As much loved as Back To The Future Part II is now, that wasn’t always so: we look back to its initially underwhelming response from some quarters.
On January 1st 2015, it felt like half the internet suddenly put an article live examining the future predictions made in the 1989 movie Back To The Future Part II. The much-loved sequel, after all, spends around the first third of its running time in a version of 2015 as seen through eyes then looking some 25 years into the future. One of those predictions of the future absolutely wasn’t seemingly everyone having the same idea for an article when the year finally rolled around, mind, but the fact that they did is testament to the ongoing impact of the movie.
Another prediction the movie inevitably didn’t make was the fact that over the course of the same period of time, people would have warmed a lot more to the film than they did when it first arrived. I say this as someone who queued for nearly an hour to get into see it on its opening weekend on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, and pretty much loved every frame. But the young me was then suitably astonished to discover that other people – whisper it – were not as keen.
In fact, I’d worked that out before I saw it. I distinctly remember recording Film 89 with Barry Norman to see what he thought of the movie in the week leading up to its release. I’ve long wiped the VHS, but someone has thoughtfully uploaded his review here…
Now: it’s nothing unusual for a film that’s gone on to be much loved to have been, er, ‘less-liked’ by critics, and ordinarily I’d think nothing of it. But I’ve had a chat now with a couple of people younger than me, for such people exist, and both struggled to wrap their head around the fact critics were snippy about the movie.
Norman’s summation was a fair and considered overview of the highs and lows, in fairness. That it’s hard to avoid the criticism the story for the second film is considerably denser than that of its predecessor (or successor), to the point where Christopher Lloyd’s Doc has to get a piece of chalk and a board at one stage to explain it all. I liked it a lot more than him, though, and I remember feeling a little deflated when I watched his review a few days before I was off to see the film I was most looking forward to at the time. Naturally, I rewound the review a few times to watch the clips. No YouTube in those days, chums.
What’s interesting is that the cast and crew were aware that the second film hadn’t landed as well as hoped when they came to promote the third around six months later. In fact, they faced questions about it.
Whilst successful, Back To The Future Part II would fall notably short of the original’s box office returns (doing around half of its business), whilst Back To The Future Part III would in turn fall short of Part II’s returns. At the time, there was some questioning in fact as to whether Universal’s gamble to make both movies back to back was a wise one.
Thomas F Wilson addressed the backlash against the movie in an interview he gave to Starlog magazine’s August 1990 issue, primarily to promote the next sequel, Back To The Future Part III. “Sure it was dark”, he told the magazine. “But you have to shake up life at times or you don’t have much of a movie”.
Furthermore, director Robert Zemeckis is one of those who’s reflected on the impact the film’s production took on the final cut. It’s very well known that it was filmed back-to-back with the third chapter of the trilogy, and as such, the editing time available to Zemeckis was hugely contracted.
He talked about this on the disc extras for the trilogy release. There was minimal turnaround between two and three, and for Zemeckis, this was the most intense time. He was on the location for Back To The Future Part III, and had to be flown back to Hollywood to then edit the second film. He made this trip many times, grabbing whatever sleep he could. But there simply wasn’t the time needed available to refine the film, and he pretty much acknowledges that.
Crucially, there was a chunk of the audience that wasn’t too happy at the end of the movie to find – spoiler – that the whole film ended on a cliffhanger. It tells you just how far advanced filming of Part III was at the point of Part II’s release that it ends with an extensive preview for the trilogy closer. Bob Gale, co-writer of the films, recalled the loss of goodwill the films were hurt by, as a result of the way the second film was promoted.
“I had arguments with Tom Pollock, who was running Universal at the time, about that. I was really adamant that we should have promoted Back to the Future II as the second part of a trilogy. People should have known before they bought their tickets that there was going to be a third one”, he told Amblin Road.
Thus, Back To The Future Part II – whilst not without many fans – had disappointed to varying degrees the audience, the critics, the filmmakers and the studio itself.
Time, ironically enough, has proven to be a great healer. That whilst the second film in isolation was ripe for a bit of a kicking (and it certainly received a light one), in the context of the full trilogy it’s become more and more warmly received.
There’s a general acceptance from audiences too that the middle film in a trilogy is going to be the ‘dark’ one, but in 1989 the only real touchpoint there had been there in recent mass-market cinemas was The Empire Strikes Back (although another trilogy complete the same year as the first Back To The Future sequel’s release – Indiana Jones – and the middle chapter of that is a bit, well, ‘less family friendly’).
Now, I can’t help but think audiences would have been a little kinder.
Yet I end where I start. I loved the film then, I love it now, very much warts and all. I can see and accept many of the criticisms aimed at it, and don’t disagree with a lot of them. But it was also the moment that taught me just because lots of other people don’t like a movie, it doesn’t mean you’re not still allowed to love it yourself…
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