“I never think of the future — it comes soon enough.” – Albert Einstein
Welcome to October 21st, 2015, or as it used to be known: “the future.”
Forever memorialized in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II, today is the date on which Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and his girlfriend Jennifer Parker step out of the DeLorean and into the Hill Valley of the future (or as it’s currently known: “the present”).
You may have heard about this. People are pretty excited about. At the risk of being hyperbolic, you could even say that the Internet hasn’t been so excited about something movie-related since at least yesterday. You can refuse to partake in the nostalgia that’s bubbled up around this movie, and you can roll your eyes at the particular nugget of trivia by which it’s apparently been welded to the collective unconscious, but the heaving orgy of attention it’s inspired for today’s date is undeniable.
The question is: why? It’s not as though the movie is some kind of consecrated masterpiece. The enjoyably superfluous middle chapter of a popcorn trilogy from a decade filled with better examples, Back to the Future Part II occupies an awkward limbo between ironic appreciation and sincere devotion — it isn’t Troll 2, but it’s also not The Empire Strikes Back. What’s more, the parts of it that take place in 2015 account for significantly less than half of the film’s running time.
Is some of the commotion an inevitable byproduct of Zemeckis’ decision to follow in the footsteps of the first Back to the Future by sending his characters to a specific date? Probably. Is the movie a lucky beneficiary of — and a huge contributor to — our enduring nostalgia for the cinematic Cheez Wiz of the 1980s? Almost certainly. The vast majority of movies about the future are actually transparent cautionary tales about the present, and today is just the latest and most diverting reminder that most of them will eventually become about the past. What makes Back to the Future Part II so uniquely resilient is that when you wake up tomorrow, it will still be about…the future.
It’s an ironic twist of fate considering that the director claims to have hated shooting the parts of the story that take place in, well, the here and now. During the audio commentary recorded for the trilogy’s Blu-ray release, he called these sequences “the least enjoyable part of making the whole [series], because I don’t really like films that try and predict the future.” It’s an understandable position, as it reduces a film’s legacy to something of a parlor game: Either you’re wrong and you look dumb, or you’re right and you look old. In neither scenario does anyone care if you were good.
And yet, while Back to the Future Part II doesn’t shy away from flying cars (a Jeep with rocket thrusters!), the rest of the film’s vision of the future is nothing if not recognizable. In sharp contrast to Alvin Toffler’s popular theory of “Future Shock” — the suggestion that people are overwhelmed by the future and are paralyzed by the information overload of being dropped into it — Marty McFly finds that the learning curve is never as steep as it seems from the top. He’s terrified by the hologram shark that leaps off the Jaws 19 marquee and tries to swallow him whole, but he survives and shrugs it off. (“The shark still looks fake.” Take that, Spielberg!) He doesn’t even know what a hoverboard is at first, let alone how to use one to escape from Griff’s gang of floating thugs, but he figures it out well enough. There may not be roads where Marty goes, but he gets there anyway.
For all of its pastel silliness and Game Gear chic, Hill Valley circa 2015 is only so much fun because — like a great parody — the audience can only be in on the joke if they recognize what it’s riffing on. Marty’s future house may have a pizza-hydrating machine in the kitchen, but it still feels like home. If nothing else, Back to the Future II was uncannily prescient, because Zemeckis knew that the future was something that we experience for ourselves every day, and that it tends to look a lot like the present by the time it arrives.
It’s always been that way. The Model T was introduced to the world in 1908, and by 1910 there were more than 12,000 of them clogging the streets. The iPhone was launched in 2007, and by 2009 there were already people complaining that it didn’t come in blue. Toffler had it wrong: We don’t feel shock from rapid technological advancements. On the contrary, progress is only possible because we’re so quick to weave it into the fabric of our lives. It’s a jolt of “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!” and then a lifetime of “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
So rather than conceive of a transparently allegorical dystopia (so hot right now), Zemeckis made himself look like a time-traveler by anchoring his broadly appealing vision of the future to the tedium of people who are already tired of it. Voice-activated machines, wearable technology, flat-screen televisions, unchecked nostalgia for the Eighties… the biggest difference between the movie’s 2015 and the one we’ve made for ourselves since is that Elijah Wood is a few feet taller in real life. The Cubs may not win the World Series this year, but it’s still insane that they could lose their shot at it tonight. Even the Scenery Channel is a thing, now. It’s like Biff says when he watches Marty try to get away from Griff: “There’s something very familiar about all this.”
Many of the best sci-fi films seem to become more relevant as time goes on, but few seem to remain so enjoyably static — perhaps it’s an appropriate fate for a movie so attuned to the dangers of messing with time. This sequel has clung to the collective unconscious for the last 30 years for the same reason why people will respond to it as strongly about it tomorrow as they did yesterday (even if it doesn’t generate quite as many memes). All movies about the future are actually about the present. Back to the Future Part II maybe one of the only ones that will never feel like it’s about the past.