Back to the Future Part II: The Art of the Sequel

In an age where the box office is saturated by prequels, remakes and spin-offs, you’d think cinema would have mastered the art of the sequel. Yet, it’s still universally agreed that sequels just aren’t that good—or at least, never as good as the original. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course: The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008), The Godfather Part II (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (dir. James Cameron, 1991) are just a handful of examples that received higher ratings than their predecessor. But omissions aside, most sequels (that is, ones that aren’t part of a pre-established franchise, like The Lord of the Rings) fall into the category of meh.

Regardless, successful movies still undergo a ton of reimagining’s and additions, in keeping with new, updated technologies and demanding fans. Ticket sales are practically guaranteed from those who have already seen the original, curious if the next instalment will live up to expectation (which is rarely does). They’re safe bets—never amounting to a masterpiece, but always turning a profit. It’s a surefire way to set a cinephiles teeth on edge, begging for some originality, but if we must adhere to the modern age of franchises, let’s at least take some tips from one of the best sequels around: Back to the Future Part II.

A classic 80’s sci-fi from director Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future received unprecedented success upon release in 1985. You probably know the story—a teenage kid drives a DeLorean back in time to save his parent’s marriage (and his life), with the help of his crackpot scientist buddy. The clever storyline, modestly comedic style and iconic duo of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) made Back to the Future an instant milestone of cinema. Cornering the New Wave of Science-Fiction, E.T. (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1982), Star Wars (dir. George Lucas) and Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) were all the rave for Generation X, where Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s futuristic adventure-flick thrived—despite never actually showing the future.

Albeit the cliff-hanger conclusion to Back to the Future opened up the potential for a sequel, it was never actually planned. Instead, it was the sheer box office success of Back to the Future that spurred Zemeckis into conceiving a second installment in 1989. Luckily for him, Back to the Future Part II was an equally glittering victory, with some audiences even favouring it to the original. The ensemble reunited for another quintessential feat into the future—this time to the year 2015.

So, what made Back to the Future II so good? Despite its somewhat uneven, bulky plotline, much can be learnt from such well-executed storytelling. Whereas most sequels nowadays simply go through the motions, with the sole aim of banging a buck, Zemeckis made a beloved gem of cinema, adorned my fans for its light-hearted tone, unique concepts and likeable characters. Let’s take a look at what we can learn from Back to the Future Part II:

The Same Team

It’s a simple—perhaps even obvious—point, but having the same cast and crew is essential to the success of a continued franchise. To be authentic to the world Zemeckis and Gale created, it had to be them to carry it on. Otherwise, the same standard and level of detail would have never been achieved. Sure, small side-characters like Jennifer (Claudia Wells) had to be replaced with new actors (Elisabeth Shue), but the core of the film stayed the same. Marty and his parents (Phyllis Piper, William Fox), Doc and notorious villain Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) reappear once more as fan favourites.

One of the best things Zemeckis and Gale did here was utilize the theme of time travel. Familiar faces are echoed down generations, as the same actors play themselves—or their relatives—from different eras. We’ve already come to know (and love) our cast, so why not use them again? A fun and entertaining little spin on fanservice, this technique harks back to the first movie, welding them together as one continuous narrative. Which brings us onto our next point…

Repetition Repetition Repetition

Back to the Future Part II isn’t just some cheap knock-off, tagged on at the end. The intertextual referencing builds upon the foundations already laid in the first installment, making it one with the story. A mistake a lot of films series seem to make is to treat a franchise like a Simpsons episode— undoing all the development from the film before and starting fresh again, just with the same basic framework. The previous films of a franchise must be acknowledged; the character developments, plot points and established rules of that particular world. To break or ignore these rules is to destroy the credibility of the story and renounce our carefully constructed relationship to the characters. If what’s already happened means nothing to the creators—to the story—then why should it matter to us?

A brilliant way Zemeckis keeps his world in tact is through constant referral and repetition—done in a way that’s humorous and affecting, not boring. How many times do we hear the words “Nobody calls me chicken”—recurring as an integral challenge to Marty’s character development. Or how about “Great Scott!” and “this is heavy”—Marty and Docs two iconic catchphrases still thrown around as references today. Marty awaking to some version of his mother, thinking momentarily it was all just a dream, appears throughout all three movies (though the third was kind of a flop, so we’re just focusing on the first two for now).

“You’ve been asleep for almost six hours now”—or twelve, or whatever number it is for that particular movie, just to change it up a little—is a recurring gag that feeds into that enjoyably light tone of the trilogy, as well as aiding in its recognisability. “There’s something very familiar about all this”, an old version of Biff says, vocalizing viewers previous knowledge of Hill Valley, made uncanny by its dystopian flourishes.

Utilizing Plot and Themes

Zemeckis made the most of all the elements he had to hand, including the time-travel plotline which made it easier to weave narratives together. Marty witnesses his family tree from stem to leaf, through all kinds of ages, back and forth between various time-frames and alternate realities. Back to the Future primarily took place in 1955, where Marty’s parents met for the first time. In the second movie, however, we’re given tons of new time zones to play with, each with their own unique cultural aesthetic.

1955 still plays a pivotal role in the second movie, as Doc suspects it could be some cosmologically significant moment in the space-time continuum (or just “an amazing coincidence”). Once more Marty must return to 1955 to stop an apocalyptic alternate future taking place, where we see his past self—the Marty from the first movie, as well his young parents and Biff—completing his initial quest in the background. All these intertextual layers fuse and evolve the diegesis into something more fully formed and real. The sequel doesn’t take place in a wholly new era, with new stakes and new characters that never get time to flesh out. It’s here, in Hill Valley; a place that audiences know from all angles and eras, and thus have come to love.

New Stakes, Same Goal

Majority of movies in the Marvel cinematic universe share the same premise: stop an interchangeable supervillain destroying the planet. Though the first few instances may have gripped us with such severe stakes, tied up with ribbons of action and spectacle, it becomes monotonous after a while. Viewers loose interest in whether the world is saved, because they know with each cinema visit, the same series of events will repeat itself. Although Back to the Future is arguably, yes, a continuing story of Marty saving the world—forever preventing a time paradox ripping the space-time continuum—the details are always different.

The main goal, obviously—one that most sci-fi movies strive for—is to save the world. Or at least, his world. However, the stakes are very different for Marty and Doc in the second movie as opposed to the first one. Nothing is undone; Marty’s family don’t return to being losers as they were at the start of Back to the Future. The photograph of his siblings doesn’t fade away again. This time, their mission takes place in the future, not the past, and begins with a target to save Marty’s family from ending up poor and in prison. It’s then Marty and Doc’s interference with the timeline that leads to a disastrous alternate reality, awaiting them back in 1985 as consequence.

In both movies, Marty’s goal is to save his family—at first, from vanishing out of existence, then secondly, from ending up in prison or the 21st floor of Biff’s apartment, with George McFly underground—and as a by-product, saving the world from paradoxical implosion. The way he goes about this—the disguises, the transition between time zones, the avoidance of their “other selves”—is entirely different, however. Never once is the film dull or predictable. By keeping the same overall goal in mind, just changing the stakes, the heart of the film isn’t lost and a clear direction is maintained.

A New Vision of The Future

On the surface, Back to the Future Part II doesn’t seem very accurate in its depiction of 2015. That year has long since passed, and we’re still no closer to flying cars and hoverboards. Yet, if you look a little closer, the covert themes and messages of Zemeckis’s futuristic depiction is pretty spot on. Most sci-fi futurescapes sort of mesh together; an indistinguishable vision of holograms, contemporary grey buildings and a general bleak atmosphere. However, Hill Valley still keeps many of its original features, making it more recognisable to audiences both then and now.

The neon leotards are a touch too far, but the idea mass advertisement is very accurate indeed. We rarely see actual holograms in our everyday life—unlike Hollywood movies portray—but they do still exist. In Back to the Future Part II, we only see one hologram, jumping out at Marty for an advertisement of Jaws 19. Spielberg might not have made it to that number, but Zemeckis proposal of unending sequels is evident in today’s world. Ironically, it’s the very thing that sparked this article! Marvel have twenty-four movies in their universe so far—so far. Meanings there’s more to come. And with most successful films receiving at least one sequel or reboot, Back to the Future got it pretty bang on with Jaws.

An age of multi-tasking and short-attention spans is reflected in Marty Junior when putting six TV channels on one flatscreen monitor. Later, the older version of Marty has a video conference with his boss, mimicking what we’d use today via Zoom or Skype. Power-laces and high-tech glasses are barely ever used, but technically exist. Most timely, though, is Biff’s corrupt rise to fame being distinctly reminiscent of a tycoon that recently vacated the White House. Donald Trump—his wealthy estates, casinos, hunger for power and general lack of morals—and Biff Tannen are remarkably alike. Even their wispy, receding hairlines show a certain resemblance, as does Biff’s “Pleasure Paradise” with Trump Towers. This isn’t surprising though, given that the writer was inspired by Trump when plotting Biffs bullying uprise.

There are many more things than can be said about the Back to the Future Trilogy—why it’s so famous, it’s underlying messages and, perhaps, why the third installment didn’t do so well. But the main point to be made here is that Back to the Future Part II showed us all the art of making a good sequel. Sticking to its core themes and building on the original made Back to the Future Part II a multi-dimensional, impressively structured addition to the series, bringing the character we love back to the big screen once more.