#16 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
The two Bobs painted themselves into a narrative corner with their jokey ending to the first Back to the Future movie. They had no intention of ever making another one, so the tag at the end was just for giggles. But, the first movie was hugely successful and Universal threw money at the two Bobs until they relented and made another pair of movies. So, saddled with a throwaway line about Marty’s kids and taking his girlfriend along, the two Bobs realized that they were in a jam. Dealing with Marty’s kids kind of went against everything Doc had been about up to that point and Jennifer was pretty much dead weight considering the dynamic between Marty and Doc. They were trapped, and they decided to deal with it head on.
And I think that’s where this movie’s problems lay. The opening forty minutes of the movie is spent justifying the final jokey stinger at the end of the first movie, and it’s a laborious set up for the actual plot of the movie. Other than Marty buying a future almanac, very little of what happens has any bearing on the events of the rest of the movie. More time is actually spent setting up things for the third movie, which ends up making the first third of Back to the Future Part II feel like the opening act of another movie. Other than the sports almanac, almost nothing of what happens in the first third of the film has any bearing on the rest of the film.
So, Doc brings Marty and Jennifer to 2015 and immediately regrets bringing Jennifer. So, he knocks her out with a futuristic thing, and moves to get Marty to replace his son who is going to agree to a robbery with Griff, Biff’s grandson, and go to jail which will tear the family apart in the further future. So, using time travel to make Marty’s life better, which he promptly chastises Marty for when he wants to bring a sports almanac back and make some money in the past to make his life better. After Marty goes through a repeat of his skateboarding scene from the first movie, this time with hover boards, the elderly Biff figures out that Doc has invented a time machine and picks up the almanac that Marty bought and Doc forced him to throw away. After a quick detour because Jennifer got picked up by the cops and taken to her future home, Biff steals the DeLorean, goes back and time, and returns the time machines (why?) to this version of 2015 (despite what Doc later says about traveling forward from an alternate timeline) before falling out of frame in apparent pain.
This first act is a mess. It makes little logical sense and it just doesn’t fit the final two acts. There are certainly joys to it, though. The vision of the future is interesting with wonderful touches like the Jaws 19 movie stuff, but that feels like a missed opportunity. I don’t know if the two Bobs bandied around the idea of skipping forward for the start of the story, maybe covering some of the action with some quick dialogue instead, but as it stands the first forty minutes of this movie is kind of a chore.
Once the plot of the movie clears up and solidifies, though, the movie is far more entertaining. The movie gains a new goal (again, about forty minutes in) and it charges ahead. With Biff having become a millionaire through betting from the 50s on, 1985 has changed dramatically. Biff has taken over Hill Valley, the sleepy little town, and turned it into a gambling centric hellhole with his tower at the center. George is dead, and Loraine has married Biff. Marty, who’s supposed to be in Switzerland, shows up and gets a rude awakening at this new reality. Doc figures out what went wrong based on some clues left in the DeLorean and decides that the only course of action to fix everything is to go back to 1955.
Revisiting the 1955 story from another perspective was never the two Bobs’ first choice. They originally wanted to go back to 1965 and see the flower children version of Marty’s parents. I suppose the decision to not rehire Crispin Glover to play George (because Crispin Glover is a crazy person) played into that narrative change of course. So, we get a rather amusing look at time travel with a heavier emphasis on potential paradoxes.
Once again, the goal is clear. Marty needs to get the almanac back but he can’t let his past self or his parents see him (why he can’t wait for Biff to fall asleep and steal it from his room is less clear, the time limitations don’t really exist in this movie). So, he navigates the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, intersecting with the previous film’s actions in entertaining ways. He has to sneak by his past self in the car with his mother. He gets to watch his father’s grand moment in a way that he didn’t before, just as he steals the almanac from Biff’s pocket. He has to save his past self from Biff’s goon friends just off stage of past Marty playing “Johnny Be Good”. It’s solid, entertaining stuff, though it often feels easier than the first film (like the three goons happening to stand under some easily released sandbags).
The film ends triumphantly and then tragically and then with a cliffhanger (and then a tease of the third film that I’m honestly very happy Universal keeps including on home releases) all in quick order, and the movie’s overall light tone lets it bounce from one emotion to another without much trouble. These movies are meant to be fun, not deeply felt, so it allows for these jumps more easily. Sure we can feel sad at the sudden disappearance of Doc and the DeLorean after it gets struck by lightning, but the movie was never going for tears at any point so it functions more as shock than tragedy.
Back to the Future Part II stumbles in the beginning and then lightly recovers by the end. It’s an amusing continuation of the series has some fun visuals along the way (this seems to be the first real instance of Zemeckis falling in love with the technology, even more so than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). It’s a near miss for me overall, though. The first act just feels way too disassociated from the rest of the film, feeling more like a precursor to Part III rather than the final two-thirds of Part II, for me to ignore. There’s definitely fun to be had, for sure, but I just hoped for more.