Friday, May 20, 2011

Back to the Future, Part II

 Back to the Future, Part II (Robert Zemeckis, 1989) The BTTF series always left me a little cold. Sure, it was fun (in a slap-dash hap-hazard kind of way)*, and it made Michael J. Fox a movie star, breaking out from his "Family Ties" TV-role. But, I've always found the two films on either side a bit rote: BTTF I was the clever story where Marty McFly (Fox) goes back in time and saves the future marriage of his parents (Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover), which he, by his very presence in the past, is in danger of never making happen, and BTTF III is a completely superfluous entry with a retro-science-fiction Western theme that merely rectified the cliff-hangers left over from BTTF II.

Most folks consider Part II to be the superfluous one—a time-bridge to Part III—as it starts with a way-stop to the year 2015 where Marty watches in horror as he must come to terms with the loser-family he will sire. Then, because of a scripted mishap in that future which nullifies his efforts in 1955, it turns into a virtual remake of the first film wherein the Marty of 24 hours later (let's call him Marty+1) must weave his way back through the circumstances of the first movie without interfering with the past or changing its future. The goal is the same—save Mom and Dad's marriage so Marty can be order to save the marriage again, like a Moebius loop made out of film. And it may feel like a re-tread—even lazy film-making—but for me, Back to the Future Part II is what the entire series should have been like.

It is also a stunning commentary on the derivative nature of sequels at a point when the trend was in its full cloning bloom. All sequels, with only a couple of select choices, are derivative—by hoping to create the same success at the box-office, the film-makers will follow the same formula, only make it bigger. Back to the Future, Part II fits the mold to a recycled "T"—it IS the same movie, but from a different angle, with the lead character re-experiencing it, and trying to set it right—again—24 hours in the future.

Due to some re-casting (Elisabeth Shue for Claudia Wells**), parts of the first film were re-filmed to keep things continuity-square.***  But there are whole sections of Part II that are mirror-images of Part I, and as you can tell by the video below, some of the same shots—especially the ones with Crispin Glover—are re-used, as Marty+1 negotiates through Part I, while avoiding any of the participants (and, one can imagine, Part I's camera crew), trying to re-re-establish the McFly romance.

But, there is one moment in Part II, that has always made my brain hurt while simultaneously making me bust out laughing and making my eyes bug out from the sheer absurd audacity of it—when outside the gymnasium Biff (the terrible Thomas F. Wilson) confronts Marty+1, at just the moment that Marty (from Part I) bursts through the gym doors, thereby knocking out M+1, thus complicating things further.

Sure, one moment does not a good movie make.  However, that exquisite bending of time and space for a comedic end has such cosmic and karmic implications that it put me in mind of the some of the filmic leaps (and falls) of the late, great Buster Keaton.  Keaton created such intricate film illusions that played with reality in its parallel universe of movies, that I think this collision (literally) of the day older and wiser Marty, by the frenetic yet-to-succeed younger version of himself would have made Buster smile.

Except he never smiled.

The moment when Marty hits Marty+1 is at 03:51

* One issue that's always grated me, though, is the apparent time anomaly that inspires Chuck Berry to write "Johnny B. Goode."  Look, mess with time all you want.  But, DON'T mess with the Rock!

** Ms. Wells was replaced, not for any aesthetic film reasons, but because she was not available; she wanted to be with her Mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer.

*** Because the Back to the Future films were produced by Steven Spielberg, and not by George Lucas, Ms. Wells has not been digitally replaced by Shue.  I think that's nice.

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