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Back to the Future II (1989)

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BROADCASTING BEAUTIFUL VIEWS 24 HOURS A DAY: YOU’RE TUNED TO THE SCENERY CHANNEL

by Michelle Said

When I was 15 years old, my best friend Melissa and I wrote letters to our future selves at 25. Would we be married, would we have children? Where would we live? At that point in our lives, 25 seemed like it was forever away. After all, ten years prior, we were only five years old. So, we figured, ten years hence we ought to have been pretty much completely established as people.  

“I think you were overly optimistic,” she teased me before she opened the letters. On the eve of 25 I was living in Atlanta on a whim and had absolutely no clue what to do with my life. We tried to guess what we had written to ourselves in the future and vaguely recollected that I was hoping to be an editor of a magazine and happily married, or something like that. My parents had gotten married at 23, so I thought that 25 was an accurate estimate. This wasn’t based on anything else other than what I knew, which was what my parents had done. They were my model for success. If I wanted to have a happy, productive life, then I could use them as a guideline. One extra thing, though: I wanted to live in New York. This had been a dream of mine ever since I saw Oliver & Company and An American Tail. According to cartoons, New York was where you could perform dance numbers on suspended pianos if you wanted to. It seemed like my kind of place.

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At 25, Melissa lived in Los Angeles not far from the suburbs where we grew up. She had kept the letters in a box at her parents house and called me one night between our August birthdays. As she opened one of the letters, I cringed, waiting for the naive 15 year-old me to make itself, myself!, apparent. Journalism? Yeah, not exactly. Married? You’ve gotta be kidding me. I was sitting in a house in East Atlanta. How could I have ever predicted Atlanta? Where was New York? Where were the Billy Joel songs?

She opened one of the letters. I heard the crinkle of paper over the phone line. 
 
“Nevermind,” she said.

“What do you mean? Nevermind what?” 

“I mean, nevermind! I thought it was 25, but the letters are for when we’re 35.”

I sighed and felt a massive weight rise off of my shoulders. Of course! We had given ourselves two decades to become real people, not just one. Thank god, I thought. Thank god, thank god, thank god. The thought of having to face my 15 year-old self so early in the game was terrifying.

But imagine if you had to actually come face-to-face with your expectations of your future versus the reality? What if you could spy on yourself 30 years down the line?

Can you even imagine? The horror of it all! Seeing yourself when you’re in your late 40s and, instead of being a specimen of awesomeness, you are broken down, a nobody that has been worn down by life, expectation, gravity.

It’s scary as hell.

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Which brings me to Back to the Future II.

Watching Back to the Future II in my late 20s gives me same sort of feeling that a torture porn would. However, when I was in my teens I thought it was quite obviously the greatest movie ever made. The dream of this new and improved 2015 enchanted me with its flying cars, hoverboards and holograms. And hey, they got a lot right! I mean, Miami didn’t even have a baseball team in 1989! And, as tiny Elijah Wood complains, video games wherein you have to use your hands are for babies. Let’s talk about the XBox Kinect, amirite?

Back to the Future II’s vision of the future was surprisingly accurate in many ways, from the obsession with plastic surgery (even Doc undergoes the knife — or some futuristic approximation… botox, maybe?) to wide screen televisions to videoconferencing. With so many “future” technologies having come to pass, it feels a bit silly to share in Marty’s Dorothy Gale sense of wonder, but we do. He is a stranger in an even stranger land—a version of his own hometown he could have never predicted, much more bizarre than the one he found in 1955. This Hill Valley is dazzling and Technicolor, filled with candy-colored plastics every shade of the rainbow.

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Some of the most impressive and interesting technology is contained in Marty Jr’s outfit: he wears a hat that is lenticular and glossy, sneakers that autolace and a jacket that self-dries and adjusts to fit. But the true masterpiece is the hoverboard, a skateboard that glides on air (not water, you bojo!). It’s a Jetsons sort of world where almost everything floats. I imagine audiences of 1989 must have gasped at the special effects, fantasizing and then eventually scoffing at the potential of this reality. The entire 2015 section feels like one of those AT&T “You Will” commercials from the early 1990s. Ever want to have your family fixated on little screens at all hours of the day? YOU WILL. 

These nuggets of futuristic wonder are so tantalizing and the humor that accompanies them is so light and enjoyable that I proclaimed Back to the Future II my favorite movie of all time for years. I couldn’t wait for all of this possibility to become a reality. But as I got older and more and more of these gadgets and computers and fabrics slowly came into my life (the iPhone is one of the most amazing feats of technology I have ever owned, aside from the Tomagotchi I serial-murdered over and over again in high school), I watched the movie with new eyes. And what I found was a terribly dark and twisted story, one that depresses me every time. “Oh no,” you’re saying (maybe). “Oh no, it’s not that bad.”

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It is.

Back to the Future II deals with a simple (?) premise. Doc decides that it is necessary for Marty to fix the life of his son in the future because his son is too much of a wimp and gets into trouble with a gang led by doofus-villain Biff’s progeny that leads to serious jail time. Or something. It’s a stretch. If this story were being workshopped, I think most people would say that they didn’t really “buy” Doc insisting on changing these events so fervently due to the fact that he was so against having Marty alter the past on his behalf, but, maybe narrowly escaping a round of bullets changed his view on the matter. Moving on.

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Also – and I think this is really important and the reason why the second two movies differ so dramatically in tone from the first – Marty seems to add a new dimension to his personality, one that wasn’t quite as apparent before. In the first Back to the Future, Marty is brave when his father is not. To put it another way, Marty is a Gryffindor and his dad is a Ravenclaw – possibly Hufflepuff, but I think more Ravenclaw in the tradition of Luna Lovegood (and Lorraine is a Hufflepuff and Biff is a Slytherin and Doc is also a Ravenclaw – don’t worry, I have a chart of all of these if you’re interested). But in the second movie, this boldness and bravery transforms into hubris. He is plagued (plagued! utterlyplagued!) by the idea of being thought of as a wuss. But he also carries with him the perceived invincibility of youth. He barks,  “Nobody calls me chicken!” as often as he might say hello. Zemeckis and Gale sort of include this facet of his personality as retcon as it is the thread that ties together Parts II and III. Marty is too brave. He cannot stand to be thought of as anything less than a noble hero. And yet, it is that hubris that is his fatal flaw.

Well, that, and his greed. As he spots a sports almanac chronicling 1950 to 2000 (a surprisingly lithe and lean book), he gets the idea to bring it back with him to the ‘80s to make some extra money on the side. “I can’t lose!” he exclaims as he gazes upon his new purchase. As soon as we see it, we recognize the almanac as the Chekhov’s gun of Hill Valley. Marty’s avarice quickly gets the best of him. Biff steals the almanac and the time machine and creates what seems like irrevocable havoc on the past. He becomes the richest man in America, kills George and blackmails Lorraine into marriage (and a truly terrible boob job).

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And while that alternate reality is appalling on several levels (not the least of which is confronting the death of a parent, a grisly detail that makes the movie even more dark, a byproduct of Crispin Glover’s refusal to be part of the sequels), it’s the future of 2015 that struck me as more frightening than the alternate 1985.

When Marty spies on his future family (including his future daughter and son, both brilliantly played by the genius that is my husband Michael J. Fox) what he sees gives him pause. Future Marty’s disenchantment wafts off of the walls. He lives in what was once a nice suburban community in a bored suburban existence. He is almost 50 years old with graying hair and a terrible suit in a life that can be best described in this day and age as Giamatti-esque. Sure, his marriage seems fine, if a bit stale. His kids seem fine, if a bit spoiled and disaffected. But this future is not what Marty, an aspiring rock star teenage boy, had planned for himself. The ultimate indignity comes via video conference as he is fired with loud, caps lock YOU’RE FIRED faxes spewing from every orifice in the house.

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How often have we thought of our future like this? Never? When you are a teenager and you see the disappointment that seeps out of the pores of  your elders, they seem as if they are a different species. What would it be like to confront your own middle-age defeat and malaise as a teenager? To come to terms with the mistakes you make now that will impact you for decades to come?

To be young is to be full of hope, we are constantly told, and to be old is to lose that hope, like a balloon slowly letting out air. Teenagers never believe that they will become the people they disrespect. But they do, they do, and then they have their own children and the cycle continues. It is this chain that never ends, one that we hope will never happen to us. But when we are young we pretend like it does not exist. We tell ourselves that we will not become those people. We tell ourselves won’t break down, we won’t settle for anything less than the best and, most importantly, we will never stop trying. 

What Back to the Future II tells us is that we will. 

At the end of the first Back to the Future, we thought Marty had fixed everything. His parents had a more satisfying life due to the changes and hope he had instilled in them as teenagers. But Marty was full of that hope, Marty had, we thought, the power to not lose it. But there he is, a middle aged man filled with bitter disappointment in 2015 nevertheless. It’s heartbreaking. And so even if he does end up rescuing his family and bringing his father back to life and getting a lesson about his hubris and pride, who is to say that he doesn’t wind up back where he was in 2015? Getting married at the Chapel O’ Love to his high school sweetheart. Becoming a sad sack adult. There’s nothing in this to tell us he won’t. He has to go back and fix the past, but what can he do about the future?

I suppose this is why there is a third Back to the Future, in which he does get to make new choices and try to become the man who does the right thing.

But what of us who don’t get a second chance? What about us who don’t have a time machine? We all have our vices, after all. What Marty endures in the second Back to the Future is a nightmare landscape marketed as a futuristic lark. It is filled with elements of humor and wit to keep us from thinking about the implications of its message.

As for me, I am going to confront the person I was at 15 in only a matter of years. I think she’ll be cool with me, with us. At least I hope so.

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Michelle Said lives in New York. She tap dances on her fire escape almost every day. 

  1. gansso reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
  2. jprimo196 reblogged this from dazingstateofmind and added:
    damn dude dazingstateofmind. i really dont wanna settle but i believe god’s already got our fate in his hands.
  3. dazingstateofmind reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom and added:
    jprimo196 this is like what I was talking about settling as we grow older…
  4. lucwhostalking reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom
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  12. bizarre-ponderingme reblogged this from brightwalldarkroom and added:
    I have and will always love Back to the Future one and two. Three never so much though …
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