Back to the Future, Part II – 1989 – dir. Robert Zemeckis
It’s somehow pleasing to see variations on a character or motif, and I’ll admit right away that after a few days of thinking about it, I still can’t figure out why. What I do know is that when Marty McFly is enlisted for a trip to the future at the outset of Back to the Future Part II, it’s deeply satisfying to see his hometown of Hill Valley redone in its 2015 incarnation, with so many landmarks and people intact but also all futured up.
Maybe the best part, though, is seeing that Marty’s future son is actually just the same actor, Michael J. Fox, dressed up with slightly shaggier hair and ill-fitting clothes. As the movie progresses, it turns out that the jumps through time are really just an excuse for actors to play alternate versions of the same characters. In the first act alone, Fox plays three members of the McFly family of 2015: Besides for Marty Jr., he also plays a loser version of a Marty McFly that’s thirty years older, and puts on a long wig to be Marty’s daughter, Marlene. By the time she shows up, briefly pausing before revealing that the long-haired girl is actually Fox in drag, it’s clear that director Robert Zemeckis is toying with us.
It’s reconfirmed shortly thereafter, but the wink, wink, nudge, nudge takes a different form. As the Marty of 1985 scuttles around his future home trying to avoid detection, all three of the future family members played by Fox gather in one room. It’s another way that Zemeckis plays with our expectations, showing us what he can do by sewing footage of Fox in three different costumes together into a single shot, begging the audience to ask, “How’d they do that?” And the director will do it again and again, repeatedly staging future and past versions of a character together, sometimes even upping the ante by making them seem to physically interact.
This effect of this teasing — we wonder how the movie was actually made — is not diminished by the dialogue, which almost feels gently self-mocking, falling in the range of the slightly implausible and goofy to the very implausible and goofy. When Doc learns that he and Marty have to return to the same date in the past they went to in the first Back to the Future, Doc declares that the date might hold some great scientific significance or that “it could just be an amazing coincidence.” It’s a small jab at the film’s own preposterousness which acknowledges that we the audience are in on the joke.
That playful use of effects as a way to get the audience’s attention is especially felt when Part II uses its own predecessor as a reference. The original film is the setting for the entire second half, but it’s also echoed more indirectly near the beginning of the sequel, when the hover-board chase scene parallels the skateboard stunts of the original. In the DVD commentary, producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton mention that both chase scenes (there are two in Part II) were filmed using multiple tricks and effects so that the audience would alternately think that they understood how it was shot, only to realize they didn’t. In other words, the effects themselves are asking for attention in their role as artifice. In these ways, the hover-board scene is not just a way to liven up the film. Instead, it’s more useful as a sly reference or a series of cameras tricks to be decoded that almost directly talk to the audience.
Taken as a whole, Part II appeals to us largely by echoing its own gags across time and parallel universes. The absurdity of the protagonist duo’s time-travelling, universe-altering behavior is hardly felt in any sort of conventional emotional register; Marty and Doc barely slow down enough for the capricious nature of time and fate or anything else remotely poetic to occur to us, much less to them. They are cartoons, and the point of the costume changes and alternate timelines is to show off new variations on characters and running gags, so that the time travel is ultimately a show for us, not an event for them.
This effect of joking with and performing for the audience is a somewhat different strategy than the one taken by the original Back to the Future, where Marty was in on the jokes. That humor played to us, too, sure, but it worked because of the anachronisms (like the way Marty uses Calvin Klein as a pseudonym) and the awkwardness of the younger version of Marty’s mom swooning over him. Those were jokes that relied on the insider info that only we, Marty and Doc had. Contrast that with Part II, which is more about all the strange parallels between eras, a joke Marty and Doc don’t really get.
So where does that leave us? It’s tempting to slap Part II with the “postmodern” label, but that doesn’t feel right to me, maybe because the movie doesn’t seem to have any interest in disrupting anything or literally talking to you directly. There’s not much subversion of the movie-consumption process; the gags, even when they seem pointed at us, are gags, and it’s hard to imagine this movie upending the way we view anything. We know the people who made this film are winking at us, and we enjoy it, not because the winking upends the signifying structure of film or subverts the dominant paradigm. We enjoy it because we’re being flirted with, and there’s not much of anything more satisfying than that.