WARNING!!: Spoilers ahead!!
When Back to the Future proved to be a worldwide success, the powers that be at Universal wanted to push for a sequel. Even though Zemeckis and Gale were quite proud of the way the movie had turned out in the end, they weren’t that eager to jump back into Marry McFly’s world just yet. But, as things go in Hollywood, they were soon put between a rock and a hard place when they were told by Sheinberg that a sequel would happen regardless of whether they were involved in it or not. The Bobs were faced with a conundrum; do we pass on it, and risk having the sequel not live up to fans expectations? Or do we get involved, and try to make the best out of it? The question answered itself as they both realized that they didn’t want to have their characters and universe touched by someone else, and risk losing their hard-earned fanbase. All that remained to be seen was whether they could count their cast and crew in to come back to Hill Valley once again.
A rocky start
The filmmakers agreed to do the movie on the condition that all the cast members from the previous movie agreed to come back. They all immediately agreed to come back, minus one. Crispin Glover had been a bane to Zemeckis’s existence on the previous shoot because of his on-set antics and strange acting methods. Glover had to constantly be refrained from going over board with some of his crazy suggestions but did, in the end, deliver a memorable performance. One that was intrinsically linked with the movie’s success. The actor had always voiced his disatisfaction with the way he’d been treated during the shoot, and was going to play hardball this time around. Depending on what account you listen to, he was either asking for too much money to come back as George McFly, or according to Glover himself, he was offered less than his fellow cast members. The end result was the same; neither party could come to terms, and so negotiations fell through. The Bobs were now faced with the problem of having to write a sequel without counting on George McFly.
The Bobs had never seriously considered doing a follow-up to their movie, and the finale in which “Doc” Brown, Marty and Jennifer fly off into the future was always meant to be a joke. The Bobs have always stated that, had they known they were going to do a sequel, they would’ve never put Jennifer in the car with Doc and Marty, as they now were at a loss as to what to do with her. Anyhow, with Zemeckis busy shooting Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), it was entirely up to Gale to write a first draft of the script. In this early incarnation, “Doc” and Marty, after having come back from the future to an alternative 1985 in which Biff Tannen reigns supreme, and finding out about the Sports Almanac, they travel to 1967 instead of 1955, in which Lorraine is a flower child and George, now a Proffesor, is cleverly written out of the story as he’s said to be off giving a lecture in another state. When Zemeckis came back from London and read the script, he suggested to Gale the novel idea of re-visiting the first movie from a different perspective, as it was something that had never been done before, and was easily conceivable since they were using time travel. That’s how the story for the sequel was gestated. The movie picks up exactly where the previous one left off. Marty has returned to a new and improved 1985, in which his family is happier and he has the car of his dreams. Soon thereafter, “Doc” shows up in the time machine and tells Marty that they have to go “back to the future”, as something has to be done about his children. With Jennifer, who’d come to visit Marty, in tow, they shoot off into the future, to the year 2015. Here “Doc” explains to Marty that a robbery is gonna take place this very night in which his son is gonna be involved, and arrested afterwards. Marty has to go to an 80s themed Café, where he is to replace his son, who’s physically identical to him, and face off Griff Tannen’s gang, Biff Tannen’s grandson, and reject his proposal of taking part in the robbery. A subsequent scuffle involving hoverboards takes place, and as a consequence, the timeline is restored. Shortly after, Marty enters an antique store and buys a Sports Almanac that will tell him the results of all major sporting events from 1950 to the year 2000. “Doc” finds out about this, and after admonishing Marty on the misuse of time travel for financial gain, throws the Almanac away. In the meantime, Biff Tannen has overheard the entire conversation, takes the Almanac, steals the time machine while “Doc” and Marty are distracted picking up Jennifer, who’s mistakenly being confused by the police as the Jennifer of the future, and taken to Marty and Jennifer’s future residence in Hilldale, and goes back to the year 1955 to give the Almanac to his younger self. Unbeknownst to them, “Doc” and Marty travel back to 1985, only to find that the timeline has been seriously altered. Biff is the richest man on this alternative 1985, has married Lorraine, George has been killed, Marty’s siblings Linda and Dave haven fallen in hard times, and “Doc” has been institutionalized. Marty gets Biff to tell him about the Sports Almanac, and the exact date in which Biff gave it to his younger self, which just so happens to be November 12, 1955; the exact day in which Marty travels back to 1985. Now it’s up to both Marty and “Doc” to recover the Almanac without being spotted by either of their 1955 counterparts, thus further altering the timeline.
As confusing as it may seem at first glance, the script is fairly straightforward and cleverly uses all the tricks in the “time travel” book to create a compelling rollercoaster ride of a movie. Another problem that arose from this first draft was the length of it. After restoring the timeline, the DeLorean, with “Doc” in it, is hit by a bolt of lightning transporting him back to the Old West, in the year 1885, forcing Marty to once again, go back in time and rescue his friend. As soon as Sid Sheinberg read the script, he saw that there was enough material in this mammoth of a draft to make two sequels instead of just one. This was something that neither of the Bobs had had in mind when they were first approached about making a sequel, but decided to run with it, as both filmmakers were fans of the Western genre, and had always wanted to make one. With this new development, they also had to tell the cast and crew that they might be in for a bit more that they had signed for. The cast and crew, having had such a wonderful experience shooting the first movie, decided to go all in too, and so it was decided by all those concerned that it might be quicker and cheaper to shoot both movies back to back. Being something that is quite common practice nowadays with many sequels and sagas being shot back to back like The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 (2010-2011), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Death Man’s Chest, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2006-2007), to name just a few; it wasn’t done that often back in the day with Alexander and Ilya Salkind being pioneers in this practice with their epic two-part adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1973-1974), with a later aborted attempt to do the same with Superman: The Movie, and Superman II. The shoot proved to be a gruelling experience for the cast and crew due to the lengthier shooting schedule, but ultimately an enjoyable one, even if some of those involved wouldn’t necessarily agree to that statement.
Having being unable to reach an agreement with Crispin Glover to reprise his role as George McFly, it was time for the filmmakers to get creative. In the new draft, they had written George McFly off the main body of the story as much as they could but, having chosen to go down the route of re-visiting the first movie in the film’s third act, they had to find an actor who had enough of a physical of resemblance, and who was good at copying Glover’s mannerisms. They found such actor in Jeffrey Weisman. Weisman was an up-and -coming actor who was making a name for himself as an imitator. The filmmakers thought they had struck gold with him, and inmediately hired him. Weisman was at first delighted to be working on the Back to the Future sequel, as he thought this move would further his acting career but, what everyone neglected to tell him was that he would be sparingly used at best, always in heavy makeup to obscure his features, as to make him look more like Glover, or shot out of focus to hide the fact that Glover wasn’t in the movie. The filmmakers wanted to be as faithful to the story’s continuity as possible, and wanted the main audience to feel that Glover was still in the movie. That meant no promotion tours for Weissman afterwards, and no spotlight on him as an actor. The actor inmediately felt the pressure of filling such big shoes as soon as he came on set. He didn’t feel particularly welcomed by any of the cast and crew, and was constantly reminded that he was there to act as a stand-in more than anything else. It also didn’t help that the actor had to be in facial prostethics most of the time, that gave his face a weird and deformed appearance. There was a funny incident in which the actor run into some of the cast members who were shooting Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty (1990), next door. They too were all in heavy facial prosthetics, but nevertheless kept on staring at Weissman, as if he were a member of their cast, but with even more extreme makeup on. For the Future scenes, in which the actor had to wear old age makeup and being hung upside down on a especially designed floating harness, on the excuse that old George had thrown his back, would end up causing the actor excruciating back pain as a result of being upside down for long periods of time. Most of the crew and cast think, and this was later confirmed by Bob Gale on subsequent interviews, that they felt Glover had being such a pain in the neck to deal with, that they decided to have his character upside down for those sequences as punishment. Lea Thompson never felt entirely comfortable with Weissman being there, as she’d got on famously with Glover on the previous movie, and admitted to having had a cold and distant attitude towards the actor. The controversy would not end there, however, as the crew had used molds of Glover’s face from his old-age makeup from the previous movie to use as a guideline for Weissman’s facial prosthetics. This, along with other rumors that the filmmakers were using some of the footage from the previous movie to intercut into the sequel, came to Glover’s attention, who decided to sue the Studio for using his likeness without his consent. He wound up winning the claim, and his win paved the way from preventing Studios from doing the same to other actors in the future. Glover was further helped by private confidences a disgruntled Weissman had made to the actor over the phone complaining about the cold treatment he’d received from most of the crew, and his agent’s inability to negotiate a better salary for him. These declarations would later come back to haunt Weissman, as he’d been expressly told not to get in contact with Glover under any circumstances, digging himself a deeper and bigger hole for his acting career in the future, as no Studio would want to hire him on account of his indiscretions. The overall experience ended up being a bittersweet one for the actor, but has since made his peace with it.
Of all the things Zemeckis had to deal with in the sequel, the one thing he disliked the most was designing the Hill Valley of the future. The filmmaker wasn’t very fond of movies taking place in the future, with a few exceptions, as he thought that no one could ever accurately predict how things were gonna look like. This time around, Zemeckis decided no to re-hire Lawrence G. Paul as Production Designer for two reasons. First he thought that Larry Paul, who had been instrumental in bringing about the design of the dark dystopia future of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), would feel tempted once again to repeat the same concept for Back to the Future part II, and Zemeckis and Gale had a vision for a user-friendly and brighter looking future; and second, even though they’d managed to work well together on the previous movie, they had had disagreements in the way Zemeckis wanted the product placement side of things when designing 1955 Hill Valley, to be handled. Zemeckis feared that they would come to heads once again for the sequel, as this movie, in particular the scenes taking place in the future, would have even heavier product placement than the previous movie from companies like Pepsi, Mattel, AT&T, and Black&Decker. Zemeckis decided to hire Rick Carter, with whom he’d previously worked on an episode of the Amazing Stories TV show. They had got on very well back then, and they had also coincided with Christopher Lloyd on that episode, so there was already an element of familiarity there. Rick Carter would stay on for Back to the Future part III, when the one sequel ended up being two. The idea was to get away from a vision of the future represented in films like Brazil, Terry Gilliam (1985), in which technology was cumbersome, constantly broke down, and didn’t seem to work properly most of the time, and the use of recognizable brands in the market was essential to bring that across. The filmmakers came up with a few nifty ideas for the future like the self-lacing shoes, self-drying clothing, hoverboards, and the most iconic of them all, and one that people are still waiting for to be realized; flying cars. While many of the filmmakers’s predictions for the Future have since come to pass like flat widescreen TVs, and thumb-printing technology, other more eagerly awaited ones like hoverboards, flying cars, and self-lacing shoes, are yet to become a reality. This last prediction, the self-lacing shoes, was the one invention producer Steven Spielberg apparently laments not becoming a reality. One prop especially designed for the scenes taking place in the future would end up causing no short amount of headaches to the crew; the Hoverboard.
On a TV special about the Making of Back to the Future and its sequel, Zemeckis jokingly said that the hoverboards they were using in the movie were real, but not yet available for purchase in your local toy store. To everyone’s surprise, it wasn’t long before parents started calling the Studio inquiring after the fabled hoverboards. Some people just can’t take a joke, I suppose.
Pushing technical boundaries
A variety of techniques were used throughout the movie, like motion controlled cameras, miniatures, wires, processed shots on stage, blue screen, models, and the grand daddy of them all; the Vista Glide motion controlled camera. This groundbreaking piece of technology was the brainchild of Visual Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston. Zemeckis and Ralston had already worked together on Who framed Roger Rabbit?, and were already pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved on camera back then, but this time around, they were taking it one step further. The idea of using this camera came about as a result of having the characters interact with past and future versions of themselves in all the different timelines the movie would visit. It was a painstakingly slow and difficult process, in which everything on the scene had to remain exactly the same with props glued or nailed down, so they wouldn’t move and with actors having to hit their marks precisely. A clear example of the use of this technology is the scene of the McFlys having dinner together in their future residence in Hilldale. We have Michael J. Fox playing three characters in the scene; Marty McFly Sr, Marty McFly Jr, and Marty’s daughter, Marlene. The original intent of that scene, as shown on the Bluray’s deleted scenes section, was to have it shown as one unbroken master shot, in which Fox interacts with each one of the different characters he plays. That would have called for Fox to play each segment of the scene, with stand-ins to take his place as the other characters, getting out of his old Marty makeup, dressing up as Marlene, and going back in until the scene was finished, in the meantime making sure that nothing on the set was moved or disturbed. The final result is seamless, and the technology makes the most out of it in scenes when the same actor playing two different characters has to interact with themselves. This proved to be the real novelty when it came to visual effects, as the crew had already nailed the best way to show time travel on-screen, having already tested all the necessary techniques on the previous movie. Still, as they’d done before, they used three DeLorean cars conveniently dressed and updated for the sequel; one which was the so-called ”Hero car”, which had the most detail in both the interior and exterior, and was generally used for close ups, another one, from which pieces could be removed from to allow for the placement of shooting equipment inside and outside, which was used generally for processed shots in the sound stage, and another one which was basically an empty shell, with nothing in it, and used generally for dangerous manouvres and stunts. As it now didn’t need plutonium to generate a nuclear reaction to travel through time, and in the spirit of a more user-friendly future, the time machine’s nuclear reactor has been conveniently switched for a new reactor dubbed Mr Fusion, which uses garbage as a means of generating nuclear energy. It also had undergone a hover conversion after ” Doc’s” journey to the future, which now allows it to fly everywhere, with all four wheels bending inwards. All these changes had to be implemented to the cars, in ones more so than in others. A fiber glass life size replica of the time vehicle was built to be used for those shots in which the DeLorean can be seen floating down to land. It was constructed with that material for it to be light enough so a crane could elevate it or lower it easily. For those establishing shots in which the car can be seen flying around at a distance, it was thought best to use models which were shot with motion controlled cameras.
Re-designing the Present, the Past, and the Future.
As it had previously been done on the first movie, the movie was shot in reverse order as the timelines appear in the movie, with the scenes taking place in 1955 being shot first, the Alternative 1985 being shot next, and finally the scenes that take place in the future. This wide array of different time periods really gave newly recruited British Costume Designer Johanna Johnston a run for her money. She was able to rescue most of the clothes and dresses that had been used for the 1955 scenes on the first Back to the Future movie, that had been kept in storage, minus a replica of the dress that Lea Thompson had worn for the Enchantment Under the Sea dance scene. Luckily for Johnston, Thompson still had the dress she had used in that scene at home. Both her and Carter really let their imaginations fly with the scenes taking place in the future, with Johnston coming up with some outrageous designs like especially designed footwear for which she partnered up with Nike and wearing two ties at the same time, which luckily hasn’t caught on, and Carter infusing the architecture of the buildings, the massive use of publicity through holographic displays, and signage, with a clear Japanese influence; as Carter thought at the time that Japan would have a huge influence in Western culture in the future. But where both Johnston and Carter really went to town was in the design of the Alternative 1985. Both were instructed by Zemeckis to go as much overboard as they could, and amp up the tacky element up to eleven. They defaced the 1985 set, adding as much grime, graffiti and dirty signage to it as they could. They even re-converted the courthouse building into a casino, with the top half of it extending far up into the sky via a matte painting, and lots of biker gangs riding all over the place. They also wanted to introduce the idea that Hill Valley High had been destroyed in a fire, which can be seen as an added scene with incomplete visual effects showing the derelict building in the bluray’s bonus features. They finally decided to do away with that particular scene, and the school burning down is mentioned by Strickland when Marty runs into him. The wardrobe choices for the actors in this particular time period were a mixture of Las Vegas style wear, and the worst of the 70s, with lots of jewelry, flare pants, hideous looking suits, and an outrageously large chest piece that Lea Thompson had to wear to give the impression she had larger breast implants. The makeup artists also went back to applying extra layers of facial prosthetics to make some of the actor’s look exceedingly old and unhealthy, as Lorraine as taken to drinking again in this time period. A bit over the top, if you ask me, and the only technical element throughout the whole trilogy that never really sat well with me. Old-age makeup back in those days wasn’t a fine-tuned craft to say the least. That minor complaint aside, the design team in the movie did an excellent job with all the time periods, with Carter lovingly recreating all the sets that Larry Paul had built for the first movie with all the street furniture, signage, and especially the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, all re-created to a tee.
Financial and Critical reception
The movie, even though it slightly fell off what the previous one had made at the box office, was still a financial success by Universal standards, in a year that was choked full of big blockbusters like Batman, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade and The Abyss. On the critical front though, the opinions were definitely more mixed, with critics divided between those who thought the idea of re-visiting the first movie from a different perspective was a novel one, and those who didn’t like the darker tone and apparently confusing plot. So what do I think about the first sequel to my most beloved movie of all time?
I think it’s quite simply brilliant. It doesn’t reach the heights that the first movie did, but it doesn’t really need to. I think that had the Bobs gone with Gale’s first idea of going back to the 60s, interesting change of pace though it may have been, they would’ve delivered a more run-of-the-mill sequel, like indeed the last entry in the series is. Going with this approach, on the other hand, gave the filmmakers the opportunity to offer the fans more or less the same, but with a different twist. It provided the filmmakers the opportunity, once again, to play with the ”time travel rule book” for all its worth, allowing for ample opportunities to set things up that would pay off later. These little nuggets of information are cleverly spread out throughout the movie, which makes the movie even more enjoyable on subsequent repeated viewings. It’s a very clever sequel. There’s no other way to put it. It takes every possible advantage of its plot, taking the audience on an exciting and emotional roller coaster ride. Some people complain about the darker turn the story takes halfway through, but all great middle chapters in a trilogy tend to do this and they, most often than not, take a beating by the critics. People had similar misgivings about The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner (1980), back in the day, labelling it as too dark, and also finishing on a downer; with the bad guys having essentially won. Overtime however, people started to realize what a great piece of moviemaking that film really was, and nowadays is widely considered the best Star Wars movie ever made, far surpassing everything that came before and after. I’m not saying that Back to the Future part II is in the same league, as the first movie’s achievements are clearly superior, but it is definitely one of the better second installments that I’ve ever seen on a cinematic saga. Zemeckis and Gale were put in an impossible situation by the Studio and came out rather unscathed for the most part. They did the best they could to try and honor the fandom, delivering at the same time a product that general audiences would like. Most people have come around, and have now a newfound respect for the movie. Is it perfect? Not really, but it’s a perfect sequel, and to me at least, it delivers on spades. There are a few minor quibbles I have with it, mostly of a technical nature. The old-age makeup, for instance, has never really worked for me; in any of the movies. It always looked too unnatural and over-the-top to me, and although the special and visual effects still hold up pretty well nowadays, some of the blue screen shots definitely needed more work. The scene inside the long tunnel in which Marty is trying to run away from Biff on the hoverboard after he’s recovered the Sports Almanac, comes to mine. But these are minor nitpicks that don’t really detract from the overall experience. Alan Silvestri does sort of a copy and paste this time around re-using most of the themes from the previous movie, but nevertheless, coming up with some very dark and interesting cues for the scenes taking place in Alternate 1985. He’d get his chance to really spread his creative wings for the next entry, which was going to take place in the Old West, which would give him a unique platform to be creative in a totally different time period, delivering what is to me, the best of the three soundtracks he composed for the trilogy. The movie’s got a funny and very well written script, and all the actors are on the top of their game, slipping back into the roles as if the cameras had kept on rolling right after the end of the first movie. There are some notable absences, like Claudia Welles, who was unable to reprise her role due to her family situation at the time, and Crispin Glover, whose absence is felt the most as his character was an integral part of the success of the first movie. But then again, had he agreed to come back, we could be looking at a totally different picture. Instead we have Elisabeth Sue replacing Welles, who does a fine job but it’s out of the picture for most of the running time, as the filmmakers, as mentioned before, didn’t really know what to do with her, and Jeffrey Weissman, who due to his perfunctory function in the story and very bad makeup was cleverly kept out of focus most of the time. A really tough break for him, I think. As for the rest of the cast, they are their usual terrific selves, but to me, who really becomes the standout performer in the movie is Thomas F. Wilson. Goofy old-age makeup aside, his different turns as Biff’s grandson Griff, mild-mannered Biff from 1985, old, hunched-over and bitter 2015 Biff, his 1955 younger counterpart, and especially the all-powerful, mean Biff from Alternate 1985, demonstrate an impressive dramatic range, topped off by his brilliant performance as Bufford “Mad Dog” Tannen in the next entry in the series. Other minor players from the previous movie make their appearance too, like James Tolkan as Principal Strickland, in a funny turn as a shotgun-totting nutcase in Alternative 1985. Regrettably, Wendy Jo Sperber was pregnant at the time, and could not appear on the film, but Marc McClure, who played her brother Dave McFly, did make an appearance on the film as a down-on-his-luck drunkard, whose brief scene of his encounter with Marty outside Biff’s casino, ended up on the cutting room floor. Gale justified the scene not being included as audiences would understandably want to know what had become of Marty’s sister Linda, and since Sperber couldn’t make it, it was better to eliminate that side plot altogether. Another complaint that people seemed to have at the time was the fact that the movie ended in sort of a downer, with “Doc” accidentally being transported to the year 1885 after having successfully recovered the Sports Almanac, and restoring the timeline. I’ve never really had an issue with that, much in the same way that I never had an issue with The Empire Strikes Back’s ending. It’s the middle chapter. It’s supposed to end in a cliffhanger to keep you hooked. Plus there’s a nice coda at the end, in which Marty goes back to find 1955s “Doc” right after the bolt of lightning has struck the DeLorean, and Marty has successfully been sent back to 1985. The title card “To be Continued”, makes it pretty clear that the story is not over yet, and that there are yet more adventures to come. To top it all off, there’s a teaser trailer for Back to the Future part III right after. Something that the filmmakers probably did to address any complaints that the people may have had about the story not having a satisfactory ending. I think it was a brilliant way of ending the movie, as it keeps you wanting to go back for more. I myself always watch these back to back, whenever I have the chance, so this three-story-arc structure makes it the perfect trilogy to watch in one seating. Can’t really say that about many trilogies, except perhaps for The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson (2001-2003), and the Star Wars Original trilogy (1977-1983). It’s a very fun film to watch, highly entertaining, the pace never lets up, and it’s a very clever way to continue the story. Highly recommended.
Thanks for reading.