Back to the Future Day (from the Future)

The title being my fancy way of saying I wrote these reviews of Back to the Future II and III but didn’t upload them until now, a full six days after the proper day of 10/21/15. Oh well. You get to read them now, I suppose? 

The mortal coil of Sequel-dom reached its original apex in the dark days of 1989, with seemingly every major tentpole blockbuster of the decade facing the doldrums of another franchise film. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon. And, of course, Robert Zemeckis had to return to his darling overnight love bug and gilded moneymaker after a sabbatical redefining the possibilities of cinematic animation with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (his best film to this day). The thing about Back to the Future II, the thing that separated it from every other Hollywood blockbuster of the year , is that it was to be followed by Back to the Future III, to be released one summer later and filmed concurrently with its predecessor.

No big deal in 2015, mind you, but in 1989 this was unheard of for such a corporate undertaking – where the success of one film typically justified the greenlighting of its successor. Yet Zemeckis was a household name by this point – one of the few American auteurs to emerge in the personality-stricken 1980s – and what he said would go. What he said, it turns out, was that filming two sequels concurrently would ensure some sort of narrative and tonal consistency, resulting in a magnum opus of sorts as his films would gallantly sidestep the internal contradictions and passionless, lost time between sequels in other series. This project would be a statement, an all-in labor of love.

Whatever statement that was, however, I am not sure. Maybe that time travel is messy, and so is filmmaking. For Back to the Future II and its giddy successor, if filmed at the same time, were the products of different, well, products. Cocaine for II and, I don’t know, Care Bear dust for III? With full disclosure, I claim that neither are bad films. In fact, if pressed, I would defend both. But they absolutely do not form a whole greater than the sum of their woefully and beguilingly disparate portions.

On one hand, we have Back to the Future II, where resident teenage slacker/time traveler/paradox interloper Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the perpetually discombobulated scientist Doctor Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) finally travel to the far flung future of 2015 only to unleash an inadvertent atomic hellscape of nightmarish expressionist dividends on the world of 1985. Then, and only then, do they travel back to 1955 (as they did in the first film) to engage in non-parallel problem-solving hijinks to set the course of 1985 right again, all the while avoiding the versions of themselves from the first film present in 1955 attempting to, well, ensure that the first film still happens.

On the other hand, we have Back to the Future III, where ZZ Top show up, Michael J. Fox introduces the world of 1885 to Clint Eastwood., and we meet something called “Wake Up Juice”. And it is, dare say, 11 minutes longer than the manically hyperbolic, taxidermied-with-forks-and-knives acid trip of Back to the Future II, a film that is unbelievably crammed to bursting with ideas, switch-backs, commentaries, overlapping events, visual wit, carnivalesque showboating, quantum mechanics, theoretical jargon, and, pointedly, not ZZ Top. Maybe there’s a dusty riff or two hiding underneath the shotgun-toting school vice principal, though.

All of which is not always to the benefit of the very-much-trying-and-often-losing-spare-parts-in-the-process Part II, a film that shoots between time periods as if it were to be the first handful of episodes of a show based on the feature film that, when the show failed to kick-off, were loosely curtailed into a feature film themselves to make a quick buck. Yet, for all its manic overdrive, nothing about II suggests a quick cash-in; it is, instead, the producr of people with a very particular and elaborate idea about how to extend the Back to the Future fiction.

Which is well and good, but, for all the good will that entails, it may be too much of a good idea, without enough filmmaking to curtail it into a cohesive product. II is an absolute mess of a production, as far from the everyday innocence and playful camaraderie of the original film as humanly possible, but let no one say it doesn’t get points for trying. The production design, for one, is astonishing in its willingness to play with the mores of the time period in which the film was made. The film’s version of 2015 is as pointed in its artifice as the film’s version of 1955, with Zemeckis and production designer Rick Carter playing with the zeitgeist of the 1980s and warping it ever so slightly for the future by constructing a 2015 that looks conspicuously like a product of the 1980s.

In doing so, the filmmakers tacitly and cheekily explore the ways in which American pop culture looks to the past for revitalization in the present, and to how it only looks to an idealized, falsified, imagined version of that past doctored up with kitsch. Zemeckis lets us know, in details such as a sublime Jaws gag and the film’s loopily self-critical product placement, that fiction, or fact, can never really predict the future without imbuing a little of the present in that vision. Back to the Future II is a film that is eminently aware that it is a film made at the tail end of the 1980s, and that is a great and consistently whimsical gift to the audience.

Which is a lot to handle already, except only a third of Part II actually takes place in the future at all. We have equally tangible confrontations in a grungy punk rock 1980s – like a mainstream John Carpenter film, and I suspect, knowingly a reference to how we always imagine the apocalypse like a circus. And, finally, a return to the 1950s where Zemeckis bends the original Back ot the Future in on itself and establishes an alternate time-line where Marty and Doc Brown must work to secure both their current world and the established world of the first film, scattering and skulking around the Back to the Future I versions of themselves while these Back to the Future II versions must pursue their own adventure. A conceit that allows Zemeckis and company to play around and warp not only the conceptual idea of a sequel but the visual faculties of it as tactile reality; Back to the Future II, in the way it re-contextualizes at a visual level the events of the first film by presenting the perspective of a second pair of protagonists, is nothing less than thoroughly dedicated to exploring the visual vocabulary of the original Back to the Future. How many sequels can list that on their resume?

All of which is tiring to say the least, but not without its own sense of zest and tenacity. Certainly, no one could accuse II of laziness, but then a little laziness isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a summer blockbuster, where redundancies tend to pile up the more a film tries to explain itself. II isn’t exactly a Bergman film, but by the standards of a blockbuster it has an intellectually restless streak. A streak that almost threatens to stamp out the fire of fun in the film. Not quite – II is still a largely amiable picture – but almost.

Which is where III comes in and course corrects toward the original Back to the Future, although it misses its date by about a few years. Specifically, the years between 1985, where the freshness of the debut picture married spunk to spark, and 1990, where mid-’80s joviality had curdled into early ’90s cynicism and blockbuster filmmaking had grown even more formulaic than it had been circa mid-decade (and that was no high water mark period for cinema to begin with). Back to the Future III is not a bad film; if anything, it is a welcome respite from the occasionally mechanical coldness of II, but the warmth comes at the cost of ingenuity.

Since II had, arguably, too much cluttered ingenuity praying on its mind rather than setting it free, this is an either-or situation. While II was a breathless rush of plot, III really shines in its moments of plotless rest, its willingness to laconically siphon away its greater ambitions and quietly bask in Dean Cundey’s John Ford quoting cinematography and the breathlessly wide spaces Zemeckis – ever the classical cinema aficionado – concocts for us. Elsewhere, Zemeckis and Bob Gale, writing together as always, play into the warm nostalgia of the classical Hollywood stories they were raised on – take the youthful sentimentalism of Rebel Without a Cause – while undercutting that sentimentalism with the realization that the love the film champions is itself prey to wistful, melancholy time (itself a cue from Rebel Without a Cause). Nice, pleasing, elegiac, and surprisingly restful for a third sequel (it is the most lackadaisical of the three films by a country mile), Back to the Future III is a film with precious little on its mind. Fittingly, I might add, since it is the story of Doc Brown growing tired with the perils of action, adventure, and time travel, the story of a man who had seen time bend in on itself again and again, a man who was tired of the reckless chaos and entropy of life and just wanted to sit back and rest for once. Perhaps Zemeckis was himself tired with the films, and III was his own escape.

This isn’t an excuse for the film, mind you; if its summer-day spirit is a nice counter for the Marx Brothers anarchy of the prior film, neither is perfect for the very reason that they need to counter one another in the first place. As for which of the sequels is for you, temperament will dictate. They are each their own entity, neither of them as special or as complete as the original, for each tilts toward one side of the splendid concoction that made the original so ceremoniously pleasing. Part II is a time travel screwball comedy, a haphazard post-hurricane wreck of happenstance and conglomerate occurrence and contradictory tone, but it has moxie. Part III eschews any of that youthful brashness and sits nicely with the warm, conversational company of something like Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (Part II, in comparison, is much more the chatty spitfire Bringing Up Baby in the Hawks’ canon, even if the comparison doesn’t fully hold). Neither of them fails to work – they each fulfill one portion of the Back to the Future mystique – but neither works without the caveat of the other. The original film needed no such qualifications.

 

Scores:

Back to the Future II: 7.5/10

Back to the Future III: 7/10

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