“Back to the Future Part II” is one of the best sequels ever made about sequels. The movie has a poor reputation amongst those who see it as a pale imitation of the original film. What those critics fail to realize is that the film itself acknowledges that inferiority, and the inherent inferiority of all sequels, within its rather brilliant construction. It’s a movie about overcompensating as much as it is a movie about time travel.
Though released four years after the first “Back to the Future,” “Part II” picks up exactly where the first film left off. Time travel inventor and DeLorean enthusiast Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travel to the year 2015 with Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) to prevent Marty’s son from participating in a bank robbery. While there, Marty finds an almanac that lists every sports score from the second half of the twentieth century and plans to bring it back to the past to make money gambling on the winners. Though Doc changes Marty’s mind, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) steals Doc’s time machine and gives the almanac to himself as a teenager, creating an alternate 1985 where he is the richest and most powerful man in America. To correct this nightmarish alternate reality Doc and Marty next travel to 1955, to the exact time and place of the events of the first “Back to the Future,” to steal the almanac back from Biff and ensure he can’t use it to rewrite history.
All sequels face the same creative challenge: balancing the audience’s desire to see what they liked from the original film again with their desire to see things that are novel and original. That final 1955 sequence provides both a satisfying way to do that and an ingenious metatextual commentary on that idea. In it, director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis and producer/co-writer Bob Gale, bring us back to the events of the first film from a different perspective: Marty’s, as he struggles to retrieve the almanac from Biff and happens to be present for the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance a second time. It’s almost as if Marty’s watching “Back to the Future” and inviting us to watch it with him. He even gets caught up in things he sees, rooting on his dad as punches out Biff, nodding approvingly at his performance of “Johnny B. Goode.” As Marty puts it, “talk about déjà vu.”
With “Back to the Future Part II,” Zemeckis and Gale managed a rare and difficult feat: they made an extremely faithful followup while simultaneously making fun of the idea of extremely faithful followups. What’s more, many of the tasks they place before Marty in 1955 put the character into the position they as creators were in as they conceived the sequel. At a crucial moment in “Part II,” Marty needs to stop a bunch of goons who are planning to jump the Marty from the first film after he finishes “Johnny B. Goode.” “Part II” Marty must sneak into the dance, defeat the goons, and save “Part I” Marty, all without being seen or interrupting the important events that are going on around him. Marty, in other words, becomes Zemeckis and Gale: he has to show us the things we loved about “Back to the Future” without disturbing anything he finds or ruining the legacy of what he’d built the first time around.
Most of the common complaints about “Back to the Future Part II” are irrelevant. While it’s true that its future world of 2015 looks a bit silly in the year 2010 — Flying cars! Holographic movies! People reading newspapers! — the alternate 1985 sequence, where corporate interests control the government and our education system lies in ruins, was always the film’s most prescient. And it doesn’t matter that Marty is suddenly obsessed with people calling him chicken even though that was never an issue in the first film. This is “Back to the Future.” Rewriting history is what this series is about.
This particular third of that series is about the dangers of meddling with history, and again, that all works as a meta commentary on the process of sequel-making as well. Marty’s “chicken” obsession, while certainly an unmotivated addition to his character, also becomes a place for Zemeckis and Gale to put their fears of inadequacy as filmmakers. Think we’re afraid of making a sequel to one of the most beloved movies of the decade? Nobody calls us chicken! Look, we’ve got hoverboards and rehydrated pizzas and video phones and stuff!
“Back to the Future Part II” is not as good as the first film. Sequels rarely are. That’s the point: the best you can do lead people back through their memories of the first film and hope you don’t taint them with the things you add to them.