It’s Back to the Future Day, and our cars stubbornly refuse to fly. At ScreenCrush, Matt Singer tallies 50 predictions from the 2015 section of “Back to the Future II,” nearly all of which failed to come true. There are no hoverboards, no bionic implants, no female president. Publications from CNN to the BBC have been busy tallying what Robert Zemeckis’ sequel got right and wrong about life in 2015, somehow missing the point that getting the future “right” was never the movie’s intent.
At Slate, Jacob Brogan argues that fact-checking “BTTFII” risks “missing its very essence.” “If ‘Back to the Future II’ has a thesis,” he writes, “it’s that nothing is more dangerous than knowing your future — and nothing less productive than worrying over the way things might be.” But at the same time, Brogan praises the movie for creating a persuasive, if not necessarily plausible, future. “The filmmakers commit so fully that their world feels real, even when its proposals are so deliberately absurd (for example, the long-suffering Chicago Cubs winning the World Series) that they’re obviously meant as jokes.)” It’s not the real future, but it could be.
For RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz, the 2015 scenes are, intentionally or not, more about the decade in which the movie was released than the future it pretends to visit. “Like all science fiction to one degree or another,” Seitz writes, “the first visit to circa-2015 Hill Valley is not any kind of serious speculation on the future, it’s a 1985 vision of what could lay ahead if trends in American life and culture marched on unimpeded.” The trilogy, he argues, doesn’t “just show you what Hollywood thought America (at least white suburban/small town America) was about in 1985, they show you what Hollywood thought the fifties and the 1880s were about, and what the future would bring.” They’re not just intricately plotted entertainments, but vital cultural documents.
But the most important passage in Seitz’s essay comes higher up, when he talks about the first “Back to the Future’s” relationship to the 1950s, the decade when the people who made “Back to the Future” — Zemeckis, his co-screenwriter Bob Gale, executive producer Steven Spielberg — came into the world, or at least came to consciousness. Zemeckis was born in 1953, as was producer Kathleen Kennedy; Gale in 1951. If those teenagers going all the way at “Enchantment Under the Sea” weren’t careful, they could have ended up giving birth to “Future’s” above-the-line talent.
“Back to the Future” treats the 1950s as a theme park in which the rides keep going off the rails; like Spielberg’s “1941,” it’s not about the decade but its iconography, especially as it was drilled into the minds of future generations. In one of the movie’s signature moments, time-traveling Marty McFly blows the roof off a high-school dance by playing “Johnny B. Goode” to a ballroom full of awestruck teenagers, although he kills the moment by adding in a few Eddie Van Halen licks to a song that, for him, is already an “oldie.” Although some sensitive souls have suggested that the cutaway where Chuck Berry’s cousin holds up a telephone to introduce him to “that sound you been looking for” steals the birth of rock ‘n’ roll from a black man and gives it to a white one, it’s more like a goof on time-travel paradoxes: Marty’s note-for-note recreation of Berry’s original solo leaves no doubt as to where he learned it from in the first place.
The future of “Back to the Future II” is constructed along similar lines. Its extrapolation of then-current trends isn’t a prediction, but a critique of our inability to imagine the future as anything other than an extension of our present. The teenagers of the future ride hoverboards instead of skateboards; instead of three “Jaws” movies, there are 19. Sure, the cars fly, but despite the mayor of Hill Valley’s optimistic claims, traffic is as bad as ever. Well before “Back to the Future” was released in 1985, futurists were predicting a world run by computers — see the vintage Arthur C. Clarke clips in “Steve Jobs” for proof — but the residents of the trilogy’s 2015 are still sending written messages by fax.
The future of “Back to the Future II” has less to do with how people in 1985 saw 2015 than how people in 1955 saw 1985. Zemeckis has always kept a close eye on technological developments, but the movie’s flying cars and self-adjusting clothes seem more like something you would’ve seen in an exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair than anything Silicon Valley was dreaming up in the 1980s. The first movie dwelt on how impossible it was for the people of the 1950s to grasp even the most mundane aspects of life three decades later; the second tacitly acknowledges that the filmmakers are in the same boat. The movie’s can’t even imagine a future where Marty’s son — and daughter! — look like anything but carbon-copies of their old man.
“Back to the Future II” is prescient in one enormous way, although it wasn’t on purpose. In constructing the second movie as essentially a feature-length teaser for the third, Zemeckis and co. laid the foundations for the overwhelmingly franchise-dominated culture of the present. The blatant, clumsy product placement for Nike and Pepsi seems like a harbinger of today’s more sophisticated “product integration,” and the use of wow-inducing technology to cover up for the lack of a compelling story is so future-forward it’s practically now. “Back to the Future II” may not have predicted the future, but it did help to create it.