellow expatriates had part III on VHS as well.

Now I have the entire trilogy on DVD and maybe one day I will upgrade to Blu-Ray. In fact by 2015, which amazingly enough is only about 5 years from now, I might have to upgrade to 3D, just as the screenwriters predicted.         


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