26 July 2010

WHERE WE'RE GOING, WE DON'T NEED ROADS

Reader Rachael Horcher found a way to get more bang for her buck when she donated to the Carry On Campaign - by using that weasel word "trilogy", she got three movie reviews for the price of one!

Here is the story, the way I heard it: Steven Spielberg, having proven himself one of the most financially successful directors in history with undue speed, decided to get himself a protégé, and found one in the form of Robert Zemeckis, who had wowed the student film community at USC with his 1973 senior project A Field of Honor (which is, incidentally, a terrific satiric short - see it here, in pieces at least). Spielberg saw something pretty darn special in the man five years his junior, and in 1978, he executive produced Zemeckis's feature debut, a Beatlemania comedy called I Wanna Hold Your Hand. It bombed. Undaunted, Spielberg threw his weight behind Zemeckis again two years later, with the dark comedy Used Cars. It bombed too.

At this point, Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale had a time-travel comedy about a teen boy who went back thirty years to become mixed-up with his parents, teenagers themselves. Supposedly, Spielberg liked what he saw, but Zemeckis was petrified that if he made one more Spielberg-produced flop, then his career would be over; he'd be "Steven's pet" for the rest of his life. He hooked up with Michael Douglas - a somewhat noteworthy producer in those days - to direct a project the latter man had been shopping around, a romantic comedy-adventure titled Romancing the Stone. When that film turned out to be a smash hit, against all expectations, Zemeckis returned to Spielberg, and together they made an even bigger hit out of that time-travel movie; the highest-grossing film of 1985, in fact. I am speaking, of course, about Back to the Future.

If you are of a certain age, you've probably been recalling quotes from the movie ever since you saw the poster at the top of the review. It's that kind of thing: custom has made it one of the very icons of 1980s pop culture, less a film than a rite of passage. Which makes it kind of daunting for me (five years old when I first saw it on video, or was it six? - either way, I am suddenly made to feel ghastly old) to try and get around it in any kind of responsible, scholarly way. This was the "full disclosure" part of the review, if you were wondering.

But there is more to the '80s nostalgia vibe than just, well, nostalgia. Part of what keeps Back to the Future fresh and fascinating is the layering effect of period-specific signifiers: a movie about time travel that's also a time capsule. And frankly, given how whip-smart Zemeckis and Gale were in this period, I wouldn't doubt for a moment that it was actually being deliberately future-proofed... but I'm running ahead of the story a little bit.

And that story, of course, is about the chronically tardy high-schooler Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring rock star - God help me, but in at least 20 lifetime viewings of the film, I've never been certain whether or not we're supposed to regard Marty as a great guitarist, or a jangling, awful one - whose best friend is the much older eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc's latest invention is a time machine built into a DeLorean, which he demonstrates for Marty one night; a nasty run-in with Libyan terrorists results in Doc's death and Marty getting stranded in November, 1955, just a week and change less than thirty years into the past. Here, while working with Doc's younger self to fix the machine and get back to the future, Marty meets his mom (Lea Thompson) and dad (Crispin Glover), and manages to endanger his own existence by ruining the moment where they first met and fell in love.

As with most of the director's films, Back to the Future is mostly about the successful execution of a narrative - while his mentor, Spielberg, has never been above the pursuit of an image or a technique or an emotional moment for its own sake, Zemeckis's best films have all been story-driven, even as they are at times perched right on the cutting edge of effects technology; though it is easy to lose sight of this in the degraded age of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Even as much as Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Death Becomes Her, for example, rely extensively on the best and brightest tech-nerd toys, Zemeckis's tendency was ever to use his directorial skills to keep the story moving, and to hit the right emotional notes at exactly the best moment. And with all that said, I think that Back to the Future boasts probably the tightest screenplay of any film in the filmmaker's body of work. It is a structural marvel: not one scene is wasted, not one line fails to have an exact, precise function (even if that function is solely to be funny). If something is described early on, and seems to make no sense otherwise, you can rest assured that it will be paid off in some specific way. The ballsiest example is the lightning storm that serves as the film's climax: it's introduced right at the start in an otherwise pointless scene, only to be made the thrust of the entire drama, giving the whole movie a ticking-clock format in addition to the other ticking clock, the photograph of Marty and his siblings that starts to fade away slowly as a result of his mucking about with his parents. My favorite example is the matter of Doc Brown's flux capacitor: he describes its creation in a reverie that initially just seems like the musings of an old man, and this leads him to set the exact date that Marty accidentally travels to, while also providing Marty with the necessary evidence to prove his identity to young Doc Brown and thus get the primary narrative started in earnest.

Frankly, I don't think anyone would tell me I was flat-out wrong if I argued that Back to the Future is probably the most coherent time travel movie ever made; partially, it is true, because it does very little in the way of twisting, but mostly because Zemeckis and Gale pay exceedingly close attention to every detail, answering every niggling question that I, at least have ever thought up. On top of this remarkably solid framework, the other niceties of the screenplay are just candy, though very wonderful candy: the simple, but clearly-defined characters, the perfect comic dialogue (under-appreciated line: "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?" is Doc's justification for the DeLorean, and Zemeckis's justification for his career-wide aesthetic).

Back to my earlier point, though: Back to the Future is, explicitly and obviously, a study of the 1950s, both as tribute (its precise and particular re-creation of the colors and shapes of the architecture, the clothes, the design mentality; the privileged treatment of "Johnny B. Goode") and as satire (the self-serving hypocrisy with which the elder McFlys deliberately misremember their youths; the oblique indictment of Eisenhower-era racism). Zemeckis and Gale were both four years old at the time that their movie takes place, so for them it could only be an act of cultural anthropology to have made it; nor am I at all the first person to point out that Marty's journey within the film - back to the '50s, where he spends a good amount of time feeling hopelessly confused by how alien the culture of a scant 30 years ago is - mirrors the audience's journey - to a representation of the '50s presented with just enough stylisation that it feels entirely otherworldly.

Less-observed (though nothing about a film as widely-loved as this can be properly described as "unobserved"), Back to the Future is, almost 30 years after the time of its creation, a representation of the '80s just as precise and particular, and as stylised and alien, as the representation of the '50s. The first thing we hear, almost, is Huey Lewis and the News, singing "The Power of Love", written just for the film. Now, if you can think of any relic of pop culture more quintessentially of the '80s than Huey Lewis and the News, you have a better memory than I; and this, plus those crazy '80s fashions, plus the intense high-concept '80s-ness of the whole edifice, makes Back to the Future a document of not one, but two bygone eras. I do not know if Zemeckis had this in mind; but as I said, he was a damn good filmmaker in his day, smarter than most other blockbuster auteurs and tremendously confident in the placement of every cut and camera angle. Is it too much to wonder if he found a clever way to over-emphasise the then-contemporary cultural artifacts, so that future generations would get even more out of the film than people did in 1985? Impossible to say, of course. But I am glad that the possibility exists, for it gives Back to the Future an extra shot of fun above and beyond it's great story, cast, and humor; indeed, though I hate to resort to a pun, it makes the film altogether timeless.


* * * * *

Back to the Future ends with a giant smiley face of Hollywood froth; a playful, open-ended but nonetheless satisfying conclusion that promises our characters will still be around, having their adventures. The endless possibilities inherent in the story of a time-traveling car - which can fly now, thanks so much - created an infinity of unexplored vistas, of which Doc Brown's very off-handed reference to "your kids" was merely the tip of the iceberg. In a modern age of sequels green-lit before the first movie is even out of post-production, the ending would be an obvious, slightly charming, slightly groan-worthy sequel hook, but when they first wrote the screenplay, neither Zemeckis nor Gale had any such notion in mind. That is the most important fact to keep in mind about the Back to the Future trilogy: it was conceived as a simple, standalone comedy.

Of course, the movie industry was the same bastard beast in 1985 as it is now, and after Back to the Future became a gigantic smash, Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment couldn't make up the contracts for a sequel quickly enough. It had to wait; Zemeckis was already throwing himself into another Amblin project, Touchstone Pictures' Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was only after that technically ambitious masterpiece of family filmmaking wrapped principal photography that the director was able to take a peek at Gale's initial scripts for what was still meant to be a single vasty follow-up stretching from the marvels of 2015 to the rugged frontier of 1885. It quickly made sense to divide the story into two parts, which for convenience would be shot in one fell swoop; and thus was franchise history made.

Sequels as such stretch into the silent era; the idea of a trilogy being the ideal franchise model is considerably newer. It was the unprecedented success of Star Wars in 1977 that birthed what has become an excessively common formula: a standalone original would be followed by a middle film that ended on a cliffhanger, so that the "trilogy" could rather be thought of as Film 1 and Films 2+3 (in a "true" trilogy, such as Satyajit Ray's Apu films, or more recently the Spider-Man franchise, the three parts form a unified whole, but each stand unique and independent). Back to the Future was one of the earliest examples of this format to follow in Star Wars's wake; what made it a trendsetter was the idea that the sequels should be produced right on top of the other, with hardly any break in production or in release dates. The only precedent I can find to this - and my knowledge is hardly definitive - is, arguably, Superman and Superman II, initially meant to be filmed together, until backstage issues put a temporary brake on the second installment. It has become altogether more common: The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean both followed the BttF model almost to the letter, and it takes little imagination to see the same impulse in the megalithic production schedule of the three Lord of the Rings films, or in the mad dash to crank out five Twilight pictures before everybody stops caring about the property.

None of this has very much to do with the film released in November, 1989, as Back to the Future, Part II. Picking up slightly before the original left off, with a re-filmed version of that movie's closing scene providing a new actress in the role of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue, replacing Claudia Wells), and Doc Brown getting noticeably re-framed dialogue to set up a slightly different scenario than the first film ended on, the new film skips ahead thirty years, to find Marty's son, Marty Jr. (played by Michael J. Fox, just like his old man), getting in some trouble with Griff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the grandson of Marty's 1955 nemesis Biff (ditto). This situation resolves itself fairly quickly, but not before old Biff steals the time machine to go back to 1955 and present his teenage self with a copy of a sports almanac that the young man uses to make himself a billionaire, turning 1985 into a hellish nightmare fantasy. Marty and Doc, protected somehow from the effects of the change - though for how long, it's hard to say - head to 1955 themselves to stop Biff from changing the timeline. Naturally enough, this leads to both of them interacting, in potentially dangerous ways, with the plot of the first movie, and it all ends with Doc being zapped to God knows when during the same lightning storm that sent Marty back to 1985 in the first place.

It says quite a lot about Zemeckis and Gale's continuing strengths as writers that what I just wrote makes absolutely perfect sense while you're watching it. And that all the jerry-rigged elements meant to turn the thin promise of further adventures made at the end of the first movie harmonise rather effortlessly with the original, turning casual gags into clever foreshadowing and building recurring motifs out of one-liners, while also providing a fine story that hangs together and is perfectly effective on its own. Mostly. The filmmakers have been open in later years that if they knew that the final scene of Back to the Future was in fact setting up a sequel, they'd never have put Jennifer in the DeLorean with Marty and Doc, knowing that they had nothing interesting to do with her. Lo and behold, it is very much the Jennifer elements of the plot that feel the most awkwardly kludged in, adding nothing but a handful of minutes of running time.

In the main, though, Part II does exactly what a sequel should do, yet remains a rarity as thrilling as seeing a Siberian tiger in the wild: it faithfully continues the story of the first film without in any significant way repeating it, and it expands upon the rules set up by the first film without violating the spirit of those rules. Or to put it another way: Part II is the film that actually plays around with the ramifications of time travel as established in Back to the Future. The first film is mostly just a fish-out-of-water comedy with some pronounced overtones of Oedipal dread; it's in the second film that we actually start to deal with cause-and-effect, paradox, and a genuinely twisty plot that you really need to focus on. It's also in Part II that we see the franchise's only feints towards one of the classic topics of time-travel fiction: what will the future look like?

Though the 2015 sequence occupies only a portion of the movie, it has usurped nearly all of the popular awareness of it; and not without reason. Knowing that they could never predict a "real" version of the future, Zemeckis and Gale instead created a vision of thirty years hence (or 21, depending on how you're counting) that is unmistakably meant to be the future if the '80s just keep going on for three straight decades. Surely by accident, this '80s-centric vision of the 2010s has proven to be one of their most spot-on predictions (not the fashion, maybe, but have you looked at pop culture lately?) - the only keener observation is the movie theater with the abnormally intrusive advertisement for Jaws 19, a tawdry 3-D epic. It's depressingly likely that 2015 might see a gaudy 3-D version of Jaws, though it would be a remake, not a sequel; probably directed by Marcus Nispel, with Bradley Cooper as Brody, a playfully slumming Ewan MacGregor as Quint, and Amanda Seyfried as "Mattie" Hooper. Um... oh, yes, Back to the Future, Part II.

It's in 2015 that most of the whiz-bang awesomeness of the movie is found, not just in the staggeringly over-detailed production design by Rick Carter - hardly a single frame of this sequence doesn't have some coy detail about life In The Future snuggled away where you simply won't see it without a pause button handy - but in Zemeckis's embrace of technological gewgaws. It's no big deal nowadays to have one actor onscreen in two different roles, but in 1989, when Fox appeared as Marty Sr, Mary Jr, and Marlene, it represented quite a coup du cinéma, and it shows its age not at all. CGI was just in its cradle then, and the very minor use of computer animation throughout the film is every bit as effective as its practical effects. The film's visuals haven't aged quite as well as its predecessors; but much better than some films half as old.

Still, though, the 2015 sequence - with all its details and its pop-culture meta-commentary and the like - is just a portion of the film - and not the only good portion, though it's probably the best. Though the film sags a bit in the middle (the alt-1985, basically), it picks up considerably once it hits the territory covered by Back to the Future. Zemeckis obviously poured himself into this movie, for the verve with which shots reflect images from the earlier movie, with which footage from the earlier movie is re-purposed and re-staged; just generally the ballsy degree to which events that seemed complete before are suddenly revealed to have new purpose and meaning; Back to the Future, Part II is one of the few sequels in history to force us to seriously re-consider the original film, without ever depriving the original of its basic integrity.

Most sequels aren't time-travel flicks; therefore most sequels don't get to recontextualise the original in such narratively fascinating ways. Taken as a pair, the first two Back to the Futures ask a number of unresolved and unresolvable questions about causality, order, and intention; and taken as a pair, they're also a hell of a lot of fun. That's what separates a top-drawer talent like Zemeckis from a routine hack: he can make an entertaining trifle meant to sell popcorn, and still infuse it with all kinds of structural inquiry that you can either pay attention to or not: and staggeringly, the film is equally enjoyable either way. Back to the Future, Part II is unique in the director's career in this respect - he is not given to structuralist or formalist experimentation - but that very loneliness is what makes the film such a loopy success. Not as exceptional and driven as the first movie, of course, but still a doozy of brain-bending comedy, dressed up in bright enough colors and broad enough silliness that even a child can have a real blast watching it. I should know, I was that child, three-quarters of a lifetime ago.


* * * * *

For the morbidly inattentive, a recap: never expecting to put together a sequel to Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis found himself making two, right in a row, each of them telling a discrete standalone story linked by a cliffhanger ending that takes place seconds after the climax of the first movie. In such ways do time-travel narratives offer up all kinds of structural awesomeness. See also "Lost, third- and fourth-season finales of".

You would be within your rights to assume that, being filmed essentially as one four-hour movie, Back to the Future, Part II and 1990's Back to the Future, Part III would be of functionally uniform quality. To a certain degree, they are, too: with pretty much the exact same set of creative minds as the second film, from designer Rick Carter to cinematographer Dean Cundey (who in fact shot all three entries), Part III is every bit as confident and slick as its two predecessors; but it is hard to ignore a distinct feeling of deflation. I cannot state with authority that Zemeckis used all his Back to the Future energy in juggling the multiple time frames and overlapping action of the second film in the trilogy, but compared to that film's weird energy, Part III feels a touch sedate. Thus it is always with threequels that are not cartoons about toy mortality.

The story you likely know: after receiving a letter from 1985-edition Doc Brown dated to 1885, Marty finds Doc Brown '55 and requisitions his help to first find the DeLorean that has been hidden in a cave outside Hill Valley for 70 years, then to fix it, and lastly to completely ignore the older Doc's express injunction against returning to 1885 for a rescue mission. Soon enough, Marty is in 1885, but the rugged terrain he finds there cripples the car, and Marty and Doc have to find a way to get back to the future; not so easy to get that much iron up to 88 miles per hour in an age before refined gasoline was available on every corner. And there's still the open question as to whether Doc is going back to 1985 or not; between Marty's historical documentation of Doc's death in just a couple of days, and Doc's infatuation with the town's new schoolteacher, Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), it remains a point of contention between the two for most of the film.

Over the years, many people have come up with many explanations for what doesn't work about Part III (and many of them still think it's better than Part II, or at lest no worse): the Wild West setting, the Doc/Clara love story, a whole slurry of plot holes - none of which are necessarily holes, though they require a great more thought than the series has thus far demanded. For me, it really comes down to one thing: sequelitis. The joy of Part II is that it pushes against the universe described in the first movie as hard as it can, testing the rules, and generally playing with time travel as a story element in all sorts of ways. Part III is the first movie redux. With some incidental changes, of course, but the spirit is essentially identical: Marty travels backwards in time and can't return with the state of technology he finds there; the only possible plan involves a shot in the dark that can only work once, and if it fails, there's no hope for a second try. Along the way, the bulk of the comedy involves a teenager from 1985 being absolutely befuddled by what he finds in the past. Of course, the specific nature of the drama is different, though this difference much favors the first movie: there he faced an life-threatening crisis brought about by timeline issues, here he faces the life-threatening crisis of an angry man with a gun.

Following the immaculate genre play of the second film, it's disheartening to say the least that Part III treats time-travel as nothing but an excuse for a steampunk Western comedy; I suspect that, though he's never and would never admit it, Zemeckis feels the same way. Or perhaps it was just the stress of eleven straight months of directing Back to the Future movies that led to the uncommon slackness of his directorial hand. Not that Part III is ineptly-directed, Lord no: you would never watch this and muse to yourself, "Wait, did Robert Zemeckis direct this, or Chris Columbus?" But compared to the intense perfection of every last element of a Roger Rabbit or a Romancing the Stone, Part III feels a bit loose and imprecise.

Yet it still works. In fact, it arguably could not work better for what it is and what it aims for, though I maintain that the conclusion to the Back to the Future saga ought to have aimed for something better. The story, at least, remains perfectly tight, right up until the last ten minutes or thereabouts, which I do not "like"; but I cannot argue against them for any reasons other than those of taste. In fact, the end of Part III brings the trilogy to an entirely effective close: Marty's arc from lackadaisical slacker to bright young man is brought to a perfect close, and one of the final lines sums up the series' philosophy of destiny vs. choice in an entirely coherent and emotionally true way. Everything else is just grousing: the penultimate scene builds off of what was already the lousiest subplot of Part II, the "Jennifer stumbles around 2015, hopelessly confused" bit, and more than anything else in any of the movies, it underlines the division between the first film on the one hand, and the two sequels as a unit on the other hand, which is made to seem contrived and inauthentic. Man, I just do not like the movie once Marty gets back to 1985. But that's probably my problem more than it is the movie's.

Still and all, it's perfectly fun and successful for the bulk of its run: the interplay between Marty and Doc remains fresh and energetic, perhaps surprisingly in light of Michael J. Fox's personal tragedy during this half of the double-length shoot (his father died shortly after filming began on the Part III material). Neither actor reveals any hint of weariness, and indeed they both find new things to do and ways with characters who had long since become iconic. The humor tends at times to the juvenile and silly; but so did much of the humor in the original Back to the Future, and at any rate it is good to have a return to straight-up wacky fun after Part II, which is never aught but a comedy, though at times it becomes so invested in its contorted plot that it forgets to be funny.

For as much as Zemeckis the director seems to be worn out a bit, presenting imagery without much in the way of affect or insight, Zemeckis the writer, along with Gale, remains fully committed, and as I said all the way at the start, the script is always the true mark of a Robert Zemeckis film. Part III is appealing and funny, it trades on our familiarity with the characters and the tropes of the series without seeming stale, and it resolves a complex story without a single dropped stitch. It's just that it does all of these things without any "spark", that extra blast of imagination and energy that separates the truly great popcorn movies from the good enough popcorn movies. Still, "good enough" is a lot more than most second sequels to cinematic candy like Back to the Future usually manage; and thus did Zemeckis and Gale's final collaboration proved one last time that even when they weren't terribly good, they were still among the most gifted mainstream Hollywood filmmakers of their era.

10 comments:

Stephen said...

I wish I had thought of that. There are so many trilogies I wanted to request but didn't want to request just one part of them.

Tim said...

It's not too late. E-mail me or just post it to the fundraising page.

Rachael said...

You really did/will review the whole trilogy! I'd have completely understood if you'd stopped at the first one, but I'm ecstatic that you're going through with all three. It just didn't seem right to ask for the first one alone, considering how layered the trilogy is.

Wonderful review, as always. Seeing the original as a time capsule for 1985 as well as 1955 hadn't occurred to me. Same with the hilariously relevant 3D prediction in II. Though personally, Zemeckis' incredible attention to detail is my favorite part -- did you ever notice the pine trees in I or Doc's shirt in II?

javi75 said...

Sorry if this bothers someone, although I think it's actually on topic.
Talking about "time capsules", I just found this blog apparently dedicated to re-printing articles from movie magazines from the 30's, currently 1932. It's kind of fascinating, and funny sometimes.
http://hollywoodheyday.blogspot.com

dfa said...

As someone who writes about trilogies myself, I'd love to see your take on the entire Ocean's universe, which you seem to enjoy, plus the third one is already done.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I dunno. I haven't seen BttF2 in years, but my prevailing memory is that it leaned EXTREMELY hard on gimmicks, and wasn't nearly as fun as the original. The situation seems to me to be akin--if less drastically so, obviously--to the Matrix "trilogy:" the first one's fun and snappy, but then the whole thing gets bogged down in superfluous mythology, and I lose interest.

nohat.net said...

waiting now with bated breath for the review of part III.

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent piece. The script for the original Back To The Future is a thing of beauty. And I've always had an odd affection for Part 3 as well, mostly because I wasn't allowed to watch Part 2 until I was out of childhood (Mostly because I suspect of the "I'll cut your tits off line" which still feels ugly.)

But I'm especially tickled to see your appreciation of Used Cars. A film I only recently discovered and immediately fell in love with.

"THAT'S TOO FUCKING HIGH!!!"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwH5KEbAipY

The.Watcher said...

I'm one of those people that prefer III to II, mainly because I despise the bit when Marty comes back to 1985 only to find it taken over by Biff.

And hey! III is a western, complete with in-your-face Leone references and flying trains. But all 3 of them have, and always will have, a place in my heart.

dfa said...

This was a rite of passage for me as well, count me as old by your standards :P I sense The Lord of the Rings coming...