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150 Films #10: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Now, as a kid, I loved the first movie, but it seemed like kids all had Year 2000 Fever. What would the future be like? The end of Back to the Future tantalized with its flying DeLoreans, transparent neckties, and devices converting garbage into fusion energy. “Roads?” Doc Brown asks. “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And that, to a nerdy kid (or maybe any kid), became the Maxell/Thrillhouse moment capping an already great movie.

In 1989, at the tender age of seven, 2000 seemed a lifetime away. Anything could happen. So when trailers for Back to the Future Part II showed up, promising a future of hoverboards, flying cars, Biff Tannen casino hotels, and Michael J. Fox in drag, it instantly became the must-see movie of a year that included Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and future 150 Films entry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

I didn’t get to see it right away, of course. The details are a little fuzzy in old man Bates’s head, but I have a recollection of being grounded when the movie came out. It’s possible the delay was caused by financial constraints; I had to wait for a lot of movies to get to the $1.50 second-run theatre behind the Burger King. Nevertheless, I bided my time with the Craig Shaw Gardner novelization available through the Troll Book Club.

When I finally saw the movie, even though I knew everything about the plot from reading the novelization multiple times, it didn’t let down. Although it lacks the character depth of the first film—unless you count Marty’s disdain for being called “chicken” as an existential question for the ages—Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale instead overstuff the sequel with a plot all about the complications of time travel. Luckily, they did so much heavy lifting with the characters in the first film, the lack of substance of the second is less apparent. And like the first film, it’s plenty of fun.

As a kid, what I loved most about it was the sequence set in 2015. As I got older, I liked the idea of the alternate “Biff-verse” and the consequences of changing history. Now, as an old man, what I appreciate the most is the sequence set in 1955, where Marty has to scramble around recreated scenes from the first film in order to retrieve the sports almanac at the center of this movie’s plot. I like watching older movies like this and being able to marvel at the special effects. There are some obvious composite shots, but quite a bit of the hoverboard chase made me ask, “How did they do that?” I was even more impressed by the split screens, which are not only seamless but include camera movement and characters interacting with their past/future selves. The movie used some digital effects (notably erasing wires in the hoverboard scenes), but they didn’t just say, “Fuck it; CGI.” Through creative use of editing, doubles, and robotically-controlled camera movements, Zemeckis accomplished effects that hold up as impressive.

Even though Part II has somewhat of a Rorschach inkblot quality—whenever I revisit it, I seem to like it for a different reason—and certainly isn’t as good as the first film, I can’t ignore the effect it had on me. There are different types of nerds who gravitate toward different types of nerdy things; time travel was always my big nerd thing. Now, I could get into a whole deep thing about how the interest in time travel had to do with wanting to escape (or change) a disappointing present, but I think I already covered that territory when I wrote about Alien. Plus, as I think about it now, there’s more to it than that.

I’ve always had a fascination with questions of cause and effect, the consequences of actions (both short-term and long-term). In some regard, this obsession has led to a great deal (too much) inaction on my part. Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” told me that stepping on a butterfly can radically alter the world. I can’t predict the future, but I can question the ramifications of everything I say and do, to the point that I sometimes don’t say or do things that would benefit me and harm no one. I’m working on it, guys, but it’s still a problem. I’ve come a long way from not being able to decide whether to take the last donut or danish from a breakfast buffet because of the effect the decision might have on other buffet-goers.

At this stage, though, I can ask these unwieldy questions in hypothetical terms, channeling it into fiction instead of obsessing over it in life. The idea that my most minor actions can have profound consequences for those around me borders on narcissism, and I find narcissism quite yucky (that’s a clinical term). Self-interest and self-esteem are good things; narcissism is a form of delusional thinking that I find reprehensible in others. It has made me a much happier person breaking free of it, even though I still struggle with it at times. Taking the last donut will never ruin somebody’s life, but I do have trouble with larger questions that can impact me—especially with my tendency to only think in terms of the worst-case scenario.

As an example, a few months ago, I struggled with whether or not to ask for a raise at work. I knew, for a fact, that they had lowballed my salary when they hired me. I knew that, within the marketplace in our industry, most people in my position earned more. I suspected that, even within our own company, most earned more. I researched the marketplace, determined a reasonable, competitive salary, and then determined an unreasonable amount to ask for in hopes of negotiating down to that reasonable salary.

And then I was afraid to actually have the conversation. I knew how to have the conversation: focusing on the value I add to the team rather than my personal need for bigger bucks, pointing out the objective market data instead of how much I deserve more because I want/need it, and so on. But I worried about the consequences of talking to my boss about it. What if I ask for too much, and instead of negotiating he dismisses the entire conversation, and then I can never ask for a raise again? What if it starts him thinking that, for what I’m asking, he can find somebody better, and so he starts down the path of squeezing me out? What if he just generally thinks less of me and starts treating me like a shit stain on the heel of his shoe because he thinks I have an inflated sense of self-worth?

I hemmed and hawed about this for months, but I never did anything. And you know what? My boss, independent of my desires, reviewed everyone’s salaries with HR, compared it with their marketplace findings, and offered me a substantial raise. Because, he said, “I think you could get hired anywhere you want at a salary you deserve, and I don’t want to lose you.” (I should mention, for clarity, that this is not the same boss who hired me at the lowball salary.)

I’ve kind of slipped away from how this relates to Back to the Future Part II. Bottom line: my obsession with time travel, with changing history, with cause and effect, has done wonders for tapping my imagination in a positive way—but it’s also tapped it in a negative way. If I had asked for a raise when I wanted to, my boss, it turns out, would have taken the request seriously—and would have, in fact, agreed that I deserve it. So why did I assume the worst?

Part of it comes from the hard lesson growing up that asserting myself leads to negative consequences. But honestly, the obsession with time travel fiction didn’t help. Every single story on this subject has the same basic story: changing a small moment in the past totally fucks up the future. Negative consequences for the entire world. I mean, holy shit… Talk about piling on an already fragile ego.

Why, then, don’t I feel the same bad hoodoo watching the Back to the Future films that I had watching Alien (which offers a pretty grim, undesirable view of the future that nevertheless consumed me as a child)? I think with the first film, the relatively low stakes help. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Marty McFly, but in terms of destroying the entire universe—nope, not a chance of that happening. And ultimately, the subtle effects Marty has on the past make the future infinitely better for everyone.

In Back to the Future Part II, though, Zemeckis and Gale don’t fall for my top fear: an innocent action in the past has vast, horrifying repercussions on the future. This is not “A Sound of Thunder.” Rather, Marty has a sleazy, unethical plan to take a sports almanac back in time and get rich betting on sporting events. Old Biff steals the plan, the almanac, and the DeLorean, and gives the idea to his younger self. Nothing about the idea is innocent. This is not the same as Marty running into the street to push George out of the way of a car—a positive action with devastating consequences for Marty’s personal future. This is Marty at his most thoughtless, a reminder that he isn’t just a time travel neophyte but a 17-year-old goofball. Of course Biff would take this idea and run with it. But this is a negative action that leads to negative consequences. In the world of Back to the Future, cosmic justice always pays off in the end, even if it requires a lot of legwork for Marty and Doc.

So this is awesome, guys. Two movies about my favorite nerd topic in the world that haven’t been sullied by my own issues. High five!

And I know what you’re thinking: where’s Part III? Look, I own the full trilogy—when I bought it, you couldn’t get standalone editions—and it’s a fun, goofy western riff. It’s a fine end to the trilogy. But it’s not 150 Films-worthy. Unlike the first two, it had virtually no impact on me, then or now. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just not in the spirit of what this project is all about.

Keep or Sell? Keep!

Up Next: Being John Malkovich (1999)

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