How Back To The Future Part II helped make the greatest trilogy in movie history
by Jack M Silverstein, @readjack
The year I turned 25, I started writing letters to my great-grandchildren. Every time an important event occurs, I write a letter that begins, “Greetings from the past.” Then I group them together by year. The letters will be delivered to my great-grandchildren on their corresponding birthdays. When they turn 25, they will get the letters I wrote when I was 25. When they turn 30, they will get the letters I wrote when I was 30. And so on.
The first two years were done on individual sheets of paper. After temporarily losing the 27-year-old letter, I started writing them in books. Collectively, I call them the Time Journal.
My inspiration? Back To The Future.
I’ve long considered the three-part tale of Marty & Doc to be cinema’s greatest trilogy. Some might select Star Wars or Die Hard or The Lord of the Rings, and maybe there are some folks who think the power of the The Godfather and The Godfather Part II overrides the inane Part III. To each his own.
I will take Back To The Future though, and not just because it’s entertaining as hell. What deepens the trilogy’s impact for me is its value as a thought-experiment. I’ve been turning the trilogy’s events over in my mind for 25 years. The films fascinated me at eight years old, at 18, at 28 and now at 33, always for different reasons.
As a three-part story with three distinct parts — each expanding the themes of the original and narrative of the whole — Back To The Future is, in short, the story most necessary as a trilogy.
And everything hinges on Part II, and a trip to the future.
(For more from me on BTTF2, check out this WGN clip we did in anticipation of Future Day. Recording from Oct. 19, 2015. Start at 1:22:33. Thanks Pete and Matt!)
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re in a time machine”
Back To The Future is a perfect movie.
There aren’t many.
I’m talking films in which you wouldn’t add, remove or re-arrange anything. Films that achieve the ideal of their possible selves. We’re talking pictures like The Wizard of Oz, Duck Soup, Casablanca, Paths of Glory, The Godfather, The Blues Brothers, Do The Right Thing, Pulp Fiction, and Hoop Dreams, to name a few.
Back To The Future is a member of that group.
Back To The Future Part II is not. It lacks Part I’s singularity of story, tension and catharsis. Part I is about returning home. Part II is about restlessness. And ultimately, you can’t watch Part II without knowing Part I, so I can’t quite put it in the “perfect movie” tier.
But Part II powers the trilogy. And the Marty-Doc friendship is the Flux Capacitor that powers Part II.
Theirs is my favorite movie friendship. It’s unique among movie friendships as far as I can tell, spanning generations, decades and timelines.
Marty and Doc are friends when one is 17 and the other is 65, and they are friends when one is 17 and the other is 35, and they are friends in the 1980s and 1950s, and they are friends when one of them has acclimated to the 2010s and the 1880s and the other has not, and they are friends when they are in different timelines, and they are friends when one is alive and one is dead.
The dead one is Doc, who having returned to 1885 at the age of 65 would be 135 years old by the time Marty receives his letter in 1955. Once that Western Union man materializes, Dr. Emmett L. Brown — the author of the letter — would be long dead of old age, Buford Tannen or no Buford Tannen.
To Marty though, and to Doc, time is not linear. It is land on a map. Traveling from 1985 Hill Valley to 1955 Hill Valley is as simple as traveling from Hill Valley to New York. So the idea that Doc Brown could be in that graveyard due to time and not a bullet is, for Marty, impossible.
In fact, had he not angered Mad Dog Tannen over a matter of eighty dollars, Doc could have continued sending letters to Marty until the day he died of natural causes. It would have been as if the two men were aging together.
That is my plan with my great-grandchildren. I have no idea where they will live, how many there will be or what language they will speak. What I do know is that they have become real to me, or anyhow more real than they otherwise were.
Additionally, I feel like I am more real to them, and therefore my great-grandparents — of whom I met two of eight — have become more real to me too. I don’t have a DeLorean, but I do have that.
“I get married in the Chapel ‘o’ Love?”
Over the past decade, I have LOVED the number of times people posted a doctored photo of the time circuits supposedly set to the date that Marty and Doc arrive in the future.
And then there is october212015.com, the lone function of which is to count down to October 21 of this year.
The errors are due to carelessness, ignorance or straight-up pranking. Whatever the catalyst, the gags work because movie fans in their youth when the trilogy was out treat 2015 how earlier generations treated 1984 or 2001. Falling for the hoax stems from a deep desire to “see the future.”
Was there a kid in 1989 who liked the movie and didn’t IMMEDIATELY wonder how and when they could get their hands on a hover board? The film came out in November, and by the following summer when Part III was out I was telling kids on the camp bus that “We’re getting one for Chanukah.”
So yes, when the clock struck 2015 with nary a hover board nor flying car in true existence, I relayed that news to my eight-year-old self who, not surprisingly, took it hard.
This happened for many fans, I’m sure, a trait reflected in the stories written the past few years about the film’s technology predictions.
Forget flying cars, hover boards, the JAWS 19 hologram or even the Cubs winning the 2015 World Series. The film’s technological prediction that stands out to me is the proliferation of screens.
Back To The Future Part II knew where we were going. With a 1989 audience, the scene where Marty Jr. turns on the TV and verbally demands channels 18, 24, 63, 109, 87 and The Weather Channel is played for laughs. Old Marty’s next line — “Watching a little TV for a change?” — cues the audience that this is a time joke, something the trilogy does regularly.
“Ha ha, I get it, he’s watching six channels at once. That’s chaotic.”
With a 2015 audience, the scene plays straight. Old Marty’s line suddenly has the same meaning as if George delivered it to Marty in 1985 about Marty simply watching TV. What we assumed in 1989 to be chaos is now reality, as people will often watch an entertainment screen — whether that’s television shows or movies — while working on a computer with multiple windows open and checking a phone.
That said, the biggest prediction the film nails is not any one piece of technology, but our reaction to it: indifference met with annoyance of its imperfections. The movie focuses not on what the technology can do, but on what it can’t.
The skyway’s jammed.
Marty’s hover board doesn’t work on water.
The voice-activated home-entrance lights don’t turn on when Jennifer enters.
The screen broadcasting “the scenery channel” is broken.
The voice-activated fruit basket doesn’t come right away when Marty Jr. calls it, and then he has to hit it for it to retract.
Doc Brown’s sleep-inducer needs to recharge before it can induce more sleep.
What we get is “the future” as “the present.” None of the doom, destruction and dystopia of Blade Runner or The Time Machine. 2015 Hill Valley and 2015 Chicago are just like 1985 Hill Valley and 1985 Chicago, only with cooler stuff.
Interestingly, Part II saves its dystopic vision for its second setting: Alternate 1985, AKA Biff Land. The film then famously returns to 1955 to trace over the climactic events of the first movie but from a different perspective.
Which means that while Part II is remembered as taking place in 2015, it’s only one third of the film, give or take. That its fans so desired the year to be here — and remember it so strongly — speaks to the power of its vision.
The Part II scenes also resonate because they continue one of the trilogy’s greatest strengths: the documentation of the history of Hill Valley.
In the DeLorean test scene early in Part I, Doc stares into the distance at what is then Two Pines Mall.
“I remember when this was all farmland as far as the eye could see!” he says in disbelief. He mentions the land’s then-owner, Old Man Peabody, and Peabody’s “crazy idea about breeding pine trees.” The thought leaves Doc blinking in a haze before he snaps back to attention.
Marty will have a similar experience – albeit in reverse – when he sees in 1955 only the stone entrance of his yet-to-be-built neighborhood of Hilldale.
Anyone who has spent 30 years in the same town has experienced such temporal confusion. For me, it’s my hometown of Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, which has undergone the usual slate of tear downs and constructions.
Most notably for me? The five-screen theatre where I saw Back To The Future Part II and Part III is no more, closed in 2001 and then razed in 2007 after the city opened an 18-screen theatre a mile-and-a-half south.
My old theatre was built in 1937. That land is now filled with condos.
Today I stare at that space with the same stunned look Doc brings to the mall. Pine trees, Marty. Pine trees.
“Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women”
And then, the West.
The general consensus has always been that Part III is the weakest of the three films. I agree for several reasons, most notably the occasional sloppy writing that cracks too many self-conscious time jokes and speeds its characters along to destinations I would have preferred they’d reached more slowly.
But I love Part III because it once again reframes our relationship to the original and does so in a different way than Part II.
The first movie is about the impact of time travel on Marty. The third is about the impact on Doc.
Marty views 1955 as a place to escape. Doc views 1885 as a place to retire. Marty wants to return to 1985 to be with Jennifer. Doc wants to remain in 1885 to stay with Clara.
This is where these two characters differ — the young vs. the old. The young follows his vision of what he believes his life should be. The old follows the reality of what his life has become. The young must return to his safe place for happiness. The old finds happiness in a surprise location.
To put it another way: Life is what happened to Doc Brown while he was busy making other plans.
Even if Marty had not altered the time-space continuum leading to Doc rescuing and then meeting Clara, Doc was still prepared to spend the rest of his life in 1885. A wiser Marty may have made the same decision in the first film.
After all, what’s he really returning to? His home life chafes him, his dreams elude him. Jennifer’s the only upside, and as we see, their 2015 life is no fairytale. Plus his best friend is nearly 50 years his senior and will die when Marty is still a young family man.
Perhaps that is part of his middle-age malaise we see in the 2015 segment: his best friend is dead.
Instead, Marty could have stayed in 1955 as THE GUY WHO INVENTED ROCK AND ROLL. He would have been the mystery man who continually prospered by anticipating future trends. His best friend would be less than 20 years his senior, not 50. His time with his parents — even if he could never tell them the truth about himself — would be far superior to the time he’d already spent with them.
All he’s missing out on is Jennifer, who he’d forget as quickly as any teenager forgets his or her high school sweetheart.
65-year-old Doc makes a decision 17-year-old Marty cannot make because he sees the world how 17-year-old Marty never can: through the eyes of experience. Doc wants love. Marty merely craves normalcy. Rather than the DeLorean, the only time machine Doc really needed was time.
“Start talking kid. What else you know about that book?”
Above all else, what makes Part II so much fun is how unnecessary it is. For a time travel movie, Back To The Future is rather tidy. As others have written, it shares qualities with The Wizard of Oz: a teenager goes on a fantastical journey to a magical land and returns with a new appreciation for home and family.
Once Marty is home, the stakes throughout the film are dead. Other than the power shift between George/Lorraine and Biff and the fallout therein – nicer house, George’s book, Marty’s 4×4 – the events of Part I have not changed Marty.
The driving question of the trilogy is: If it existed, is it right to use time travel to change your circumstances, or should you do it the old fashioned way, through patience and hard work? At the end of Part I, Marty’s answer would definitely be, “Time travel is fun, useful and, as long as you’re careful, safe.”
As Part II progresses, his view changes. He sees the danger. The tension in Part I is: Will Marty get home? The tension in Part II is: Will Marty lose his soul?
While Part I avoids most of the sticky paradox problems inherent in time travel, Part II is ALL paradox. In fact, the film’s original title was “Paradox,” as seen on the slate.
What is unnecessary about Part II? Everything. Marty, Doc, Jennifer and Einstein go to 2015 because “Something’s got to be done about your kids.” The blindspot for Marty and Doc is that they do not need a time machine to solve this problem. Marty can merely wait until he is a father and then intercede with Griff on Marty Jr.’s behalf.
He could even go to the police ahead of time and Minority Report the crap out of the young Tannen.
Instead, he uses time travel to solve his problems, like a man leaving late for an appointment because he can drive fast on side streets.
Part II is the car crash that results from the speeding.
Best friend? In an insane asylum. Father? Dead. Mother? Domestically-abused trophy wife. Family in legal and financial straits. Hometown in ruins.
Not even setting fire to Grays Sports Almanac can get these men out of their time-travel conundrum, because just as soon as all seems right in the universe, Doc (and Marty’s transportation) ends up 70 years in the past.
Crispin Glover has stated that he did not return to the sequel because he did not like the original film’s capitalistic message. Happiness is social status, the film suggests. In the midst of Reagan’s America, two years before Gordon Gekko shared his thoughts on greed, Marty McFly silent-fist-pumping at the sight of his new 4×4 signified his big win.
Part II changed the story’s trajectory. The lesson at the trilogy’s conclusion is not “Might makes right” or “Greed is good.” It is Doc’s message to Marty and Jennifer: “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it – so make it a good one.”
I imagine the Brown family will continue their time-traveling adventures, not to mettle with their own destinies but to achieve Doc’s original intentions as stated in Part II: to gain “a clear perception of humanity.” Doc, Clara, Jules & Verne will probably travel through time more like explorers than influencers, like an American family touring the country in an RV.
George and Lorraine will grow fonder of each other with each passing day, their love blossoming until death do they part.
Marty, meanwhile, is the changed man, and will live the rest of his life by a simple code:
All good things to those who wait.
Jack M Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Say hey @readjack.
My dear friend Avril Brown of ComicsWaitingRoom took issue with me calling Part III the trilogy’s weak link. For her passionate defense, click here.
And for a decidedly different take on Part II, here’s Lindy West at GQ with just about the funniest thing you’ll read today.