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'Back to the Future II' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1989

Thick with corporate plugs and self-promotion, "Back to the Future Part II" defines capitalism as an art form. It's a crass, calculating feature-length billboard. What'll you have? A Pepsi, a Miller, a pair of Nikes, a tank of Texaco? Maybe a Pizza Hut pie smoking from a Black & Decker oven. A "Jaws" sequel? Or how about some of those "Future II" sunglasses on sale at a fast food outlet near you?

This latest product from the Spielberg Factory is the last bite of the food chain, a form of capitalistic cannibalism. Audiences pay to be insidiously manipulated by the conglomerates. And in this case, they are paying to see a movie that they've not only seen before, but that they'll pay to see again. You see, history repeats itself in "Back to the Future Part II," which is really a feature-length trailer for "Back to the Future III." The confounded tomfoolery doesn't even have an ending save "To be continued in 'Back to the Future III.' "

That, as the Spielbergermeisters know, won't matter a damn. It's all a matter of supply and carefully orchestrated demand. Like "Batman," it's the latest must-see, peer pressure, carve the logo on your head, designer blue jean experience. Of course, you have to have seen the original to make any sense whatsoever out of the sequel. But hey, that's more money for video rentals.

"Future II" is a glib and glossy crowd-pleaser, crafted, honed and polished by Robert Zemeckis, director-cowriter of the blithe original. Its clever but ultimately unsatisfying story sees heroes Marty McFly and Doc Brown hurtling up and down the space-time continuum in their familiar DeLorean. Except for Crispin Glover, who is replaced by Jeffrey Weissman as George McFly, members of the original cast enthusiastically reprise their earlier roles.

The sequel takes up right where the prequel left off. Marty (Michael J. Fox) has just kissed his girlfriend when Doc (Christopher Lloyd) screeches back into Hilldale 1985 in his souped-up speedster. Wearing a clear tie and a pair of fluorescent solar glasses (remember, on sale at a burger emporium near you), the agitated genius has been visiting the year 2015. "It's your kids, Marty. Something's got to be done," says Doc, hurrying Marty and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue) into the time machine.

A theme-park-like future awaits. Conceived by an army of set designers, special effects wizards and costumers, the suburban paradise of 1985 California has become a popsicle-colored landscape filled with mellow moppets and refugees from the post-apocalypse of "The Road Warrior." Don't worry, you can still pick up your USA Today on any street corner.

Alas, the McFlys' Hilldale neighborhood is now down at the heels, though every home is equipped with a scenery channel and such gadgets as a Black & Decker Pizza Hut pizza hydrator. Marty and Jennifer (Fox and Shue in lumpy makeup) have become losers like Marty's parents were before he altered time's fabric in the original. Marty Jr. (Fox) and his sister Marlene (Fox in drag) are a troubled wimp and a garrulous teen coquette, respectively.

In the meantime, young Jennifer, drugged for her own protection and stowed in an alley, is picked up by two policewomen, who thumbprint her and take her home, where she plays hide and seek with her 47-year-old self. Meanwhile Doc and Marty Jr. tangle with Griff (Thomas F. Wilson), the antisocial grandson of Biff (Wilson), now a conniving old-timer. A hover board (flying skateboard) chase ensues, while unbeknownst to the time travelers, the past has been drastically altered.

We never do learn what happens to the McFlys of the 21st century. Rather, we return to 1955 to stop an event that has produced a hellish new 1985. Time McFlies when you're having fun. The alternative Hilldale is a laissez-faire nightmare of violence, homelessness, legalized gambling, spouse abuse and toxic waste, ruled by the now all-powerful Biff. It's like 1989. Biff's foul empire is symptomatic of the sequel's overall meanspiritedness, a refutation of the prequel's frothy joys.

"Future II" is to "I" as "The Temple of Doom" was to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," good clean giggles gone sour and mumpish. It's also extremely complicated. Zemeckis and longtime writing partner Bob Gale have devised a pop Rashomon -- the same scenes viewed from new perspectives. It's as snazzy a display of moviemaking legerdemain as Zemeckis gave us in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

The story line, all things being relative, makes about as much sense as turning your clock back when you're short of daylight. It's to be admired for its intricacies, which promise to become even more arcane in "Back to the Future III," now in production. Maybe Zemeckis et al. see no point in ending "Back to the Future Part II." Maybe they figure the promise of more of the same is compelling to generations who teethed on reruns. Maybe they're right. Certainly they aren't naive.

What's missing is that wide-eyed innocence that set off the earlier Steven Spielberg sci-fi adventures, the emotional core of "E.T." and "Close Encounters," the ingenuousness of McFly in "Future I." Here, Marty is wide-eyed, but he's turned into a proto-Charles Bronson. "Nobody calls me chicken," he says, a retort that proves his undoing no matter what the decade. "Future II" poses the dramatic question: Will he learn to control that redhead's temper? We'll just have to wait till 1990, won't we?

Fox, the me decade's answer to Mickey Rooney, will no doubt prove as irresistible to his followers as ever. His zany costar Lloyd remains a most beloved absent-minded professor, a comic treasure despite a paucity of funny opportunities. Lea Thompson seems ill-used as the paunchy, alcoholic mother in evil Hilldale.

"Back to the Future Part II" makes America safe for suburban tomorrows, for well-lighted malls and lots of cineplexes. It promises a holographic "Jaws 19" ("Now it's really really personal") and Nikes that automatically fasten themselves and robots that walk dogs. As Doc says to McFly when he is being attacked by Indians ... To be continued in "Back to the Future III" next year.

Back to the Future Part II is rated PG

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