To “Marty McFly” should mean “to restore the past to create the present that we should have had all along.” Today, it’s time for some Marty McFlying.
You probably know that Universal Pictures is celebrating Back to the Future this month with a new DVD trilogy box set, new video game, new videos, and special screenings because October 21, 2015 is the day that Marty McFly, in Back to the Future Part II, arrives in his Hill Valley hometown of the future, a day that internet memes have been falsely hailing for years now. However, before everyone rushes to buy the new DVDs, before everyone gushes their love for all things BTTF, before everyone pushes more comparisons of 2015 “then” and now, I have news that’s, well, heavy: fans of BTTF2, like this, aren’t being honest about the film’s shortcomings. Perhaps they’re afraid to be.
Wait a minute. Did I just call them…chicken?
There have been way too many articles and supercuts about paradoxes and problems with the trilogy. So much complaining, so little helpfulness. Did they not notice that Marty McFly, when he goes back in time, adjusts things so that the photos are magically better? In that proactive spirit, then, let’s do something different: let’s get that flux capacitor fluxing, throw that hoverboard in the back, and Marty McFly the heck out of Back to the Future Part II.
Two important caveats before we start: everyone knows the film that he/she personally saw the most times in the theater (besides Rocky Horror). For some it’s Star Wars, others Titanic. For me it’s Back to the Future, a movie I saw ten times in various theaters in the summer of 1985, when I was but a young lad. Back to the Future made me want to work on and with movies. And when you teach film for a living, as I do, you’re often asked what’s your all-time favorite film, and I’ve probably answered Back to the Future as much as anything else.
So were my expectations too high for Back to the Future Part II? Maybe, though it was clearly made for enthusiasts like me, as it spends its final forty minutes immersed in the world of the original film in a manner that no previous or subsequent sequel, of any film, can claim. The point of this caveat is: I’m a fan. If you and I were to take a DeLorean back in time exactly 30 years from today, you’d meet a young me who had seen Back to the Future on ten occasions prior to its video release. (I’d like to meet any editor of futurepedia who could claim the same.) So this article comes from love. Tough love.
Second caveat is that this list of unforced errors is very intentionally not a list of paradoxes or time-travel-related narrative problems, because, one, that’s been done authoritatively elsewhere (see links above), and two, despite what you’ve heard, that’s actually not what’s irksome about BTTF2. I don’t believe I’m alone amongst fans in accepting that certain time-travel-related contradictions have to exist for the sake of the series. What we do not accept is the unnecessarily lazy and incoherent writing that happens routinely throughout BTTF2. What we do not accept is a fallow follow-up to a brilliant original film about rejection and self-actualization.
Asked about Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ script for the first Back to the Future, executive producer Steven Spielberg gushed, “It was tight as a drum but, at the same time, it was loose enough to allow Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to bring their spontaneity.” Exactly right, Mr. Spielberg. And they sure don’t exude that spontaneity in the sequels. Did you know that Back to the Future was the first science-fiction film ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? Did you know that in 2006, the Writers Guild of America voted it the 56th greatest script of all time? Considering that and the four years Gale and Zemeckis took to make BTTF2, I feel we might have expected a little more. So travel back in time with me, position the hoverboard just right, and we can adjust our density, uh, I mean, our destiny:
Problem 1: The opening credit sequence is boring and weird. I know you’re thinking: really, the credits? But Syd Field was right: the first ten minutes are sink or swim, and the movie has to be running on all cylinders. BTTF2 starts with an exact restaging of the first film’s finale – exciting! – and then flashes credits in daylight-bleached NeverEndingStory-style clouds for two minutes. Is this a journey through time travel-land? No, because we saw Marty hit a scarecrow in the first picture, we know the transition is instantaneous. Is this Marty and Jennifer’s first glimpse of 2015? No, because that’s night and rain and traffic, as we soon learn. I understand wanting to use Alan Silvestri’s theme as much as possible – it might be the best film music ever written. Let’s go further: if Silvestri’s great-grandfather had written that music in 1885, someone would have had to have invented the entire movie industry just so that music could have been attached to a film. But back to The Future Part II: these cloudy credits are like something from a 1970s kids movie, and that’s not good enough, not when the first film flashed credits during a real scene (Marty entering Doc’s lab). Better BTTF2 would have put credits on the opening scene, perhaps “Starring Michael J. Fox” segueing into the DeLorean’s unexpected arrival, “Christopher Lloyd” placed on the shot of the actor stepping out of the car. As Biff sees the car streak across the sky, we see “Directed by Robert Zemeckis” and jump right into that rainy 2015 air-traffic. Now we’re amped for the rest of the movie!
Solution: Cut the clouds, put credits on the opening scene.
Problem 2: Doc removes a latex mask and smiles at Marty, who says “you look great, Doc”: awkward and dumb. Doc’s pretense for the mask is that he didn’t want to throw off 1985 Marty, but if that’s true, why wear the futuristic goggles? Also, did Doc really think that Marty would really think someone else would be arriving in a time-traveling DeLorean? This could be written off as Doc’s battiness, but it’s superfluous, because none of us are paying all that much attention to Christopher Lloyd’s various wrinkles. I understand producers wanted Lloyd to look younger (or close to his actual age) for BTTF2 and BTTF3, but Zemeckis could have easily filmed the opening scene with Lloyd looking younger than he had in the final scene of the first one, and no one would have noticed. There might have been a throwaway line about it later that was funnier than the labored latex-mask removal. “Yes, Marty, these days they have adjustable boots, jackets, even faces.” (Don’t say that the film had to sell the cops being impressed at Jennifer’s face-job; the cops could have just fingerprint-ID’d her and taken her home in any event.)
Solution: Kill the mask.
Problem 3: Doc takes unconscious Jennifer out of the car for no real reason. Doc claims that to immobilize Marty Jr., he needs Jennifer out of the car. This rings false; it’s the sort of implausible narrative gimmick that the first film never gave us. First solution would be never to knock out Jennifer at all, and instead beef up her role (see next item). Since that might be too much of a disruption of the space-time continuum, how about Doc tries to ding Marty Jr. with the Men in Black-like device (the movie doesn’t show his attempt), and in the process loses Jennifer? One possibility: DeLorean on street, Doc opens door to ask Marty Jr. for directions, uses the device, Marty Jr. falls onto Jennifer’s body and they both tumble out of the car, the cops are nearby, Doc freaks and drives away. Marty Jr. awakens before cops even notice, says “Wow, this could be Mom’s daughter” or something, walks into 80s Café.
Solution: Jennifer could fall out of the car in some other way.
Problem 4: Jennifer spends way too much time being manhandled by Doc and Marty. There’s nothing inherently amusing about Doc and Marty carrying Jennifer like she’s a sack of potatoes out of the car into an alley, from her older self’s suburban home to the car, and from the car to her parents’ porch. Instead it plays as though Doc and Marty, like the filmmakers, are stuck with a plot complication they don’t enjoy. Part II and Part III would be better with a Jennifer who had more to do than sleep. (What happened to “The Power of Love”?) In my alternate, less objectifying reality, Jennifer and Marty are side-by-side for much of II and III, or perhaps she’s taking care of other complications in a sub-plot. Instead of screaming and fainting when she sees her older self, perhaps she finds the Hilldale house in her own way, or comes out of the house to find Marty and Doc and tells them how they need to fix things in 1985…and in 1985 she lays the groundwork for her improved family while Marty and Doc go to 1955 to save George.
Solution: Make Jennifer more proactive and less of a sleeping beauty.
Problem 5: Marty leaves the DeLorean at the equivalent of “Squirrel!” As far as we can tell, he’s distracted by a floating drone walking a dog (impressively prescient, by the way). But come on, would our Marty really be that careless and irresponsible? At least make him decide to see his future house – or perhaps go there when he hears Jennifer scream (see last item).
Solution: Give Marty a better reason to leave the car alone.
Problem 6: Old Biff shouldn’t know how to work the time machine. Biff overhears Doc discuss the time machine (too-convenient information dump, but okay) but Biff certainly does not hear how to activate the time circuits or that he has to drive it 88mph to time-travel. Also, he’s surprisingly good at throwing it into reverse and hovering it off the ground, but hey, maybe Biff’s last car (in 2014 or so) did that before he started taking cabs. This isn’t a major Biff beef – I get that he has all the time in the world (ha ha) to figure it out. It would have simply been part of a cleaner script, more like the first movie’s, to show Biff fumbling in the car a little bit (as Marty did once upon a time), and recalling that he’d seen it speeding three decades earlier.
Solution: Have Biff echo Marty’s 1955 fumblings with the car’s controls.
Problem 7: Lorraine’s info dump to Jennifer is beyond “convenient” and closer to “comet-colliding-level astronomical coincidence.” In the other info dump, Old Biff had good reason to ascertain the truth about the DeLorean – he saw something fishy, followed Doc and Marty, and listened. Young Jennifer, on the other hand, just happened to be home on the day that her future mother-in-law (who isn’t, to her or our knowledge, dealing with anything unusual) reveals to her daughter that Marty’s entire life was altered by an accident that happened on – well, of all times, October 27, 1985. Come on. This particular problem bleeds into the problem of finding something more to do for Jennifer (see above), and a better narrative device than “don’t call me chicken” (see below). But the simplest patch would have been to cut Lorraine’s info dump (while giving Lea Thompson other, better dialogue; she’s clearly under-used). If the final drag race in Part III is somehow immutable, time-traveling Jennifer could learn about it some other way, perhaps unearthing records or her own diary (it would be natural to flip it to the day of the time-travel and just after).
Solution: Cut Lorraine’s info dump, try other ways to tell story.
Problem 8: Doc Brown is borderline creepy. Marty cries over his father’s grave in 1985, wailing “it can’t be truuuue!” Doc Brown shows up out of nowhere, in the dark, his shadow falling over George’s grave, saying “I’m afraid it is true, Marty, all of it.” Lightning flash. Are we meant to think for even a second that this is now-evil Doc from an alternate timeline? Really? I’m sure staging this scene was fun, but the BTTF series doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of funny-horror meta-filmmaking that Zemeckis had probably seen Sam Raimi do so well in Evil Dead 2. And Doc Brown is oddly obsessive and controlling when it comes to the McFly family. In 2015 he casually (and unnecessarily) mentions that he knows when 40-something Jennifer will get home. Doc’s stalkiness is most visible with Marty, who seems forever under Brown’s thumb, or walkie-talkie. Considering the nature of time travel, couldn’t Doc have allowed Marty and Jennifer that weekend at the lake at film’s outset? (All right, that was in the first film: too late to change.) Could he have just left a note on George’s grave, to be less creepshow? Did Doc need to make elaborate, 70-year preparations so that Marty wouldn’t be without word from him in 1955 for half a minute? How about a little breathing space?
Solution: Don’t force Doc on Marty at every plot turn.
Problem 9: The Sports Almanac 1950-2000 would be a LOT bigger than a thick magazine. I know this is a quibble, just like I know some sports fan out there is reading this saying thank you I thought it was just me. I get that it’s an easier MacGuffin as a lightweight catalog, but they had to get this very consequential MacGuffin right. And this is a two-fer, which could fix another very fixable problem, namely the fact that after Biff switches covers to fool Strickland, the ostensibly cover-less almanac does, impossibly, still have the same cover. Probably the filmmakers wanted to keep the look for the almanac they’d established, but a thicker book would solve that: we’ve all pulled off the glossy cover of a hardback to see that the hard cover inside looks just like it (well, sometimes).
Solution: Make the Sports Almanac the book it should be.
Problem 10: Casino Owning Biff reveals everything to Marty for no reason. Why would 1985 Donald Trump-esque Biff confess to anyone, much less Marty, how, when, and where he procured the almanac? This isn’t even “monologuing” as brilliantly defined in The Incredibles; this is just Biff (and the writers) being silly about the movie’s hinge plot point. And why would Marty approach him without a better plan for getting the information? I know Marty’s not the weapon-wielding type, but perhaps Marty could tell Biff, “I know everything about the almanac and if you don’t tell me when and how you got it, I’m going to tell everyone about it, and you’ll be either sharing every dollar you make from now on, or hunted by every fortune-seeker in the country.” Only then would Biff give up the info, perhaps say “you want to see it?”, pull the almanac out of the safe, and effectively hide himself withdrawing the gun at the same time. (Since we probably do need some kind of mild action scene here.)
Solution: Give Biff a better reason for the reveal.
Problem 11: Biff should shoot Marty ASAP. Instead he sits there on the roof saying “two McFlys, same gun” – why confess that? There are more plausible ways to bring that up (perhaps Marty makes the accusation and Biff’s eyes widen). This forces Thomas F. Wilson to veer into cartoonish villainy, which is a larger problem with the film anyway. The solution was right there in the scene – Biff orders Marty to commit suicide, which would certainly be “cleaner” as a fake story. The filmmakers and Biff give up on that idea too quickly.
Solution: Make Biff insist, for longer, that Marty jump off the roof.
Problem 12: Marty walkie-talkies Doc from the backseat of Biff’s moving car. All credit is due to unsung Thomas F. Wilson’s outstanding “selling” of this moment of Biff’s apparent indifference to noise coming from his open backseat, but sorry-not-sorry: Biff could have been driving through Times Square at rush hour and still he would have noticed anyone in his backseat talking to a walkie-talkie. That’s just ridonkulous and entirely unnecessary, unlike anything in the original film (which we are now immersed in, on our way to the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, reminding us of the newer film’s less potent enchantments). Marty tells Doc nothing that can’t wait a few minutes.
Solution: Let Biff arrive at the dance, leave the car, and Marty could speak to Doc then.
Problem 13: Biff love-taps Marty and leaps into his car to get away from the dance. I’m not sure which makes less sense – that Biff, seeking revenge on Marty for $300 damage (in 1955, that’s alotta scrilla), would let him off with one swift kick, or that, after said kick, Biff would flee like he’d left a pot boiling at home? From all we know of Biff, wouldn’t he return to the dance and keep trying to seduce Lorraine? I know we have to get to the car chase and the hoverboard use and all that, but this didn’t require much for a reasonable fix.
Solution: After first kick, bring out Strickland in distance, who threatens the kicker with expulsion.
Problem 14: The circumstances of Doc’s exit from 1955 are preposterous. First, Doc can maneuver the car well enough to catch Marty falling off a skyscraper, but he can’t put it down in a little storm? (And when he announces he can’t, by now you know this is about to cover another creaky plot twist.) Second, a bolt of lightning spinning the car as fast as 88 mph? REALLY? Come on. This is going to take a little more than glue and tape, but it’s worth it.
In my alternate reality, after Doc saves a hoverboarding Marty with the string, their escape flight is marked by close lightning flashes and high winds; the car shakes so badly that Doc must land it. Marty is about to get in when it turns out Biff isn’t done (manure truck hasn’t yet appeared) – he throws an empty beer bottle at Marty, almost hitting him, and he’s got more such empties (this has been established in the film series multiple times). Marty encourages Doc to go-go-go, and Doc does while Marty hoverboards holding the side of the car. The almanac being so precious, Marty encourages Doc to floor it, yelling that he does this on his way to school every day. Doc peers at his instruments; no plutonium cartridge right now, so they can go 90, and he floors it. (If it’s too implausible that Marty could hang on at this point, then he should shove the almanac into the Mr. Fusion or something; the almanac’s escape from Biff is more important than Marty’s.) The car is struck by lightning (!), vanishes just before it was about to hit a manure truck, and Biff hits the truck. Marty is thrown for a serious loop, falls in some kind of pile of leaves (well, it IS October), and arises to see the almanac burning in the fire trail left by the car’s time travel. Marty checks the newspaper clipping to see that his father is okay, sees Biff in the manure, and hoverboards out of there.
Solution: Above paragraph
Problem 15: The scene with the Western Union guy is wildly implausible. First, Marty reads aloud a 70-year-old letter in the pouring rain? Get under that guy’s umbrella! As per my earlier item about Doc crowding Marty, this scene shouldn’t even happen; Marty should go to Doc’s 1955 house (where else would he go after Doc disappears?), ask 1955 Doc if he received any cryptically addressed letters (e.g. “To Marty only after Marty has gone back to the future”), and then let Part III roll. Western Union delivers to houses; it does not deliver to a nowhere street at 9:30pm on a Saturday. One problem is that by this time, you’ve given up on the film’s little glaring errors – exactly the kind of giving up you weren’t forced to do in the first film.
Solution: See above, again
But you know, we could forget and forgive all of these little snafus, if the trilogy had only done one thing differently, the one that has to do with Marty as a person, with his own personal George Bailey-style redemption. That one thing — call it the “chicken-slacker problem” — will be the subject of Let’s Talk Back to the Future, Part III.
– Daniel Smith-Rowsey