Monday, June 22, 2015


Is Back to the Future II the perfect sequel? Quite possibly.

Before all you rabid fans of The Exorcist 2, Psycho 2, Jaws 2, Teen Wolf Too, Baby Geniuses 2, Speed 2, Weekend at Bernie's 2, and The Empire Strikes Back totally Biff-out on me, let's consider what makes a great sequel. It's a dicey errand, as the line between a great number two and a crumby one is thin and hardly straight. 

We should set our terms first. What are counting as sequels? I'm hesitant to include the likes of Indiana Jones or James Bond, as these are more serials than sequels, hewing more closely to the early days of cinema and the old days of literature where a common hero threads through various adventures. And do we include fare like Star Wars – also a throw back to Flash Gordon-like serials – which is ostensibly a full, unfolding narrative series? Dictionary-wise, yes, these do fall under the definition of sequel, but let's culturally qualify a bit. 

The kind of sequel we're talking about is generally compelled by commerce more than storytelling. Once a movie has proven to be bankable, people who are in the business of making money will want another one. But it's not as evil as it sounds. Lazy, maybe, but not evil. Hollywood wouldn't make sequels if we didn't go to them. So, in some ways, the kind of sequel we're talking about is for fans of the first movie who want more from a story that doesn't have a lot more to give.

Bruce Willis' John McClean, for instance, is just your every day half-saucy/half-crusty NYPD officer who is just trying to mind his own business when international incidents keep getting foisted on him over and over again. We, the audience, take for granted that the same or similar things happen to a character who doesn't go looking for trouble. And we don't care, so long as it's entertaining.

I'm not saying this is an essentially a bad thing. Yes, it's frustrating when every movie that comes out is a retrofit of a previous one, but there is a sort legitimate glee to rehashing the same experience over and over again, a reality that became clear to me the other weekend as I watched my four-year-old nephew go up and over the same bouncy slide incessantly. When we like an experience, it's understandable that we'd want to have it again.

"There's something very familiar about all this."

And so this is the challenge set to a sequel that isn't part of a greater mythology or serial: it has to be different from, but also sort of the same as, its predecessor. Is Back to the Future II a great movie? Not necessarily. But we don't usually hold sequels up to the same standards as the originals. The first in a series comes out of nowhere, is a discovery, whereas sequels are familiar, and we want them that way. And this sequel gives us what we want in spades. Not only does the movie use all the characters from the first movie (sort of sans Crispin Glover and with a swapped Jennifer), but it features different versions of them throughout time. (So many Biffs!) Too, it mimics a few of the famous scenes from the first movie, though with the added spin of these new old events taking place in a futuristic 2015. And, as a good sequel should, it doesn't ignore its own cultural echolalia. As an old Biff says while watching the redux of the Biff and Marty chase from the original, '"There's something very familiar about all this."

But what makes Back to the Future II the perfect sequel is the fact that it doesn't only nod to the first movie, but actually takes place within it. Thanks to the logic of its own universe, it's able to literally do what all sequels strive to do figuratively. 

I realize that there are plenty of number twos out there are better movies than the second Back to the Future – I'm looking at you, fans of The Boondock Saints 2but no other follow-up manages to tick as many sequential needs as this one does.

- Andrew

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