“Back to the Future: Part II” is a rushed, loosely-plotted mess that dishes out occasional moments of fan service to create a faux impression of quality. We think that because Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale showed us their vision of a car-flying, Cubs-winning, futuristic 2015 landscape that everything that happens after in this film is on par with the original “Back to the Future.” But this movie relies too much on gags and one-note jokes instead of longer setups and deep humor dives that made the first “Back to the Future” a masterpiece.
Ironically, the reason why “Back to the Future: Part II” feels rushed has nothing to do with time. This movie came out in 1989, four years after the original, and was shot at the same time of the third film, which came out in 1990. There was time was there to craft a worthwhile script for a sequel, but because “Back to the Future” was a massive success, it put much more demand and pressure onto what that sequel should be. Marty had to be tougher! Doc had to be crazier! Biff had to be the worst human being in existence! Lorraine had to be….Lorraineier!
But these character traits that “Back to the Future: Part II” needlessly amplifies aren’t true to how the characters acted in the first film. Marty acts tough and isn’t afraid to throw down, but it’s always when someone else he cares about is in trouble. His biggest goal from the first film was to not be seen as a loser, that’s why losing the band audition in front of Huey Lewis was such a blow and why playing Johnny B. Goode was such a victory, because it made him cool. Doc is eccentric but he isn’t madcap, he just wants to verify that he isn’t a failure as a scientist by successfully sending Marty back to 1985, the goofiness is just bonus points. Biff is particularly interesting because he just really wants to score. Lorraine is the main apparatus of achieving that, and he only is into her because she keeps saying no. Biff bullying George is just his over-testosteroned way of killing time, akin to how lesser-steroid-engaged folk might read a book or play Words with Friends.
But “Back to the Future: Part II” bundles up all those traits from the first movie and drives them into a flaming pile of socks. Marty is now some guy who’s primary trait is that he can’t stand being called chicken. Doc is motivated by nothing else except to scold Marty for buying the book, we see him go through no development as a character throughout his journey back to 1985. And it’s totally unbelievable that Biff would kill George in alternate casino 1985 just to be with Lorraine, considering when in the very first timeline, he hasn’t done anything to thwart the couple’s long, albeit downtrodden, marriage. This movie tells us that Biff got away with George’s murder because of his financial influence over the cops. Sadly, he would have gotten away with killing loser George in the original 1985 since nobody really cares about him that much.
“Back to the Future: Part II’s” characters are technically the same but feel like slightly altered versions, as if they absorbed some plutonium radiation too long and had their DNA and personalities altered. This can be most humorously visualized in Elisabeth Shue taking over Claudia Wells’ role as Jennifer, playing the same character in a bizarre, unrecognizable way. Transforming these characters in seemingly minor ways seems inconsequential, but actual has a major impact on the storytelling continuum when you realize how character-driven the “Back to the Future” franchise really is.
To be fair, there’s only so many risks that Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis were able to take with this sequel. The movie would have been better off not making Biff its central villain, and returning to 1955 again diminishes the magic of the first film. But blockbuster sequels are built with the same bricks of their smash hit predecessors, and there was no way that “Back to the Future: Part II” was going to stop building, even though the creative and storytelling peak of this franchise had been reached four years earlier.