From the Archives: L.A. Times’ 1989 review called ‘Back to the Future II’ a vast improvement


Editor’s note: To celebrate Back to the Future Day we’re rolling out our old reviews of this classic time travel movie. Los Angeles times critic Sheila Benson didn’t love the first movie, but seemed to enjoy “Back to the Future II” a little bit more and called the time-traveling film “a vast improvement over the sometimes skimpy invention of ‘Future I.’”

Here’s the full review published on Nov. 22, 1989, with the headline “Movie Review: Future II: Back to the Bank”

If “Back to the Future” made you bored and querulous, then the tumbling inventiveness in its sequel may come as a pleasant surprise. Of course, if you were among the 92% of the world who loved the ride in Dr. Emmett Brown’s diabolical DeLorean back in 1985, then “Back to the Future Part II” (citywide) is your oyster. Well, your hamburger with onions.



If it proves anything, it’s that director Robert Zemeckis (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) is getting cooler and even more adept at controlled mayhem. Actually, “Future II’s” best moments are like a Tex Avery cartoon with live actors, crammed to the edges of the frame with nutsy touches.

This is not to say that it isn’t one of the year’s noisiest films, nor one of the most dizzying. It not only zooms up to the year 2015, but back again to that fateful high school dance of Marty McFly’s parents in 1955, then up for a while to 1985. And not 1985 as the characters knew it, but a sort of faux 1985, the Ghost of 1985-yet-to-come-in-the-worst-of-all-possible-worlds.

Now, you may whiz up and back and sideways with the ease of Isaac Asimov, but not this time traveler. So it is invigorating to report that screenwriter Bob Gale has had pity on the spaced-out. When he begins his backs and forths in the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum or whatever, he has the eminent Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) diagram it all out on a blackboard for us. Thus, even the dimmest among us can appreciate exactly why McFly and Doc must risk time-warp whiplash to keep their universe, and perhaps even ours, on an even keel.

It all begins with danger in the year 2015 to Marty McFly’s son, Marty Jr. (conveniently played by McFly “himself,” Michael J. Fox, surely one of the world’s oldest high school students and one of the more bearable). Scanning the future, Doc Brown knows there is big trouble if Marty Jr. goes along with the scuzzy plans of a guy named Griff, so McFly and Brown nip up to 2015 in the gull-winged DeLorean to see if they can change history, or future history. With them is McFly’s girlfriend, Jennifer, played by the talented and, in this instance, vastly wasted Elizabeth Shue. Also wasted are the talents of “Breaking In’s” Casey Siemaszko, almost unfindable here as a third thug.

“Future”-ites will already be onto the fact that Griff is the son of Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson, both times), who made the life of the McFly family father, George, such a living hell. Frankly, the braying of Crispin Glover’s George McFly in the first film made some of our lives living hell too, so it came as good news that Glover appears in the sequel only in brief silent scenes taken from footage in the first film. The grandfather George McFly is played in the year 2015 by Jeffrey Weissman.

When film makers’ visions of the future spin off nearly familiar technology, the results are more fun than brainstorming wild inventions that take forever to understand. We might not want to live in Zemeckis and Gale’s 21st Century but we can grasp its systems quickly enough to feel comfortable and even smug. In the town square, hologram movie trailers do more than put you in the picture; the ads for “Jaws 19” (“directed by Max Spielberg”) are enough to give you cardiac arrest. Then there’s the town’s retro restaurant, “Cafe ‘80s,” a sort of free-fall Cafe 50’s, updated and feverishly realized by Zemeckis.

Here, nostalgia buffs can ride Lifecycles and have their orders taken by video waiters Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson or the Ayatollah Khomeini. Outside, skateboards float magically a few feet off the ground, and Doc Brown’s car is now completely airborne. As Marty browses in the window of an antiques store, there is even an ancient computer, right next to a Sports Almanac listing the winners in every sporting event from 1950 to 2000.

That almanac becomes the story’s prize, when first Marty, then doddering grandfather Biff in the year 2015, realize its potential as a solid-gold betting guide--if one were to go back to the 1950s and lay bets according to the book’s documented winners.

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As the movie ricochets all over the calendar, Gale and Zemeckis are profligate with throwaway sight gags, almost as many as there are blatant product plugs, and a vast improvement over the sometimes skimpy invention of “Future I.” There are also lavish visual quotes from that first film, so if you have-- somehow --missed it, “Future II” will fill you in on everything but its Calvin Klein joke. That had to do with an unconscious Marty being identified by the citizenry of 1955 by the label in his underwear: Calvin Klein. (Plug.)

Technically, the film brings multiple role-playing to new deftness: among Fox’s endearing McFlys there is cute Marlene McFly in 2015, a role for which Fox gets a close shave and an auburn wig. In addition to doubling and sometimes tripling his actors in the same, seamless scene, Zemeckis also folds in footage from the first movie, making the continuity person perhaps the most heroic figure on the project. The sheer personal pull of Lloyd and Fox cannot be underestimated. Lloyd keeps his even when he’s delivering speeches with the velocity of a railroad train. Amazing.

The film ends with a quote from its own sequel, Doc and Marty in 1885, a shockingly tacky coda to such charm. If “Future II” had the wit and daring of some of its best moments, or of that masterly satire “This Is Spinal Tap,” it would end it all now, and let these quotes be from a nonexistent sequel--one that looks as though it may snap the trio’s winning streak. No such luck; we are all expected Back in the summer of 1990.


A Steven Spielberg presentation of a Robert Zemeckis film. Executive producers Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy. Producers Bob Gale, Neil Canton. Director Zemeckis. Screenplay Gale, from a story by Zemeckis, Gale. Camera Dean Cundey. Production design Rick Carter. Editors Arthur Schmidt, Harry Keramidas. Music Alan Silvestri. Costumes Joanna Johnston. Associate producer Steve Starkey. Visual-effects supervisor Ken Ralston. Makeup Ken Chase. Art director Margie Stone McShirley. With Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Harry Waters Jr. Elizabeth Shue, James Tolkan.

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).