Hoverboard vs. locomotive
Credit: Ralph Nelson

The first Back to the Future is as close to blockbuster perfection as our frail human consciousness can ever hope to achieve. Also, there are two more Back to the Future movies. Today — Oct. 21, 2015 — marks an orgy of online celebration and shameless corporate-branded nostalgia for Back to the Future Part II. And I am going to make a wild leap here and guess that, when you were a kid, there was a stretch of time when you considered Part II the best Back to the Future. Maybe you still do! Allow me to list the main reasons why you felt/still feel that way:

1. The hoverboard.

2. The flying cars.

3. The holographic Jaws 19 billboard.

4. The other hoverboard.

5. The clothes that can dry themselves after you fall into the water, because your hoverboard doesn’t work on water.

6. The shoes that tie themselves so you can wear them when you ride your hoverboard.

7. Everything happening in the background during the scene with all the hoverboards.

8. The completely insane line reading of “UNLESS YOU’VE GOT POWER!!!” by actor Jason Scott Lee, who plays the character you definitely didn’t know was named Chester “Whitey” Nogura. (The “Unless you’ve got power” line is, of course, completing a thought started by another member of Griff’s gang vis a vis the workability of certain hoverboards in the vicinity of water.)

What you may or may not remember is that everything I just typed comes from the first half hour of Back to the Future Part II. The film’s Act I is a download of pure eye-candy that has been absorbed into the firmament of ’80s nostalgia. You definitely don’t have memories half as vivid of the rest of Part II, a movie that takes a Future Past curlicue into an alternate reality where a local brute’s financial success turned Hill Valley into Akira, before ultimately dead-ending into a lawsuit-baiting Part I clip show.

In my life, I have met two species of human being: People who profess to love Part II and hate Part III, and people who profess to love Part III and feel extremely mild about Part II. The simple explanation for this is that Part II and Part III are about as different as two sequels — Filmed back-to-back! With recurring narrative/visual/dialogue motifs! — can possibly be. Part II takes kinetic plot-jumps between shifting timelines, crowding the ensemble with time-tossed double-versions of every main character. Part III hops backward once and then strands Marty in an entirely linear storyline. Part II dives deep into what we would later call the “mythology” of the franchise, re-enacting scenes from Part I from a new perspective. Part III could almost be a separate story entirely. That’s because where Part II goes is the “to the Future” entry; Part III is the “Back.”

Also, Part III is a western. And a love story — between a middle-aged man and a woman over 35!

So liking Part III means, in part, grooving onto the idea of a filmmaker transforming a franchise threequel into a love letter to cinema. It also means digging the notion of transforming a franchise about Marty McFly into a romance between Doc Brown and entirely-new-character, Clara, who as played by Mary Steenburgen is the best possible version of every female character in J.J. Abrams’ movies.

Part III is the kind of sequel you don’t really see anymore, after the success of Harry Potter turned sequels into episodes. (Like, if there were a Back to the Future III of Harry Potter, it would be some version of Deathly Hallows: Part 1 that mostly focuses on Ron.) And even though Part III has one of the series’ best setpieces — the train! the bridge! yeesh, even THE HOVERBOARD! — it’s by far the most old-fashioned Back to the Future. It’s leisurely, with an undercurrent of delicate emotion (Doc Brown bonds with Clara over her telescope) and the goofiest farce (Doc Brown gets wasted). There’s a climactic duel in the middle of town, and a bad guy who wears a black hat.

For all these reasons, Part III doesn’t really work in the context of how contemporary mass culture treats movies. Part II actually gets better when it’s reduced to its spare parts. It’s a screengrabby GIF-fest — a social media movie, made a decade and a half pre-Facebook. So it makes sense that the internet is celebrating Part II, and it also makes sense that the most internet-friendly moment in Part III is this:

When we remember Part II, we remember the things. This is partially because director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale always had a keen eye for consumerist detail, and partially because they fancied the first part of Part II as a kind of materialist satire, and partially because our culture tends to transform materialist satires into monuments to materialism. Part III is smaller, more human, more curious, quieter, even elegiac. The final setpiece is a throwback to The Great Train Robbery, credited by some as the very first narrative feature film. And Part III has maybe the saddest moment in the whole franchise:

It’s a bold moment: Destroying one of the coolest toys of the ’80s. Part II is all toys. And we do like our toys.

Happy Back to the Future Day, everyone. Here we are, Oct. 21, 2015. We’ve never been closer to Part II — and we’ve never been further from Part III.

Back to the Future
  • Movie
  • Robert Zemeckis