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Film Review: Back To The Future Part II

Back to the Future II (1989; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

The Back to the Future films were always marvels of production design and cool tech effects in their own time, but in Part the Second, there’s not much else beyond those technical factors to entertain more deeply. The endless winking references to the first film’s events wear thin and possess little of its sly, inventive wit, and though the returning cast falls into their broadly-drawn characters easily enough, their engagement in the proceedings seems minimal.

Furthermore, the plot is frantic and episodic, leapfrogging from one time period to another alternate universe in a way that feels almost casual. As with many effects-laden sequels that try to one-up their more homespun predecessors, Part 2 lacks the iconic simplicity of Part 1′s memorable images. When some of them are replayed for us in the last act, we are directly reminded of this. The Hill Valley of the future is shiny and weird and cool and impressive, but it bombards you with baubles instead of winning you over with wonders, as the first film did. The clumsiness of the plot doesn’t help, either; many narrative strands are introduced and then not concluded or even advanced at all. If you want to see a beautifully-constructed time-travel plot whose subtle paradoxes are delightful grace notes, skip this tangled mess and give the elegant, beguiling last act of Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban another view. That, right there, is how you do it.

As a side note of interest to me and probably to absolutely no one else, Part 2 also has less to offer us as a reflection of the social anxieties of its time than Part 1 did. Aptly, a film so full of time-hopping is not terribly focused on its own era. The dark alternate future of “Hell Valley”, a near-post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun with predatory gangs, firearms and crime, is too contextless to constitute much more than a hyperbolic nightmare vision of the worst policy consequences of the Reagan-Bush I presidential dynasty. Biff Tannen becomes a hyper-wealthy robber baron, and so unravels the entire social fabric? We’re all for quasi-marxist readings of class struggle and the destabilizing rapine of capitalism around these parts, but Back to the Future II provides the conclusion without the premises. Any prospective commentary in the 2015 sequence, furthermore, dissolves into innocuous, knowing in-jokes. All in all, this film bit of a slapdash rehash, but at least it ably set up a genuinely entertaining trilogy conclusion.

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