You'd have to search far and wide to find someone unfamiliar with the Back to the Future trilogy, as this successful franchise has earned plenty of fans during the past few decades. Co-written by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, these time-traveling adventures have scored high marks with critics and audiences alike---and even though some installments are more satisfying than others, there's something to enjoy during each of these three outings. The trilogy has spawned an animated series, a handful of video games, a themed amusement part attraction and, of course, a mountain of film-related merchandise, cementing Back to the Future as a true icon in American film history.
The first adventure sent Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) back to 1955 for a surprise encounter with younger family members, then back to the present with the help of his soon-to-be friend, inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Thus begins Back to the Future Part II (1989): after present-day Doc returns from the future---2015, to be precise---he informs Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue, taking over for Claudia Wells) that their children are in dire need of assistance. Despite the repeated danger of altering history, our three travelers venture to Hill Valley circa 2015 to help the future McFly family. Unfortunately, Marty's greed gets the better of him: he buys a sports almanac for the ride home, but an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas Wilson) nabs it for his younger self in 1955. Now it's up to Doc and Marty to correct Biff's actions---because if they don't, their lives in 1985 will never return to normal.
For obvious reasons, Back to the Future Part II is the darkest chapter in the trilogy...though it still retains a relatively light tone, all things considered. What Gale and Zemeckis have done here is cast another shadow on our hero: Marty once again alters history, but this time it's definitely his own fault. His carelessness transforms the Hill Valley of 1985 into a neon-infused Potterville from It's a Wonderful Life, but not because Marty or Doc never lived. Biff Tannen now owns the city---and the McFly family, apparently---after using the sports almanac to gamble his way to success. The real kicker is that Marty would've done the same thing in a heartbeat, but we still root for the scrappy young hero and his enthusiastically eccentric companion. This sequel certainly adds a more ambitious scope to the proceedings...and for the most part, it works rather well.
A few small trappings keep Back to the Future Part II from reaching greater heights, though it's still an entertaining follow-up. Created nearly in sync with the third installment (which arrived in theaters less than a year later), this futuristic tale feels somewhat rushed and slipshod during a few stretches. The addition of Jennifer to Marty and Doc's futuristic trip was simply due to the first film's ending---which, like it or not, was never planned as a trilogy until the box office receipts were counted. Shue's relatively bland performance as Jennifer doesn't help matters, either...but in her defense, she's never given much to work with. Additionally, the film's portrayal of 2015 is both charming and somewhat dated: it can't help but feel firmly rooted in 1980s fashion and culture, which somewhat hinders its lasting appeal. For obvious reasons, the darker atmosphere of Potterville-styled Hill Valley circa 1985 does a much better job of taking our characters out of their element.
In all fairness, though, Back to the Future Part II is still highly enjoyable and holds up reasonably well. Yours truly remembers seeing it as an enthusiastic ten year-old, caught up in the promise of two new BTTF installments within a year of each other. Even with a few faults along the way, this is much more than a guilty pleasure: Back to the Future Part II still offers plenty of laughs, memorable characters and great special effects---and aside from the tacked-on teaser for Part III before the closing credits, it earns decent marks as a stand-alone sci-fi adventure.
Originally released as part of a three-disc "Trilogy" boxed set in 2002, Back to the Future Part II is now available as an individual title. Unfortunately, it's identical to the earlier version (aside from the packaging, of course), so those looking for an upgrade will have to keep waiting. On the bright side, this is still a perfectly well-rounded effort, featuring a solid technical presentation and plenty of bonus content to dig through. It's also worth noting that the other two installments are available separately---so even though they don't offer substantial upgrades, fans are free to pick and choose. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
NOTE: The technical presentation of this release is identical to that of the "Trilogy" boxed set.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Back to the Future Part II looks very good from start to finish. The garish palette of the future is handled nicely, while the darker "alternate 1985" sequences also appear accurate. Image detail is solid, light film grain is present and black levels are fairly consistent. I'd image that a newly-struck transfer would improve the overall image slightly, but there's little to complain about here. Blu-Ray owners, on the other hand, should be roundly disappointed: Universal has made no announcement regarding the trilogy's high-def debut, so you'll have to keep waiting.
The audio presentation fares equally well, as Back to the Future Part II features a lively Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (also available in a French dub). One wonders why a more down-to-earth 2.0 Stereo mix wasn't included as well, but the surround track is rather tastefully done. Dialogue is crisp and clear, the film's music cues rarely fight for attention and a robust atmosphere is maintained. English SDH captions and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature and most of the extras. It's odd that all of the bonus content hasn't been subtitled (especially the deleted scenes), but this is still a decent effort by Universal.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 108-minute main feature has been divided into 20 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase; also included is a matching foil-enhanced slipcover, which retains the film's theatrical poster design.
NOTE: The bonus features on this release are identical to those found on the "Trilogy" boxed set.
All of the original bonus features return here, leading off with a feature-length Audio Commentary by producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton. This track proves to be slightly repetitive at times, but it's certainly worth a listen for fans of the film. On a related note is a Q&A with Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, moderated by Laurent Bouzereau and recorded live at the University of Southern California. This audio-only session plays during the main feature, though it concludes with nearly an hour to spare. The movie-paired extras conclude with "Did You Know That? - Universal Animated Anecdotes", which are subtitle-based factoids that pop up periodically.
Also returning is a handful of general Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes, including "The Making of Back to the Future Part II (6:40), "Making the Trilogy: Chapter Two" (15:30, below left), an additional look at the production (2:55) and a slideshow of Storyboards (1:41). Next up is a collection of rough-looking Deleted Scenes (7 clips, 5:40 total) and a few amusing Outtakes (0:50), as well as a trio of Visual Effects Featurettes, which include "Designing the DeLorean" (3:33), "Designing Time Travel" (2:05) and "The Evolution of Visual Effects Shots" (5:42).
Also returning is a brief and silent Hoverboard Test (0:58, below right) and a generous Production Gallery, which includes original sketches and plenty of behind-the-scenes photos. Closing things out is a Music Video for Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love" (6:27), Production Notes, a few Filmographies and the original Theatrical Trailer (2:21)...and, of course, a selection of DVD-Rom Content. All bonus features are presented in letterboxed widescreen and 1.33:1 format, while most of the featurettes include optional English captions and Spanish subtitles.
It's taken seven years for Universal to revisit Back to the Future Part II on DVD, and history has shown us that they did it right the first time. So right, in fact, that this release is identical to the "Trilogy" disc...aside from the packaging, of course. The film itself is a decent follow-up to the classic original, featuring plenty of familiar gags, colorful characters and sci-fi suspense. For obvious reasons, this one-disc release is aimed squarely at those that missed out on the boxed set---but unless you've been living under a rock, you should still be able to find it for $20 or less. This is a very tough sell to all but the most ardent packaging collectors...and in all honesty, it's barely worth half of its asking price at this point. Skip It and track down the boxed set instead.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.