Back to the Future Part II Revisited – Is the sequel better than the original?

Brace yourself for another time-traveling adventure as we reflect on Robert Zemeckis’ bold sequel for Back to the Future Part 2 Revisited.

The year was 1989 when Michael Keaton first donned the cape and cowl for Tim Burton’s Batman, Cher wanted to turn back time, and Marty McFly bungled the most sure-fire get-rich-quick scheme in cinematic history in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II.

After the monumental success of Back to the Future, Univeral Studios approached Robert Zemeckis about creating a sequel to his film that had quickly become a pop culture touchstone. Hesitant about capturing lightning in a bottle twice, Zemeckis said he wouldn’t make the film unless Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd returned as Marty McFly and Doc Brown, respectively. Thankfully, both were game to gas up the DeLorean and push the speedometer to 88mph for another excursion through time. With Fox and Lloyd confirmed, Zemeckis arranged his ceremonial objects to summon his writing partner, Bob Gale, to determine where Marty and Doc would travel next.

While Zemeckis was filming his hybrid animated masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Gale began scripting the time-traveling sequel. To the duo’s dismay, they quickly remembered that Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, played by Claudia Wells in the original, sits shotgun with Marty in the DeLorean in the classic film’s final scenes. Like it or not, Jennifer needed to be a part of the next clock-manipulating caper. Embracing the circumstances, Gale and Zemeckis began developing a plot to take Doc, Marty, and Jennifer into the hereafter to change a pivotal event in the couple’s future.

Back to the Future Part II Revisited, review, Joblo, Michael J. Fox

Speaking of the future, Back to the Future Part II abandons the cardigans and poodle skirts of the 1950s for an ambitious look at 2015, the year promising hoverboards, self-cleaning smart jackets, and holographic screenings of Jaws 19. While feeling excited about presenting audiences with a radical glimpse of the future, Zemeckis and Gale grew nervous about making far-flung predictions regarding technology and transportation in 2015. Some divinations, like hands-free gaming, waste-fuel cars, and biometric devices, came to fruition. Still, many await a world populated by robotic dog walkers, food hydrators, and flying cars. However, do we trust casual drivers to own and operate flying automobiles? Imagine the cost of gas, infrastructure planning, and the frustration of flying behind student drivers. I’ll stick to rubber tires on pavement, thank you very much!

The fact that I still remember my first screening of Back to the Future Part II is a testament to the sequel’s impact and lasting appeal. Ask anyone who knows me about my memory, and they’ll tell you it’s laughable garbage. Add a strong case of inattentive ADHD to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for an unreliable narrator. However, theater experiences tend to stick with me, and I’ll always remember when and where I watched Back to the Future Part II for the first time.

Released on November 22, 1989, as a pre-game to Thanksgiving in the United States, Back to the Future Part II sent 1.21 gigawatts to my brain as my imagination ran wild with visions of the years to come. At eight years old, my mom and I saw Back to the Future Part II at the Brookhaven Multiplex in Medford, New York. While Zemeckis’ time-traveling sequel played in a packed theater, the film reunited audiences with Doc and Marty and teased a radical future filled with tech that could alter the everyday lives of millions.

Jaws, Back to the Future Part II

While audiences sat slack-jawed at the promise of a tech-driven future and marveled at the cleanliness of Hill Valley’s busy city streets, Zemeckis’s sequel erred on the side of hope. It presented an ideal future where climate change is the stuff of science fiction, and the Chicago Cubs stand a chance of winning the World Series. Funnily enough, the Cubs achieved this feat in 2016, one year after Zemeckis’s playful jab at the players led by Clark, the mascot bear with the backward baseball cap.

Speaking about his depiction of the future on the film’s audio commentary, Zemeckis said the future scenes were his least enjoyable to film in the trilogy because he didn’t like predicting what lies ahead. Like in A Clockwork Orange, he preferred Kubrick’s depiction with an aesthetic akin to IKEA and NASA partnering for a fall collection of designer furniture. Rather than striving for precision, Zemeckis and Gale leaned into far-flung concepts, pipe dreams, and predictions made by actual scientists. Zemeckis’s school of thought was he could present the future as funny while possibly inaccurate.

Astonishingly, Back to the Future Part II was produced on a $40 million budget, which some would consider couch change by today’s lofty standards for a blockbuster film. The set-building and scripting process lasted two years, with the sequel serving as a landmark project for Industrial Light & Magic. While the effects shown in Back to the Future Part II appear dated compared to effects powerhouses like James Cameron’s Avatar franchise and Marvel’s superhero slugfests, Doc and Marty’s sophomore adventure was nothing short of jaw-dropping at the time of release. I can still hear the random gasps of audience members from my screening and recall my wide-eyed wonderment as Marty shredded through Hill Valley Square atop a “borrowed” pink and orange Mattel hoverboard.

Hoverboard, Back to the Future Part II

One of the crowning achievements of Back to the Future Part II was the film’s ability to make audiences believe that Zemeckis’s future was possible. The public desperately wanted to dream about driving flying cars or tricking like Tony Hawk with an anti-gravitational skateboard. Zemeckis fanned the flames of imagination in a behind-the-scenes featurette, saying the hoverboards featured in the film were real but would only be released to the public once the government could determine safety regulations. People fell for what was later dubbed the “Hoverboard Hoax,” hassling toy outlets like Toys ‘R’ Us and KB Toys for stock updates and expectations.

Other technological milestones include ILM’s maiden voyage into digital compositing, combining multiple images into a final display, and using the VistaGlide motion control camera system to film scenes featuring an actor playing numerous roles simultaneously. While Zemeckis used VistaGlide to film a scene of Michael J. Fox playing three separate characters at the same time, the characters Marty Sr., Marty Jr., and Marlene, a better example of this filming method is the 1996 comedy Multiplicity, starring Michael Keaton as a clone-happy contractor using science to gain more free time.

While planning Back to the Future Part II, screenwriter Bob Gale proposed adding a fourth act set in the Wild West. However, taking Doc and Marty to the American frontier meant pushing the runtime to two and a half hours with an estimated $60 million budget. When Universal shot the idea down faster than Marty, channeling his Wild Gunman skills to ping targets at Colt’s Patent Firearms, Gale returned to the drawing board. Reluctant to sunset his ideas for traveling to the Old West, Gale split the script in half, turning Back to the Future into a trilogy. Each film cost the studio $40 million to produce, with the projects shooting back-to-back over 11 months. Universal, while hesitant to pony up the dough, saw dollar signs in turning an already beloved property into a triple threat.

Back to the Future Part II

The day I saw Back to the Future Part II at the Brookhaven Multiplex, Universal attached a preview of the third film to tease audiences about the story’s continuation. If memory serves, this was the first time I’d seen a preview for a sequel attached to a film. I was only a kid, so I had yet to learn if foreknowledge was circulating throughout the science-fiction cinema community. I wasn’t the only one in the audience who was surprised because the moment the Back to the Future Part III teaser popped up, I remember hearing confusion and excitement amidst the crowd. My mom and I looked at each other then, silently understanding we’d return for Part III the following year.

Among the complications of filming Back to the Future Part II was what I’ll call the “Jennifer Problem.” As I’d said, Zemeckis and Gale never banked on making a Back to the Future sequel, so including Jennifer in the final scenes was of no consequence. When the sequel got green-lighted, Claudia Wells agreed to reprise her role, only a family cancer crisis kept her from returning. After bringing Elisabeth Shue aboard, Zemeckis re-shot the closing scenes of the original film to pair them with the sequel.

Another casting conundrum arose when Crispin Glover was asked to reprise the role of George McFly. Glover was interested but became reluctant when the producers offered him less than half the pay of other returning actors. However, Gale told reporters Glover’s reprisal came alongside superfluous demands that the studio was unprepared to meet. Instead, Jeffrey Weissman joined the cast as Glover’s replacement. Weissman wore a prosthetic chin, nose, and cheekbones to mirror Glover’s pointed features, with the character appearing in a limited capacity or in scenes where he’s obscured in some way.

Getting replaced didn’t sit well with Glover, who filed a lawsuit, saying the studio didn’t have the likeness rights to impersonate him for the film. The studio resolved the case outside the court, but only after clauses in the Screen Actors Guild had introduced guidelines for future complications within the industry.

While Zemeckis and Gale’s first vision of the future is bright, tidy, and brimming with optimism, an alternate version in the film’s latter half depicts a dystopian hellscape where Biff Tannen uses Marty’s Sports Almanac to amass a fortune and seize control of Hill Valley. Gale told reporters he took inspiration from Donald Trump for Biff’s radical depiction of a wealthy tycoon, blissfully unaware of the mogul’s position of influence in the years to come.

Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II earned $332 million worldwide, but critics and audiences were equally divided on the sequel’s quality. While some were delighted by the film’s slapstick comedy, far-fetched visions of the future, and whip-smart chemistry between Doc and Marty, others dogged the sequel for failing to capture the original’s magic. One critic condemned Zemeckis for scenes featuring Micheal J. Fox in drag, referring to when the actor plays Marty’s daughter in the future. The same critic noted one of my chief concerns with the film, and that’s how Jennifer’s role is reduced to little more than a sleeping beauty to circumvent her involvement with pivotal events. In my opinion, the Bobs could have spent more time on Jennifer’s participation and portrayed her as more than a confused and fainting bystander in her own destiny.

While Back to the Future Part II does not hold as much nostalgic cache for me as the original, I still adore the film for its bold swings, creative storytelling, and outstanding character chemistry. While other movies set in the future tend to take the concept to foreign and unattainable places, Back to the Future Part II gave audiences a hereafter people could believe in. I doubt I’ll see a flying car in my lifetime, but try to imagine watching this film in 1989 and not feeling like much of what was on screen is achievable.

In 1989, what dazzled me most about cinema was the medium’s ability to transport us into remarkable worlds populated by what-ifs and energized by imagination. Having always been a freak for special effects, Back to the Future Part II introduced me to untold levels of ingenuity and execution of ideas. When you pair that magic with lovable characters, madcap story elements, and the promise of taking the setting of the third film in a radically different direction, you’ve got a recipe for one of cinema’s most enigmatic and inspiring experiments. Back to the Future Part II might not be perfect, but it’s a moment in time that could last an eternity in pop culture, and I’ll be damned if Doc and Marty’s second trip through time didn’t pave the way for science fiction cinema to go big or go home on the silver screen.

Source: JoBlo

About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.