VHS Revival revels in Robert Zemickis’ intricate nostalgia trip
Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion.
In recent times it has become a billion-dollar industry, but back in 1985 its use was rather less calculated, and when director Robert Zemeckis released Back to the Future that same year, his time-travelling ode to 1950s culture was still something of a novelty. Back to the Future was something of a misleading title to kids across the world—at least, it was for me. It was that word ‘Future’. We would soon find out that the title was referring to Doc and Marty’s frenetic attempts to make it back to the 1980s after travelling back in time, but ‘Future’ is a colossal word in the mind of a child, not least because there is so much of it ahead of you.
But more immediate is the promise of future landscapes and those questions that all children would ponder at one time or another: will cars be able to fly in the future? Will people wear outrageous clothing, play with futuristic toys that would make your current toy box seem positively archaic? At the time, none of this was answered. Instead, the movie went in reverse, giving us a past generation would would marvel at the ‘futuristic’ habits of their 80s intruders. In hindsight, it was the smart thing to do and the reason why the movie works so wonderfully.
There was a time when director Robert Zemeckis would have scoffed at the very idea of a Back to the Future sequel. Originally submitted in 1981, the screenplay was passed around with commercial apathy, its sweet tale of romance and redemption an ill fit for the raunchy, misogynistic comedies of the early part of the decade. Almost four years later the movie was finally snapped up by none other than Steven Spielberg, whose tween-led adventure productions would dominate the ’80s market, each of them magical and diverse in their own way, and once the movie hit theatres it didn’t take long before Universal was knocking down their door looking for a continuation of Doc and Marty’s money-spinning adventure.
Zemeckis was on board as long as his two headline actors were, and once they accepted most of the remaining cast jumped at the opportunity to be reunited, although their were exceptions. Crispin Glover, who had been a revelation as wimpy McFly patriarch George, would back out following what Zemeckis described as “way out of line for an actor of Crispin’s stature at that tstage in his career”, the reason why George became a tombstone in the sequel, leading to arguably the greatest alternate reality in the entire series.
Another omission was that of Claudia Wells as Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer Parker, who was sadly forced to leave the business due to unfortunate family circumstances. Wells would be replaced by The Karate Kid‘s Elisabeth Shue, which was far from ideal but less problematic due to the character’s peripheral role in the first movie. Glover’s omission was a different story, but creative methods were implemented to make the movie a reality. Scenes that did feature George disguised his replacement’s identity with heavy, age-portraying prosthetics and shots of him floating upside down to obscure the viewer’s visual perception.
But Back to the Future Part II is a resourceful sequel on the whole, promising a futuristic landscape but delivering something altogether different. At the time, a sequel promised us the chance to see some of the future speculations that were unnecessary in the first movie, and when the famous To Be Continued… teaser appeared on the original movie’s VHS release, that promise was further strengthened. When Christopher Lloyd’s Dr Emmett Brown uttered his immortal, sequel-setting words during a scene that was famously shot with both Wells and Shue, we had already booked our tickets. With a flying DeLorean that ran on regular household waste providing Marty’s carriage, we were champing at the possibilities, wishing we could travel to the very near future ourselves.
But director Zemeckis “didn’t like movies that predicted the future”, his main qualm being that they generally got those predictions wrong, stating that “not even [Stanley Kubrick] predicted the PC when he made A Clockwork Orange… so, rather than trying to make a scientifically sound prediction that we were probably going to get wrong anyway, we figured, let’s just make it funny”. Some speculations were unavoidable for a movie that spends much of its second act in the year 2015, a whole thirty years after the movie’s base timeline, and of those Zemeckis estimates that they “got 50 percent right and 50 percent wrong”, but once again the director is savvy in his speculations, this time using the present as the movie’s outlet for nostalgia.
Doctor Emmet Brown: Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
In hindsight, the 2015 of 1985 looks distinctly ’80s, but that seems to be precisely the point. Instead of focusing on the kind of expensive special effects that were destined to grow passé (the pixelated 3-D Jaws seen at the beginning of the movie being a case in point), Zemeckis once again stuck to what he knew, what was in fact familiar to all of us, making premature fossils out of those things that the 1980s would ultimately be remembered for.
Many of the sequences in Back to the Future Part II are identical to those featured in the first movie, each given just enough of a twist to appear different, clever spins that speak to our sense of nostalgia regarding the original movie. When Marty visits the Hill Valley of 2015 to save his future son from Tannen descendent Griff, he is forced into yet another cat-and-mouse chase, this time using a hoverboard to escape the pursuing rabble. When he awakens in an alternate 1985, he is once again greeted by the comforting voice of his mother, leaving Marty shocked for altogether different reasons and putting the audience firmly in the know.
Marty McFly [talking to alternate 1985 Lorraine] Mom, you’re so . . . you’re so. . . big!
It is this kind of familiarity that has made the series so special to so many people, but asides from drawing on the first movie’s capacity for reminiscence, the Hill Valley of 2015 is decorated in premature nostalgia for the period in which the movie was made. Everything from the Michael Jackson hosted café 80s to the ‘antique’ shop selling such period fads as the Dust Buster are a veritable time capsule, while Marty’s gunslinger skills on a ‘retro’ arcade machine would foreshadow future fictional events that help to bring the narrative full-circle. In fact, Back to the Future Part III, set in the old west, was originally planned as a narrative that existed within the original movie but was split into two when Zemeckis and co realised that it was too long for the movie-going public to digest in one sitting, which explains all the visual and thematic clues linking the two together.
When we visit the 2015 McFly household, we are greeted by gaudy, outmoded devices such as projector windows and wall-mounted fax machines, but Marty is a failure struggling to make ends-meet, and his home is presented as being in serious need of modernising. Such speculative gimmicks may seem to lack imagination, but nothing could be further from the truth, and to the movie’s main demographic there was nothing in the realms of imagination as appealing as a hoverboard, a not-so-dissimilar upgrade on the then popular skateboard.
Perhaps even more important than its clever gimmicks is the way in which the movie is executed. Back to the Future Part II is a miracle of convoluted plotting that never stops to take a breath. Sure, its the least formulaic and therefore messiest of the three instalments — thanks in no small part to limited post-production time and Zemickis’ simultaneous involvement with the third movie, which was famously shot back-to-back with Part II — but it is also the most ambitious.
As with the first movie, our dynamic duo set off on a relatively simple mission before plunging headlong into the rabbit hole of the space-time continuum. With plans on a quick-fix visit to 2015, Doc and Marty return to find a very different 1985, one controlled by a decidedly Trump-esque Biff Tannen, an all-powerful variation of the perennial scourge who ultimately steals the show. From there, our heroes are forced back to 1955 to steal the tycoon-making sports almanac from a delightfully ignorant 50s Biff, given to him by an aged 2015 Biff with the intention of altering an altogether different timeline in his own favour.
Pretty confusing stuff, particularly for those watching kids out there, but the movie is so ingeniously edited and delivered at such a suspenseful and breakneck pace that it is really of little importance. With twists and turns repeatedly plunging our protagonists into one non-linear hot soup after another, this is sci-fi adventure at its wittiest and most breathless, particularly back in 1950s Hill Valley, where old and new footage are intertwined quite miraculously. The first movie may have been brave in its ambitions, but the sequel is positively audacious.
Alternate 1980s Biff: So there I was, minding my own business when this crazy old codger with a cane showed up. He says he’s my distant relative. I didn’t see any resemblance.
Adding to the colourful frenzy of multiple realities are a returning cast who revel even further in a series of astonishingly drawn multiplicities. Michael J. Fox plays not only two versions of the Marty character – teenage and middle-aged – but also a couple of offspring to boot, one of them his very own future daughter. Equally diverse is Lea Thompson as the McFly matriarch, returning to her 1950s high school incarnation as well as an elderly manifestation, while a booze-addled, fake-breasted alternate 80s Lorraine finds herself widowed and married to the nation’s most powerful and corrupt bully.
But in the end, Back to the Future II belongs to Thomas F. Wilson as the irrepressible Biff, here traversing timelines in his ill-fated quest to bring misery to the McFly name. Wilson plays an incredible 5 variations of Tannen or his offspring, each as fun and as memorable as the last. Whether he’s plotting to sweep Marty under the corporate rug, riding the maniacal spark of Griff’s bionic implants or scalding his younger self for his eternal ignorance, his presence is front and centre throughout, resulting in one of the most memorable comedic performances of the decade.
Back to the Future was a concept that screamed franchise long before they were inevitable, and in Zemeckis’ original the director had a lot to live up to. Sequels are generally judged on their ability to bring something new to the table, and while Back to the Future Part II achieves that to some extent, it thrives on regurgitation and self-reference, transforming what is typically perceived as a weakness into a bold and brilliant reincarnation of events that are already dear to us. It not only promotes nostalgia, it becomes it, both in our hearts and in our minds. It is a movie that was aware of its legacy long before it ever had one.