DT Moviehouse Review: Back To The Future Part II

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I take a look at Back To The Future Part II.

(1989) Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

Tagline: Getting back was only the beginning.

What it’s about:

Immediately following the events of Back To the Future, Doc Brown urges Marty and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue, replacing Claudia Wells) to head to 2015 in the DeLorean to prevent their impressionable son from committing a crime at the behest of a gang of juvenile delinquents that will ruin his life. While in the Hill Valley of the future, Marty buys a Sports Almanac containing a comprehensive list of all the sports contests dating from 1955-2000, but is talked out of using it to make a fortune by Doc, who cites the dangers of altering the space-time continuum. Biff, now an old man, has no such compunctions. After recovering the discarded almanac (and being aware of the time machine having seen it depart in 1985) Biff jumps into the DeLorean and gives the book to his past 1955 self, warning him about Doc and Marty. 1955 Biff proceeds to make a fortune sports gambling and in the process alters HillValley into a dystopian Vegas-style neon-lit cesspool. When Marty and Doc return to this altered 1985 and realize what’s happened, they set out to put things back the way they were.

Why I bought it:

To be fair, I didn’t buy this. A friend got the Back To The Future Trilogy on Blu-Ray and was good enough to let me have his old DVD boxed set (thanks, Ryan!).

Would I have bought Back To The Future II?

As a lover of the series and a completist, probably, yeah, but it’s easily my least favorite of the series.

There are some cast changes, first off. Elizabeth Shue replaces Claudia Wells who played Jennifer, necessitating a total reshoot of the ending of the previous movie (which admirably, is hardly noticeable).

Where we’re going…we don’t need Claudia Wells.

Crispin Glover sadly doesn’t return as George McFly, and this is the biggest letdown of BTTF Part II for me. There are a lot of legal complications that stemmed from the replacement of his character (by Jeffrey Wiessman) and use of his likeness that I won’t get into here.

What bothers me most about BTTF Part II is its somewhat dated version of the future. I usually don’t have a problem with retro-futurism in older movies (like fighting on the outside of the rocket ships in Flash Gordon, etc), but there is a brand of it that hinders the enjoyment of some movies (like say, Logan’s Run), and for me, the pastel colors and general spazziness of BTTF Part II’s 2015 kind’ve turn me off. I don’t like the weird characterization of Griff Tannon (Biff’s grandson – is he partly cybernetic or just constantly ‘tranked’) and his gang, and the clunky pixelated three dimensional Bruce the shark doesn’t do it for me. Also, after future Marty is cajoled (it is established that Marty has a problem backing down when called chicken) into trying to scam his own company by his coworker Needles (Flea), his Japanese boss fires him with a series of faxes. It’s a kind of futurism that just barely tweaks what’s already ‘cool’ and winds up making everything look a bit silly.

There are some neat things, to be sure. The DeLorean flies, as promised. There’s the self-drying self-fitting coat, the hoverboards (of course), and the fact that the Cubs win the world series (imagine if they really did that in 2015? I think that were I manager of the team I would insist the boys hold off and make it happen in a couple years). Café 80’s is a neat little touch with its Max Headroom-esque Michael Jackson, Reagan and Khadaffi robot servers. I think it’s a neat nod to the premise of Part I, which was an 80’s movie capitalizing on the 1980’s love of and nostalgia for the 50’s (look at all the 50’s inspired movies and music that were out at that time – The Stray Cats, Diner, all the SE Hinton adaptations – admittedly the 60’s, but everybody thought they were in the 50’s).

Frodo At Cafe 80’s

One of the two kids playing the shootout arcade game in the corner is 8 year old Elijah Wood.

Part II is kind’ve an essential bridge between part I and part III. It was filmed in tandem with Part III, which I remember was a big deal in the news at the time. In that regard, it feels very expositional. We learn about Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannon, who will be the villain in III, we get Biff watching the Fistful of Dollars scene that foreshadows Marty and Mad Dog’s confrontation, and we find out Doc has a love for the old west (which explains why when the Libyans attack him in the Twin Pines parking lot in 1985, he pulls a Colt Peacemaker out of a case to fend them off).

But in the meantime, we have to deal with a lot of wibbley wobbley timey wimey stuff which, while cool, is also kind’ve unpleasant. Rich Biff murders George McFly to get at Lorraine, whom he then apparently surgically alters to his lecherous liking. Hill Valley is overrun with biker gangs and prostitutes, and is implied to be under martial law. Strickland’s house is peppered with gunfire, and he runs down the street with a shotgun yelling ‘Eat lead, slackers!’ (OK that’s not so bad, but not particularly funny either). Marty sneaks into his old house and surprises an irate black family (which is a little unseemly – because a black family now inhabits the McFly home, are we to automatically assume things are bad in this timeline?). It just isn’t very much fun, dangit.

But there is some fun in Part II. When Marty and Doc revisit 1955 we’re treated to most of the memorable end scenes of the first movie replayed from different angles, as Marty and Doc try to get the Sports Almanac back from Biff while avoiding running into their past selves. Cool to see Billy Zane return as one of Biff’s henchmen as well.  I particularly liked where 50’s Doc unknowingly has a brief conversation with his future self on the street while he’s setting up the ‘weather experiment’ that will send Marty back to 1985.

Ultimately, it’s cool to see (almost) everybody back in their roles, I just feel like there is some indefinable something missing from BTTF Part II. It’s just not as fun as the first one. I will say, Tom Wilson does a great job playing three different versions of Biff, the earlier 50’s buffoon, an older version of his bootlicking, slimy 80’s self, and the wild, excessive bad man Biff of the alternate 1985 – Biff at his absolute unchecked worst. With the theme being the dire consequences of selfish desire and reckless time travel, in a way this really is Biff’s movie.

This review is gonna feel a bit slight I guess, but I don’t really like to dwell on things I don’t particularly care for.

Best bit of dialogue:

I’m gonna say the best bit of dialogue is when Old Biff travels back to 1955 and gives his younger self the Alamanc. Young Biff repeats his weird metaphor/blow off from the first movie, “Why don’t you make a like a tree and get outta here?”

To which Old Biff thunders, “It’s LEAF, you idiot! Make like a tree and LEAF. You sound like a damn fool when you say it wrong!”

It’s no ‘Play it again, Sam (yes, I realize that’s wrong),’ no ‘I am your father,’ but it cleared up that joke for me as a kid, because I didn’t even get what he was trying to say the first time around.

Best scene:

It’s not dramatic, it’s not touching, it’s not exciting, but it never fails to crack me up, and has become an in-joke with some of my friends.

When Marty watches George punch out Biff as he did in the first movie, he waits till Lorraine and George depart for the dance, then pushes through the crowd of rubberneckers to get to Biff. He then kneels down and snags what he thinks is the Alamanc from Biff’s back pocket, then runs off into the night.

There is a gawky looking guy in a tux who declares “Hey! Did he just take his wallet?!”

A few moments later Biff wakes up and roars, “Where is he?”

“Who?” asks the gawky kid.

“Calvin Klein!”


“The guy with the hat! Where is he?”

“Oh he went that way.”

As Biff runs off the kid yells after him, “I think he took your wallet!”

He then turns to an unseen bystander off camera and nods, saying,

“I think he took his wallet.”

I don’t know why this makes me laugh, but it does.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE:  The Back To The Future Part III

DT Moviehouse Review: Back To The Future

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I take a look at the 80’s classic Back To The Future.

(1985) Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

Tagline:  He was never in time for his classes…He wasn’t in time for his dinner…Then one day, he wasn’t in time at all.

What it’s about:

In 1985, high school senior Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) living with his listless alcoholic mother (Leah Thompson), put-upon, oblivious nerd father (Crispin Glover), and loser siblings, dreams of escaping his hometown of Hill Valley and playing guitar in a rock and roll band. One night Marty’s friend, the eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) asks him to videotape his most important scientific experiment, a plutonium charged time machine he has created out of a DeLorean. When an accident occurs that sends Marty back in time in the DeLorean to 1955, he accidentally disrupts his family’s timeline, causing his mother to fall for him instead of his father.

Whoa, this is heavy…

This creates a paradox that will eventually cause him and his brother and sister to cease to exist. He hunts up the 1955 version of Doc to help him return to his own time, and plays a frenetic matchmaker to his parents before he fades out of existence.Why I bought it:

Back To The Future is without a doubt one of the best, most beloved movies to come out of the 80’s. Even if there hadn’t been a pair of sequels, it would remain a popcorn summer classic.

It’s a seamless, lighting-struck-the-clock-tower combination of comedy, romance, adventure and science fiction, with likeable characters and a perfectly constructed script with about as much fat on it as Bruce Lee at the height of his powers.

In rewatching it, I was delighted by how well crafted the story was. Every single minute element introduced contributes to the whole.

During Marty’s dinner with his 1985 family we are bombarded with important facts in rapid succession – Lorraine describes her first meeting with George and the moment in time when they fell in love, a kiss during a high school dance, George watches the very same episode of The Honeymooners the Baines family will be watching for the first time in 1955 – AND it’s an episode where a character disguises himself as an alien, something Marty will do to motivate his father later on. The woes of his brother and sister are established, so that even with their bare minimum screen time we understand their ultimate reversal of fortune in the end with only a few lines of dialogue. Everything plays out so naturally, we don’t even recognize it as exposition as its happening.

Similarly, Doc shares the story of how he came to be inspired to invent the time machine with Marty, enabling Marty to have the knowledge to earn ’55 Doc’s trust with little physical proof. Everything Marty takes into the time machine (rad suit, Walkman, etc.) comes into play later.

Marty is of course the hub character around which the movie revolves, and Fox was at the top of his game when he took a break from his hit sitcom Family Ties to do BTTF (replacing a miscast Eric Stoltz). Yet he plays a character the polar opposite of ultra-capitalist Young Republican Alex (his character on Family Ties). Marty is very cool and charming, but flawed enough to still be relatable. We first see him blowing out Doc’s massive speaker with his electric guitar in an MTV-esque ‘woe dude’ moment, and then he skateboards all around town, hanging onto the back of a jeep and waving to the ladies’ aerobics class in a classic and tone setting sequence to the tune of Huey Lewis’ hit single ‘Power of Love.’ But the very next time we see Marty pick up his guitar to audition for his own high school dance, he is promptly rejected as being too loud (amusingly, by a disguised and nerded up Huey Lewis).  Marty’s fear of rejection and lack of self confidence becomes a lesson he has to learn vicariously through his own father’s romantic woes in the past.

Speaking of George McFly, I can’t imagine anybody but Crispin Glover playing that role. George’s weird, breathless way of speaking (as if it takes a supreme effort for him to say a single thing to anybody) and oddball, un-self conscious (look at the way he dances by himself in a wonderful little shot at the beginning of the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance) body movements inform a sympathetic portrayal of a born outsider who comes in from the cold, eventually finding his own strength and self-confidence in the movie’s most memorable and cheer inducing scene.

Likewise, Christopher Lloyd brings an infectious, frantic enthusiasm to Doc, the antithesis of the slow talking burn-out character Jim that made him a star on Taxi. You’re taking a chance with a character who is so passionate he literally howls at the sky and dances with unmitigated joy when he realizes he’s finally invented something that actually works. It could easily come off forced and silly, but with Lloyd it doesn’t. He’s the same sort of outsider as George, but with a self-confidence that he instills with Yoda-esque wisdom in Marty (and thus, in a roundabout way, to George too). This makes for a great rapport between Marty and Doc, with Doc acting as kind of a surrogate father (seeing as how 1985 George is such an abysmal failure as a role model, being bullied by Biff even as an adult).

The rest of the cast definitely picks up the slack. Leah Thompson displays a lot of talent going from her boozy and tired 1985 version of Lorraine to her wide-eyed romantic ’55 counterpart. She doesn’t just let the aging makeup do the work, ninety percent of it is in her voice (shown in the scene when Marty wakes up after being hit by his grandfather’s car and his mother’s voice in the dark lulls him into thinking his time jump was all a dream). Then, when Marty alters the timeline, she manages to pull off a changed older Lorraine, still in love with life but more mature.

Glover also does an admirable job in that respect, altering his way of speaking and toning down the nervousness as adult/author George. When you consider that both actors actually played three different versions of their characters, you have to single out and applaud their work.

I’ve also got to say something about the very talented and often overlooked Tom Wilson who plays Biff Tannen, George’s (and Marty’s) longtime nemesis. Wilson deftly juggles bonehead comedy and real menace in the character, and like Thompson and Glover, pulls off a humorous turn as an aged, cowed bootlicker who’s got his comeuppance in the final reel (but yet, is still dangerous and conniving – something that comes out in the next installment, which he and the rest of the cast picks up almost perfectly after a four year hiatus).

Finally, there’s the score by Alan Silvestri, who composes an instantly recognizable theme that is as beautifully evocative as anything in Star Wars or the Indiana Jones movies.

Is there anything at all off about Back To The Future? Hardly anything. Claudia Wells, who plays Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer doesn’t ever have a lot to do, it’s true. She’s more a representation of what Marty’s trying to get back to.

The only other thing I would bring up is the Johnny B. Goode sequence. Biff’s gang throws Marty in the trunk of the all black band’s car, and the guitarist cuts his hand jimmying the lock to get him out, forcing Marty to take over lead guitar (because if George and Lorraine don’t kiss during the dance, Marty will still fade away – and he nearly does when that kid from Children Of The Corn cuts in.). After George and Lorraine kiss during ‘Earth Angel,’ the band convinces Marty to place one more tune – something that really kicks.

Johnny B. Goode is one of the quintessential early rock and roll songs, and it is very significant that Chuck Berry, an African American, is the guy who did it. In rewatching BTTF, I did have a brief moment’s trepidation at the scene where Marvin Berry holds up the phone to his cousin Chuck as Marty plays, implying that a white kid from 1985 California is the real inventor of rock and roll.

Strickland’s not ready for this.

Other than that, the movie remains a knockout. I watched it with my eight year old and she excitedly asked what was the matter with Marty’s kids in the future and insisted we watch the second and third movies in one sitting (and has since asked to watch them again).

As for me, I saw this movie in the theater with my mom when I was ten years old, and I fondly remember sharing laughs and cheers with her and a packed moviehouse. I imagine a lot of kids took to skateboarding from watching this flick (I tried, but I could never even stand on one of those things). I remember being totally mind blown at the scene where Marty returns early to the mall and sees himself – this was my first exposure to the idea in science fiction of the time travel paradox. I wanted so bad to be as cool as Marty, and to have the same personal triumphs as George.

It’s just a movie that makes the heart soar, makes you appreciate your parents a little more, and is totally on the ball and uncompromising in its setting and story, and yet is flat out fun.

Best bit of dialogue:

In the original unaltered timeline, Doc cons a group of Libyan ‘nationals’ out of the stolen plutonium to power the time machine. The Libyans surprise Doc and Marty on the night of the testing of the DeLorean at the mall and machinegun him to death.

Throughout the movie, Marty wrestles with telling 1955 Doc about his impending death in 1985, even though Doc warns him not to inform him about any future events, pointing out that Marty’s interference in his own continuum has been thus far disastrous.

In a last desperate attempt to save his friend’s life, Marty writes out a warning on diner stationary and seals it in an envelope marked Do Not Open Until 1985. But just prior to leaving 1955, Doc finds the envelope and tears it to pieces.

Marty sets the time circuits for a ten minute early return to personally go and warn Doc, but after the time jump the DeLorean stalls and Marty spends the extra ten minutes running across town to the mall, where he helplessly witnesses the death of Doc a second time. After watching his earlier self jump to 1955 in the time machine, Marty runs down to Doc’s body only to find him very much alive, having reassembled Marty’s yellowed letter with scotch tape and donned a bulletproof vest to save himself.

“What about all that talk about screwing up future events? The space time continuum?” Marty asks.

Doc grins and shrugs.

“Well…I figured…what the hell?”

Best scene:

When I was a kid, the hands down coolest sequence for me was the one where Biff and his gang chase Marty all around the town square on his improvised skateboard. I still get chills when Biff gets Marty hung up on the grill of his car and tries to ram him and Marty runs up on the hood and through the open car, leaping perfectly onto the skateboard as it emerges from underneath the rear of bumper. The musical cue is spot on perfect, the expressions of the actors are great, and the stunt is awesome.


Seeing the movie again through adult eyes, nothing tops the emotional crescendo of the scene when George punches out Biff in defense of Lorraine.

Wilson is at his darkest and most imposing, glaring up at George from the depths of the car and the ruffles of Lorraine’s dress (“Wrong car, McFly”). Glover shifts masterfully through a range of emotions, beginning with disappointment and fear when he realizes that it’s Biff and not Marty as planned, reluctant resolve (“No Biff, you leave her alone”), terror when Biff bends his arm back, to righteous outrage when he sees Lorraine shoved to the pavement. I love that change in his face in the moment before his fist balls up and he slugs Biff into oblivion. Then, that nervous little laugh as he looks with disbelief at his own hand, remembers Lorraine, asks her if she’s alright, and pulls her to her feet.

Would I Buy it Again? In a heartbeat.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE:  Back To The Future Part II