It's easy to see why some fans of the original resist Back to the Future Part II. It borrows liberally from the original and features little of the romantic heart that the first film was predicated on. However, as far as I'm concerned, what it loses in warmth it makes up for in innovation, and I find it to be a rousing, highly entertaining sequel that lives up to its predecessor through sheer cinematic invention. There are certainly some flaws; Back to the Future Part II is merely a good movie while the original is a great one, but I find its pleasures undeniable. I have less good things to say about Universal's new double-dip of the film, but first: the film itself.
The plot is a little flimsy; as returning director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale recount in the DVD bonus features, they wouldn't have written the same ending to Back to the Future, which has Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) blasting off to the future with Marty's girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) in tow had they known they were making a sequel. The final film is forced to make room for all of these elements, which are incorporated with hit-or-miss effectiveness. The upside is the best part of Back to the Future Part II: the filmmakers are aware it's all fairly ludicrous, and the two Bobs take the opportunity to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, allowing their talented cast to goof off in various comic incarnations of their characters.
Michael J. Fox plays both Marty and his brethren across several time periods, including both his daughter and his character as experiencing the original Back to the Future. Zemeckis stages some of the film's best moments using the latter, when the Marty of the sequel crashes the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, making sure to avoid running into himself. He's trying to nab a sports almanac back from Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), and as the villain of the film, Wilson gets a chance to slime things up. He sells both the truly vile side of the Biff with power and money in the film's alternate 1985 while still remembering the white-trash idiot that would use the third-grade "butthead" as a stinging insult. Even Lloyd and Shue get their chances to act off of themselves, and only Lea Thompson gets the short end of the stick. In every segment of the film, she seems relegated to spouting exposition or playing a peripheral role, which is disappointing given the charm she provided the original.
Once again, the editing by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas and the score by Alan Silvestri are secret weapons in Zemeckis' directorial arsenal. During the 1955 segments and special effects sequences, which often involve splicing new and old footage together and cutting together actors working with themselves, there are some clever tricks employed to cover up the digital seams. Some of the composite work in Back to the Future Part II holds up twenty years later because the Zemeckis is willing to bend the "rules" normally used in split-screen photography that often make shots look too pre-planned. Not every shot is perfect, and effects afficionados will know where the gag is, but in general it holds up better than other movies from the same time period. As for Silvestri, I had the score on cassette (yes, cassette) when I was younger, and I know it by heart.
This is still a flawed film. Many of the film's scenes are plays on scenes from the first flick, such as Marty waking up in a strange place, the hoverboard chase, and the manure joke. It's not hard to contend that the film is derivative; the performances sustain these parts for me. While Jeffrey Weissman is a fairly good faker, it's also easy to feel the loss of Crispin Glover. Who knows what Zemeckis and Gale could have concocted given how much they give everyone else to do. Lastly, it's always a risky idea to make a sequel with a cliffhanger ending, because anyone who doesn't like Back to the Future Part II will be disinterested in Part III, and worse, the few who will like Back to the Future Part III but dislike Part II will have to lose a giant chunk of the narrative or suffer through it to get to the sequel they enjoyed.
I, however, am not one of those people, and I think Back to the Future Part II was worth the effort. The pairing of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd remains strong, and the glee in which the two Bobs mount this "everything goes" sequel is not only evident but infectious. It's not as good as the original, but it doesn't detract from it either. Whenever I take a trip Back to the Future, I find myself watching all three of them, and that's the true test of time.
The one-disc DVD comes in a single-width keep case with Drew Struzan's awesome poster artwork on the front cover (as iconic as the artwork for the original is, I have to say that the poster for Back to the Future Part II is my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite poster artworks of all time) and a foil-embossed slipcase goes over the top. The disc art is black with the logo in gray, and the menu is again based on the Hill Valley clock tower facade. There is no insert.
Like the re-issued Back to the Future and Back to the Future Part III DVDs, this is the same disc released several years back. Part II's 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced image doesn't look quite as good as the first film, with slightly more muted colors in comparison. Detail is still strong, though, and I don't see any major print damage. Film grain is less apparent. Of course, this is also the "corrected" transfer that fixes the framing errors on the first run of the trilogy DVD set -- I'm sure Universal had people checking every disc this time.
Unlike the first film, where the audio was quite impressive, with Back to the Future Part II I'd say the audio is only equal to the picture quality. There are certainly no problems with this Dolby Digital 5.1 mix -- the score is grand, the effects sequences are loud, and the dialogue is audible -- but it's likely a little more effort went into the track on the first movie. All in all, it's solid, but not particularly notable.
As I've stated ad nauseum throughout the rest of this review, you're literally getting the exact same DVD as Universal previously issued in the trilogy package they've had out for several years now. There's a fair amount of stuff here, including both vintage and new making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, trivia, galleries, trailers, and more, and the best stuff is still the two audio tracks: one a Q+A from USC with Zemeckis and Gale, and one a proper commentary with Gale and producer Neil Canton. This time, the Q+A track is shorter, but it's still the disc's best extra, with various amusing and entertaining stories until it ends part of the way through the movie. The commentary is the same story, if you're a fan of Gale's deadpan delivery. Those looking for the "Power of Love" music video will find it here as well. On the other hand, anyone hoping for another chunk of "Looking Back to the Future", the feature-length making-of documentary that Universal took apart for these new releases will be stuck waiting.
Like the first film, the bonus features are conveniently subtitled in English, French and Spanish.
I gave the first film a pass, because it provided a superior package to what was already on the market, but it's harder to say the same for Back to the Future Part II. On top of the film being a hit-or-miss proposition for those who haven't seen it, the $20 MSRP is the same as the two-disc set for the original (around $15 in most stores). That means you could pick up the two-disc original AND the trilogy set, containing identical sequel disc (generally about $20) for less than it'd cost you to pick up all three new releases ($45 in comparison to $35). And since it's hard to imagine someone who would want both Back to the Future and Back to the Future Part II and not want Back to the Future Part III, I'm going to have to give this one a Rent It recommendation for newbies at best.
Read my reviews of the other two films here and here.
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