Last week I pointed out sites that like to, well, point out problems with the Back to the Future trilogy. I also pointed out that unlike Marty McFly, when those sites go back in time, they don’t actually bother to fix anything. So I “Marty McFly”ed a few issues, but the truth is that if we must leave most of the time-space continuum as we found it, only one problem really requires repair.
The chief weakness of the sequels is that they eschew the self-doubt and self-empowerment themes of the original film. We all remember when George says to Marty, “What if they tell me I’m no good? I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection. I guess that would sound strange to a guy like you.” Marty answers almost to himself, “no, not at all” – invoking his own similar speech to Jennifer back in 1985 (where he’d followed it with, “Jeez, I sound like my old man”). But in 1955, Marty bucks up his old man, telling him “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” In the new 1985, successful 47-year-old George gives his son the same advice – a sort of perfect circle of restored father and restored son. Where was all that in the sequels?
Instead, we get “nobody calls me chicken.” This isn’t character; it’s regression, in more ways than one. By Part II, time-traveling veteran Marty shouldn’t be so easily baited (or incredulously say things like “I don’t know why no one can give me a straight answer”) – you think Christopher Columbus or Neil Armstrong, upon doing something no human had ever done (like time traveling), would be so easily persuaded by name-calling toward reckless behavior? Who really has “trigger words” outside of dogs and Steve Martin in Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid? (We pause now to love “cleaning woman.”)
Hey, we get it. By screenwriting logic, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis needed to give Marty some kind of personal character flaw that he only resolved at the end of Part III. You might think saving George should be enough for BTTF2 and saving Doc enough for BTTF3, but storytelling dictums from Aristotle to Ron Bass tell us that we still need our hero to have personal obstacles to overcome. And the rest of the story is kind of jam-packed so…okay, fine, a trigger word. But…“chicken,” really? Even the people who wrote “Mr. Sandman” and “Earth Angel” would have considered that a little sophomoric.
The taunting word should have been “slacker.” Read on, and I think you’ll be convinced that they meant it to be slacker but some executive changed it to chicken. “Slacker” is a more original term, almost coined for the first time (anywhere) by Strickland, who uses it during the first film on McFlys in 1955 and 1985. (Jennifer hears Strickland call Marty that; in a wiser sequel, that could turn out to be important.) The term slacker relates more closely to who Marty really is, and who we, the audience, want him to be.
In my alternate reality, in Part II, when the appropriately named Needles needles 47-year-old Marty into an illegal shortcut business strategy, taunting him with “slacker” makes more sense than “chicken”; Needles should say something like “You never go for it, you always settle for less, you’re such a slacker.” When Biff approaches Marty in 2015 in Café 80s, a fellow bully might say “my old man says his old man’s a slacker.” Marty might threaten Biff with a “back down or else” before Biff replies along the lines of “you’re a slacker, McFly. You never do anything you say you’re gonna do.” This would be the new style of the (currently cringe-worthy) “chicken” scenes; Marty would threaten, then told that he never backs up what he says. (By the time he’s in 1885, “yellow” would be a reasonable shorthand – in other words, leave that as is.)
Replacing “chicken” with “slacker” could enable a broader strategy of a trilogy ending that would be more in tune with the outstanding writing of the original film. As I wrote last week, Lorraine’s info dump in 2015 is bordering on lunacy. Instead, in my alternate reality, Lorraine tells her granddaughter, far less coincidentally, “Well, you know your father doesn’t like to say what he feels, doesn’t like to try anything too risky.” After Jennifer overhears, this nugget could provide her sufficient motivation for the remaining 3 ½ hours of the two sequels.
As I said before, I would love a Back to the Future Part II and III where Jennifer is side-by-side with Marty for more of his adventures. Failing that, I’d like a franchise where Jennifer returns to 1985 and we see her busy fixing things (while Marty and Doc keep time-traveling) so that she and Marty can have a future other than the one she saw in 2015. Failing that, and keeping most of BTTF2 and BTTF3 as they are (so as not to overly disrupt the space-time continuum or the editors’ hard work), we could still vastly improve the ending from Marty’s (missed) lifetime-determining accident which just happens to have taken place the day Marty got back from 1885. If you know studios, you know they change endings all the time.
To make my alternate-reality trilogy ending work, at some point in Part II, after Lorraine has given us the heads-up, we need to establish that Marty is emotionally distant – he doesn’t like to risk saying how he feels. (This might be done in many ways, but Marty should use the phrase “I don’t think I can take that kind of rejection.”) In Part III, when Marty learns that Doc told Clara he loves her, he could chuckle that Doc declared his love after knowing Clara for such a short time. Doc could say something along the lines of: “After all we’ve seen, do you really think you can waste time? If you love someone…Great Scott! Let me see that flyer to save the clock tower.” Marty has to dig in his pockets, past clippings of George and photos of Doc’s grave etc, but he produces the blue flyer from the first film, including Jennifer’s hand-written note that says “I love you! 555-4823” Now this is the kind of development that viewers love – it not only rewards them for paying attention, but it’s also a clever reversal of the first film’s scene where Doc skipped past the love-note for the information about the lightning bolt and the tower. Now the only electricity Doc cares about is that between Marty and Jennifer.
Doc says, “Marty, did you tell her you love her?” Marty says, “Well, you don’t just come out and say something like that.” And Doc frets about Marty’s mediocre, humdrum, slacker-ish future – a future Doc knows all too well. And that would play pretty much as it already does in Part III – Doc expresses concern, but backs off because he doesn’t want to reveal too much. But here Doc says, “Just remember, Marty, if you put your mind to it, and you risk yourself, you can accomplish anything.” (Finally, the payoff for those who have been paying attention: Marty and Jennifer said in BTTF that the Doc “always” says that, though he doesn’t, in any of the films – until now.)
(Supplementary to this alternate reality – not required – would be Marty, just when things look bleakest, writing a note to Jennifer in 1955, during BTTF2, and continuing to work on it in 1885, during BTTF3. The idea would be to relive the dramatic tension and heightened poignancy we felt when Marty wrote that note to Doc in the original film. In the first one – perhaps written while he’s stuck in Biff’s garage, as he’s worried that he won’t have time to save the future – he says “Not sure how this works with the continuum, but I’m going to give this to your parents, the Parkers. In case you never see me again…” Later, in 1885 – yes I know that’s technically not “later” – when it really looks as though Biff is determined to kill Marty/Clint the next day, Marty pulls out the half-written, unfinished note, and Doc looks over his shoulder and says “why don’t you say ‘I love you’?”)
After the rest of Part III’s western saga happens, Marty is returned to 1985. Jennifer explains about Marty’s quiet-desperation future, and that she’s determined not to let it happen. Life is too short and too precious, that’s what she’s learned. Turns out that the record company likes the demo tape (that Marty sent at the end of the first film), and now they want an audition. Marty says he doesn’t want to do it; what about the last time and that rejection? (Huey Lewis’s scene in first film.) Jennifer insists. And she also insists that Marty always say how he feels – apparently that’s a big problem with middle-aged Marty, as she found out from old Lorraine. Marty answers, “well, what do you want to know?” “Well, as it turns out,” Jennifer says, “I wrote you a note a week ago and I haven’t heard back.” “Oh, that, well…” “Well?”…“Well, I love you too.”
SMASH CUT TO: a club audition stage where Marty plays “The Power of Love” with his band. Marty looks like he means the words; Jennifer smiles and checks the fax that said “YOU’RE FIRED!” – the words are fading out. George, Lorraine, and Marty’s siblings are at the concert, smiling and rocking. Even Biff is there.* The record company people love Marty’s performance and look to be preparing a contract. And then Marty sees out of the corner of his eye…it can’t be…Doc? And Clara?! Dressed in their 19th century finery?
After the song, Marty goes over to them; Clara, sounding a familiar note, says “That was interesting music Marty.” Marty says “But how did you…?” Doc says “There’s a couple of people I want you to meet.” And Doc and Clara take Marty and Jennifer about a block away, where he’s parked his steampunk-time-travel-train. Doc introduces Jules and Verne, who said they saw Marty perform, but the music was “just too darn loud.” Doc smiles to learn that Jennifer is pushing Marty on his feelings. The rest of it plays out much like we know; Doc says “The future is not written” and elevates the train into the air, ending BTTF3 with that echo of BTTF.
That’s the POWER of love!
– Daniel Smith-Rowsey
(*By the way, Biff should have some kind of awkward redemptive scene after so much screen time playing a one-note bad guy. Perhaps near the end of BTTF3, 1985 car-polishing, tracksuit-wearing Biff could have some kind of mutually forgiving moment with Marty.)
(**If they had really done this, I wonder if Rick Linklater’s “Slacker” would have wound up with the same title, and if he would have broken through and delivered us gems like “Before Sunrise” and “School of Rock” and “Boyhood.” Ah, the space-time continuum, you fickle beast.)