Film * Robert Zemeckis * Time-Travel Hijinks Dystopia * 1989
This is a first for me, beginning with the second. When I do a series, I like to begin with the beginning, which is a natural way to approach things, right? However, I happened to catch (most) of this movie while in a hotel room the other evening, so why waste an opportunity to write about a film I’ve seen approximately nineteen thousand times? I could go back to the original, but Back to the Future only fits the purview of the site in a broad sense, mostly concerning the deep sense of nostalgia the eighties held for the fifties. Besides, Back to the Future II has always been my favorite of the three (even though I am well aware the first is the better film). Not only does it have all the ridiculous 2015 future-tech, but the film has the dark second act down pat. While we don’t quite achieve the bummer levels of The Empire Strikes Back here, the film itself does end on a down note. Beyond that, the middle of this movie is as dark as Back to the Future ever gets, with its depiction of a lawless, nightmare Hill Valley.
Okay, now that I’ve justified my own writing to myself, let’s take a look at the actual movie. I’m going to proceed with the assumption that the reader has seen Back to the Future. If not, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s that like one person you know who’s never seen Star Wars and you can’t tell if they’re just being contrary, have somehow avoided an omnipresent cultural touchstone, or are somehow indifferent to my interests (how dare they!). Suffice to say, the first film is a wacky time travel movie that follows sassy teen Marty McFly and his best friend, an eccentric inventor named Doc Brown, who turns a totally radical DeLorean into a time machine. These two end up in 1955, because the eighties were obsessed with fifties much in the way we’re obsessed with the eighties now. The world was a better place, even if they’re completely mystified by McFly’s modern sensibilities. Anyway, the rest of the film consists of Marty trying to get his parents to fuck, thwarting Bad Teen Biff, a series of incest jokes, and attributing the genius of a black musician to a white teenager. All in all a good time.
Just when we thought everything was going to be okay and live happily ever after, Doc Brown flies in and breaks the news that Marty McFly’s life is going to be kind of awful. Oh, the DeLorean can fly now. Thirty years is more than enough time to not only invent hover-technology, but also to build the vast network of infrastructure to make it accessible to the general public. Anyway, once in the future Marty has to save his kids from doing dumb shit and going to jail. In the course of this adventure, we discover that Marty has given up on his dreams and has been driven to despair because he can’t stand it when people question his masculinity. This obviously bums teen Marty out, but Doc won’t let him improve his future lot in life via sports betting.
This is a time-travel plot, and as such, everything gets super confusing. One of the strengths of the Back to the Future series is managing to explain as much as needed without getting bogged down in specifics. It knows that the very concept of time-travel is riddled with inconsistencies and paradoxes. Most of that gets hand waved away, because we’re just here to have a good time. The basics of the plot are as follows: 1. Marty buys a sports almanac with the idea betting on the winners in the 1985 and getting rich. 2. Doc quashes that because he’s an ethical square. 3. Old Biff, who is beyond ethics, steals the almanac and the DeLorean, goes back in time and gives it to Bad Teen Biff in 1955. 4. This action changes the timeline that we are accustomed to, thus giving Biff vast wealth and power in 1985. 5. The rest of the movie is fixing this horrible dystopian alternate reality.
A while back, Back to the Future II bubbled back up into the general social consciousness because the first part of film takes place in 2015, and it’s fun to see all the silly things the film “predicted” that totally didn’t come true. The following year, the soon-to-be-fabled 2016, the Chicago Cubs at long last won the World Series, and it was pointed out by many unimaginative sports writers that Back to the Future II was only off by one year. Crazy, right? Not long after the Cubs thing, Biff Tannen won the Presidency of the United States, and finally the predictive powers of a light sci-fi film from the eighties have shown their true power.
When Marty McFly returns from his adventures in 2015, at first things seem normal and calm. Then he tries to sneak into his own bedroom and uh-oh! Other people live there and suddenly Sammy Hagar is wailing away and there are motorcycle gangs and the ex-high school principal is strapped and the entire town of Hill Valley seems to orbit a massive hotel-casino. Turns out that Biff used the sports almanac for personal gain, became a huge entrepreneurial success, and leveraged his vast wealth into political power. Biff seemingly owns Hill Valley, and the residents of the town are all living in some form of squalor. There are no schools and Biff “owns the police,” which is to say he is now above the law. The city infrastructure lay in ruins, and Hill Valley seems to be nothing but a peasant village existing only to support the feudal castle: Biff’s Casino.
The Hill Valley dystopia is incredibly small in scale, and the alternate vision of its future is extremely isolated in scope. Throughout the trilogy, Hill Valley seems to exist in its own minute universe. Very little mention is made of a world outside of the town. Sure, there are occasional allusions to a greater United States outside this small corner of California (the aforementioned Cubs, incredulous laughter at the thought of Ronald Regan being president, etc.), but for the most part, Hill Valley exists as a sort of pocket America. What happens in Hill Valley is representative for what is happening nation-wide. Therefore, when an egotistical sociopath usurps the levers of power within Hill Valley, the audience can assume that Biff is only representative of a larger movement throughout the country which would allow for a hereditary oligarch to assume the power of the state in addition to their vast financial power. This is all a complicated way to say that Biff Tannen looks an awful lot like Donald Trump, and that’s funny in a horrifying way.
Back to the Future II takes the stance that individual actions can carry an immense weight and importance with regard to the future. This concept is mostly explored through individual means, but as we see with the horrible Dark Biff future, these individual actions can have significant ramifications for the rest of society as well. In the first film, Bad Teen Biff is emasculated by Marty’s old man, who through the power of confidence punched him real good and impressed a pretty girl. That single action turned a vicious bully into a weak-willed sycophant. However, with the promise of fame and fortune, that action apparently had no effect on Bad Teen Biff, because he knew in the fullness of time he’d be rich and George McFly would be dead. Meanwhile, all Marty McFly ever had to learn was humility. To relax when people called him ‘chicken.’ This single lesson allows all the good things in Marty’s life to get better, and bad things cease happening. The ripple effect of single decisions is powerful in the universe of Back to the Future, however they’re only ever examined within the context of a few human lives, and along very strict moral guidelines.
The moral rules of Hill Valley are pretty easy to follow. Excessive money and power are corrupt. If you follow your artistic impulses, you shall find success and affluence. But not too much or you’ll be corrupt. Be confident, and you will get a hot girlfriend. But not too confident or you’ll crash your car and break your hand, then you will be unable to follow your artistic impulses and you’ll get fired by fax machine. And that’s kind of it. Look, you’re not here for depth. You’re here for flying cars, the charisma of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, and Huey Lewis. This, the film delivers on. It also delivers a stern warning to not allow super-wealthy amoral monsters to assume direct power over public policy. Whoops.