Sunday, April 3, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part VII: Tempus sulcat


Back to the Future jumps right up its own ass—and, somehow, this makes it even better than it already was.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
With Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly, Marty McFly, Jr., and Marlene McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly nee Baines), Jeffrey Weisman (George McFly), and Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen and Griff Tannen)

Spoiler alert: severe

There was never a plan for Back to the Future Part II.  Obviously, in these more decadent times, this not only seems like a real oversight, it even sounds a little bit disingenuous, especially when you consider that the first film ended with one of the strongest, most unmistakable sequel hooks to ever close out any movie.  But 1985, the year Back to the Future conquered the box office, was a simpler era; and in those days you really could end your movie with that kind of gag, just because you thought it'd be fun.

Of course, in the words of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale themselves, it was also a huge mistakebecause if they'd actually known that they were going to revisit Marty McFly and Doc Brown a few years later, they'd have written the end of BttF in such a way that Part II wasn't obliged to begin the very instant the first one left off—in fact, a few instants before it left off, thanks to the Two Bobs' populist instinct to bring theatergoers back up to speed before plunging them immediately into the adventure at hand.  Well, mistake or not, they'd made promises they now had to keep, and keep them they did—but the really interesting part is how.

Prequel, sidequel, remake, reboot, and follow-up all at once, Part II is a sequel about sequels, using its time travel mechanics to collapse both itself and its predecessor into something approaching a singularity—two whole films set in one tiny township that's seemingly coextensive with the entirety of their fictional universe, always populated by the same five or six faces like it was some kind of science fiction-flavored No Exit, and forever fixated upon the events of one day in 1955, events which keep growing ever more complicated by each new attempt to make them turn out "right."

In the process, the time travel logic of Back to the Future, already some of the most dysfunctional in cinema, breaks down completely—yet one of the reasons I find Part II rather more brilliant than BttF is that the second film has to play by the (lack of) rules that the first film had already decisively established.  With this in mind, Part II makes the only rational move it could: it says "fuck it," and treats its time travel as a form of outright magic that exists strictly to drive the plot—a plot that, to its credit, makes vague, pseudoscientific noises in the direction of sensibility, and then keeps lunging ahead ever-faster, in its largely-successful bid to distract you from the ball of timey-wimey bullshit that festers, forever, at the heart of this beloved franchise.

Anyway, we pick up where BttF ended: Doc barging into a tender moment between Marty and his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker (notably, the only human whose DNA ever winds up affected by the butterfly effect in this series, albeit thanks solely to Claudia Wells' inability to reprise the role).  Doc rants urgently about their future—something has to be done about their kids, and it has to be done right now.

And so the screenplay forgets, immediately, what Marty had already realized in an epiphany about twenty minutes of screentime earlier: they have a time machine.

Regardless, Doc dragoons Marty and Jennifer into his now-airborne DeLorean, and the trio scream through the skies of Hill Valley and into the Flying Car Future of 2015, where they arrive to keep an appointment with Marty McFly, Jr., who is fated—absent their intervention—to involve himself in a criminal scheme with Griff Tannen, grandson of the hated Biff, the failure of which shall ultimately result in the complete unraveling of the McFly-Parker family unit.  Of course, when I say "trio," I really only mean Marty and Doc, since even before he lands, Doc deploys some electric roofies upon Jennifer to remove her from the equation, this being the most overt indication that nobody was thinking in terms of a sequel until Zemeckis and Gale met in 1986 to consider the possibility, which Gale ran with alone, while Zemeckis labored upon Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The immediate problems of the future are solved quickly with an action scene.  (It is only Jennifer, when she wakes up, who gets to have a taste of the godawful mediocrity that life has in store for her and Marty, only to pass out, yet again, at the horror of it.)  Unfortunately, however, while Marty and Doc are scrambling around Hill Valley trying to recover the woman they knocked out, old Biff's been waiting in the wings, and he's finally cottoned to what's been going on these past sixty years.  Discovering that his enemies have left the most important piece of technology on the planet both unlocked and unattended, Biff borrows the DeLorean for a temporal joyride and—having already borrowed Marty's amazingly amoral idea to take a future sports almanac back with him—returns to his past in order to change the hell out of his future.  Thus when Marty, Doc, and Jennifer make their way back to 1985, they find Hill Valley a little bit different than when they left—not merely does Biff rule over the town like a Vegas mobster, he's practically turned Marty's mom into his personal half-plastic slave.

(And can I just quickly point out that, the nonsensicality of its time travel aside, one of the single most aggravating things about these movies is that nobody recognizes Marty as he grows up?  Especially in a context where one of them already knows about time travel?)

Confronted with the devastation the time machine makes possible, even at the hands of a bozo like Biff, Marty and Doc resolve to destroy the DeLorean, but not before they take one more trip back to 1955 to fix everything that's gone wrong in the timestream today—all while staying well out of the way of the other Marty and Doc, presently engaged in fixing everything that went wrong in the timestream yesterday.

Like any good Zemeckis film, there are enormous pleasures to be found in Part II right on the surface, practically smacking you in the face with their good-natured exhortations toward joy.  Indeed, some of them are the exact same pleasures from BttF—specifically Part II's extraordinarily vivid renditions of Hill Valley in each different time period, each of them done with all the broad-strokes immediacy of an incredibly expensive cartoon made for the world's most visually-overstimulated children.  And that is how Part II, which is not as generally beloved a story as BttF, has probably still carved out a much bigger place in our collective imagination with its positively unforgettable images: Zemeckis, Gale, and production designer Rick Carter's vision of 2015 is possibly the most famous pleasant future in fiction, at least outside of Star Trek.

So!: Hoverboards, Jaws 19, the fully automated Cafe 80s, battery-powered clothing, cruel Japanese capitalists ruling over American workers, flying fucking cars—not a beat is missed.  It's a ravishingly complete future the Two Bobs and Carter have cooked up here—and Carter really does deserve more credit than the mere executor of Zemeckis and Gale's ideas, especially considering that, while Gale spent two years finishing the screenplay, and while Zemeckis focused his attention upon Rabbit, Carter was simply given large bags of money and only one major directive, that being "something something hoverboards."  It's just about as perfect a future as filtered through both the hopes and fears of the present as there's ever been, with every fashion choice and piece of set decoration feeling both like a future we'd still like to live in and a future that could only have been imagined in the latter half of the 1980s.

You know, it's not like it can be any worse than Bond 24.

Meanwhile, it's worth mentioning how well Carter manages to replicate Lawrence Paull's design for 1955: we'll get to Part II's more sublime achievements as a sequel in a bit, but as long as we're talking about its look, we just can't forget the loving detail put into the all-new 1955 scenes that feel every bit like they were ripped directly from unused footage of the first film (alongside, of course, all the scenes that incorporate footage that was used in the first film).

Now, plainly, it helps a lot that Zemeckis reunited with BttF's cinematographer Dean Cundey for Part II, and Cundeyhis other, more celebrated skills aside—was a genuine genius about maintaining a flawlessly-continuous visual scheme between two films in a series, even if they were made years apart.  Indeed, he'd already done the exact same thing once already, for John Carpenter, when they made Halloween IIa picture which shares with Part II the feature of continuing the story of the first film from the very moment of its ending, despite the fact that in neither case did anyone involved ever intend to make a sequel at all.  So, should we chalk this up as a mere coincidence—or should we simply accept the fact that Cundey was, in the 80s, a camera-wielding god?

But not everything is perfect: there is, after all, Carter's Biffed-up 1985, which also replicates Lawrence Paull's design—except not so much his design from BttF, but rather his design from Blade Runner, and not very immersively, either, which does neither Blade Runner nor the Back to the Future franchise any favors.  As a piece of design, it serves, but it must be the laziest aspect of Part II (which sounds like a slam, given that fully a third of it takes place inside of a film that its director already made—but, ironically, that part sees Zemeckis at perhaps his most engaged).  The alternate 1985 can only really be understood as a subjective fever dream: there is not a single instance of actual realism (or even basic sense) in so much as one frame of Marty and Doc's misadventure in Biff's dystopia.  (Just for starters, billionaires—even poisonously stupid and sentimental billionaires like Biff, who live their whole lives in their crappy home towns and want only to drive cars, gamble, and rape the women who once escaped them—still don't typically prefer to live in neighborhoods that look like one of the Italian riffs on Mad Max.)  Yet let's not judge Carter too harshly, since he was working under an impossible constraint: Part II's alternate 1985 had to be contrasted not only with the bright shininess of 2015, but also the basic habitability of BttF's "normal" 1985 (which, as we discussed last time, is just as much a cartoon as everything else in the series).  Add in the need to externalize Marty's personal experience of Biff's 1985 as a waking nightmare—which Carter and Cundey manage with crushing, almost expressionistic literalism—and you have a piece of design which, uniquely in the franchise, does more-or-less work, but does not work firstly as itself.

Still, I don't hate it: in fact, I like how it obscures a little bit how every era visited in these films so far is, in fact, kind of dystopian in its own way, whether it's the quiet desperation of the original 1985, the casual brutality of 1955, or even the seemingly-awesome future of 2015—which is characterized, however subtly, as a tyrannical police state with hardly any jobs, and where nostalgia, corporations, and regurgitated pop culture are the only things keeping society going at all.

Isn't it just our luck that the only things the Two Bobs get wrong are the things we actually want?

There's so much cynicism buried underneath the flash of these films: only in a universe finely-tuned by time travel is "happiness" or "justice" even a possibility for the McFlys—or, really, just about anybody.  But then, it's hardly cynicism that makes Part II such a deeply enjoyable film: like I said over a thousand words ago, that's how it goes about the business of being a sequel.

Of course, because it's Robert Zemeckis, it still depends incredibly heavily upon all those surface elements that tend to make Zemeckis' mature work so gloriously dazzling.  This includes the broad comedy, of course, and Part II has that in spades.  But there was hardly a movie Zemeckis made from Rabbit onward that failed to push the technological envelope of cinema in some way, and, Part II is certainly no exception to that trend, either.  It expands the capabilities of movie magic in its bigger moments, naturally—the effects in this film hold up remarkably, astonishingly well, even in ways that its contemporary, and fellow ILM effort, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, absolutely don't.  And it expands them in its smallest moments, too.  So, while I recognize that I might possibly be the biggest sucker on Earth for splitscreen effects, the sophisticated motion-control cinematography that permits Marty and Doc's temporal doppelgangers (not to mention Marty's apparently-cloned offspring) to coexist with our heroes in tandem with a moving camera is frankly stunning.  (And that's still true, even though you can often see the seams when you're looking for them—as I, personally, always do when I'm confronted with such gorgeous, gorgeous trickery.)

Either way, the effects are only what makes Part II's biggest coups possible; it's at the conceptual level where it really shines.  Part II, you see, is fundamentally guilty of all the sins we usually condemn sequels for: it is slavishly bound to what's come before, and it has a marked tendency to simply replay the thrills of the original, only this time bigger, gaudier, and with a lot more money thrown into it.  But Zemeckis knows this, so when Part II is content to operate in this mode—as in the hoverboard chase in 2015—it succeeds simply by being so damned good at it.

When we arrive in 1955, though, that's when Part II gets weird, indeed, almost metafictional: it finds Zemeckis and Gale remaking their first movie within the confines of their sequel, with the first film sometimes literally playing out in the background (hell, sometimes even in the foreground), all while we approach the old story from a completely different angle, the new adventure interwoven into the very fabric of the original.  Thus, much as in a lesser sequel, we do indeed get the exact same thing we got before.  The huge difference with Back to the Future Part II is that while we get everything that happened already, we're also getting everything that hadn't happened yet.  I've surely gone on long enough about just how grotesquely misshapen the nuts-and-bolts of time travel is in these movies; but even then, I just can't escape the sensation that this movie is the reason why SF writers ever came up with the idea in the first place.  For it truly has it all: magnificent glimpses of the future and the past; complicated and self-abnegating timelines; and, above all, the kind of automatic, organic self-reflexivity that only stories about time travel could possibly gain access to.

Hence the biggest problem with Part II isn't even properly a part of it.  It's that, no matter how tantalizing this film's shocking ending might bethe simultaneously-shot Part III wasn't even going to try to push Part II's experiment any further.  Instead, the concluding chapter of the Back to the Future trilogy would concern itself exclusively with what SF writers, I'm afraid, actually invented time travel fornamely, dicking around in period dress, and (not to make too awful of a pun out of it) killing time.

Score:  10/10

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