Sunday, February 10, 2008

Back to the Future Part II

1989, US, directed by Robert Zemeckis

In a kind of Lord of the Rings precursor, the second and third parts of the Back to the Future series were shot back-to-back, and released just six months apart. Given that the middle segment actually includes a trailer for Part III before the end credits roll, thus providing hints of a story beyond the bounds of this one, it inevitably has an unfinished feel, an episode in a larger whole rather than a self-contained tale. In the age of DVD it's easy enough to watch the two films in sequence, but when this portion was first served up the conclusion seemed especially unsatifying, like one of those "To be continued..." cards at the end of a TV show - except that the wait for the wrap-up was much longer than a week.

The first film in the trilogy is one of the great post-1980 Hollywood films, an entertainment constructed by masters of the craft, with a series of memorable set-pieces and a witty script. Here director Robert Zemeckis and his screenwriter Bob Gale enjoy creating a vision of 2015 as consciously hokey as their previous take on 1955 - channelling 1950s sci-fi magazines' dreams of what the future might look like - but watching the film again, I was put in mind of the recent discussion between David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson on Zemeckis's 2007 film, Beowulf, and specifically Bordwell's comment that since the end of his collaboration with Bob Gale, Zemeckis has set himself ever greater technical challenges rather than storytelling goals. Though the two work together here, some of the special effects gimmicks, particularly the multiple personae of Michael J. Fox, feel like ideas that don't bring much to the story (by contrast, the challenge of dealing with some cast changes cast is fairly seamless).

Similarly, the film occasionally feels over-contorted, as if it's trying just a little too hard to reproduce the iconic sequences of the first film - from different angles - rather than letting a new story breathe more fully. Still, the film's vision of alternate presents in particular is compelling and even vaguely unsettling, and Biff Tannen's spectacularly tacky adult self-glorification has elements of both Vegas and Tony Montana; Thomas F. Wilson does an excellent job of charting the character's journey from mean-spirited town bully to dangerously powerful man. The wit that made the first film so memorable is also present here, illuminating the scenes where we see events from a new perspective but also breathing life into the film's version of 2015, whether in the self-fitting clothes - achieved by virtue of ingenious effects - or the sometimes bizarre electronic devices that have proliferated in the homes of the future.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States