Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson, Elisabeth Shue, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Weissman, Flea, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, J.J. Cohen, Charles Fleischer

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Expectations: High, I love this one too.


How do you follow-up one of the most exciting, entertaining and enthralling films of all-time? It’s a nearly impossible situation to be in for any filmmaker, but thankfully Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were up to the task. Back to the Future Part II builds on the fiction of the first film beautifully, taking us on an even faster paced thrill ride through time. Doc Brown takes Marty and Jennifer into the year 2015 (so yes, you’ve only got three more years to wait for your flying car). Doc did some temporal snooping and found out about a few events worth avoiding in the McFly family timeline. He enlists Marty to impersonate his own son so that they can nip these problems in the bud. Of course, it does not go as planned and we have a ridiculously exciting film on our hands.

I haven’t seen this one nearly as much as I’ve seen the original; the ratio is probably 10:1. This makes for a lot of fun when re-visiting the film, as I remember general plot points and scenes, but nothing in great detail. For instance, I’m always surprised at how little future stuff there is, as the characters are only in the future for one section of the film. Due to this fact, I am able to judge this film more objectively than the first, which isn’t to say that some nostalgia isn’t clouding my vision.

If Back to the Future is simple in its complexity, Back to the Future Part II is complex in its complexity. The plot weaves through different years and alternate timelines, showing us in vivid detail why monkeying around with a time machine is a bad idea. All those space-time continuum rifts and paradoxes Doc Brown talks about in the first film are realized here and it makes the film a much more varied spectacle than the first film was. Obviously the budget is a lot higher as well, and the number of FX shots is through the roof this time around.

Speaking of the FX, they are incredible. Still. Some of the shots involving the flying cars are so seamlessly done that I doubt they will ever look bad to future audiences, no matter what year it is. And let’s not forget the lightning FX. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, lightning in 80s movies is always fucking awesome looking and Back to the Future probably features the greatest example of these killer lightning FX. The set design and dressing of the standard Hill Valley set to reflect the various eras represented in the film is also outstanding.

Thomas F. Wilson does a spectacular job of playing Biff in his many forms, creating four distinct versions of the character for the film (five if you count the Auto Detailing Biff from the end of Part 1). Michael J. Fox also pulls off a number of McFly family members very well, showing that both young actors were promising, solid talents. Fox obviously continued on to great success cut short by illness, but Wilson never really caught on. Looking through his IMDB page, he’s done a ton of TV and voice work, but I look forward to the day when a director thinking outside the box (ala Tarantino) offers him another career-defining film role.

As I stated in the Back to the Future review, these films never cease to amaze me at how well plotted they are. This film in particular is especially well put together, as it creates a story that fits and makes sense within the world created in the original, while also going back and weaving itself right into the plot of the first film’s final act. This creates an interesting situation for viewers who are intensely familiar with the original. As events play out, you know (just like Marty does) how everything in the background will play out, and Marty must find a way to avoid another paradox while trying to save the day.

It’s not all shiny new 4×4 trucks though, there are a few problems with Back to the Future Part II. Most of them stem from the plot. Wha’? Didn’t I just say that I was impressed with the film’s plotting? I did, but amidst the greatness, there are a couple of moments that only occur to specifically move the story along. This series is fantastic when Marty gets wrapped up in the moment and falls into an impossible situation, only to realize it just after. This creates a struggle that Marty must overcome, despite its seemingly impossible nature. Back to the Future Part II has loads of stuff like that, but it also has moments where the writing is very transparent. Things like taking Jennifer along to the future, only to zap her unconscious and leave her in an alley, thus setting up the chain reaction that propels the film forward. I’m willing to forgive the film this because it’s overall incredibly enjoyable, but I wish they could have thought of something slightly less banal. There’s another of these moments that occurs late in the film where Doc inexplicably continues to hover around in the lightning storm when he just as easily could have landed and hung out with Marty on the ground. I know, I know– then we wouldn’t have a third film, but it is pretty ridiculous.

Ridiculous plot aside, Back to the Future Part II is a fantastic movie and a fantastic sequel to one of my favorite films. It succeeds in following up a classic by ratcheting up the stakes and giving the audience a heavy helping of visually exciting and quite fun paradox antics. Biff yells a little too much, but I can deal with it in a film this intoxicating. If you somehow never saw Back to the Future Part II, then definitely check it out!

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

  • Dan

    I do love all the Back To The Future films. I think if they’d made ten they would still be as enjoyable as each other. Of the three Back To The Future II is the weakest but having said that it is still brilliant.

    You’re very right about the intricate plots – I think Zemeckis and Gale really worked hard on the screenplays and the story structure and it shows. It is what makes the Back To The Future films so timeless.

  • While this is indeed a superb trilogy, and Part II is a terrific film itself, I think it’s the weakest of the bunch. And by weak I mean “not quite as good as the original, but better than many other sequels”. Where I think Part II falls over a little is the first half or so, with the journey into the future coming across as a little nasty and negative – it seems to be a time where hope and joy has disappeared from the world, and frankly it becomes something of a chore to get through. The final act, where Marty returns to 1955 and must avoid running into his other past self in order to obtain that damn almanac, is where the film truly shines, and is in every way as good as, if not slightly better than, the original.

    And Biff is one of the all-time great screen villains, isn’t he?

    • I know exactly what you mean about the “weakest of the bunch”. I feel the same way except swap Part II & Part III. The future segment is definitely negative as you point out, but I LOVE all those future scenes. The low point is definitely the casino stuff, but even that makes great sense from within the plot. It’s just not as fun to watch as the rest of it.

      Biff is totally one of the best. Thomas F. Wilson is sooooo good.

      • Dan

        …the problem with the future part of the film stems, I think, from Gale and Zemeckis being forced into a situation they didn’t want to go into. Back To The Future was originally conceived as a stand-alone film and the ending was actually just a fun way of ending the first film with no thought of where it might lead. When the opportunity came for a sequel they decided to follow-on directly from where BTTF left over, forcing them to deal with Marty’s kids. They do that but there’s an obvious leaning towards getting Marty back to the past as quickly as possible….it is the past where Zemeckis and Gale are both more comfortable (probably a nostalgia thing).

  • That’s a great insight, Dan, and one I hadn’t considered. I always figured they had the plot figured out for the sequel when they shot the ending for the first film. They are definitely more comfortable in the past and the film is better when it’s there, but what can I say I enjoy the future scenes regardless.

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