Which is the best Back to the Future film? In honor of Back to the Future Day, three Polygon writers prepare their best arguments. Read the case for Back to the Future here and Back to the Future Part 3 here.
I'm going to give it to you straight: The original Back to the Future is the apex of the time traveling adventure franchise. This is a non-negotiable fact. Anyone who disagrees is either trying to be a contrarian or requires a psychiatric evaluation.
That being said, if we're talking about which of the two sequels to the first film — 1989's Back to the Future Part 2 or 1990's Back to the Future Part 3 — is the superior viewing experience, Part 2 is the clear standout.
Having watched the film countless times over the course of my life, I never once considered this to be a controversial or even arguable opinion. Yet here I am, arguing in favor of something that seems so obvious. In recent years I have become exposed to a small but vocal subset of moviegoer which denies the quality of Back to the Future's immensely entertaining and sole future-centric sequel. These people confuse and, frankly, infuriate me. Because they are very, very misguided.
There are several reasons why Part 2 is not only a great sequel, but a great cinematic text in its own right. Let's start, appropriately, from the beginning.
Director Robert Zemeckis waited four years to release a follow-up to his megahit 1985 classic, which seems odd considering that the sequel immediately follows its predecessor. To accommodate the attention spans and short-term memories of 1980s audiences, Part 2 opens up with a recreation of the first film's ending scene. This might seem like a misstep, considering it's a shot-for-shot remake of an iconic sequence with a major difference – Elisabeth Shue as teen hero Marty McFly's girlfriend Jennifer Parker 2.0, who looks nothing like the alpha Jennifer, Claudia Wells.
When you watch a film entitled Back to the Future, can you be blamed for wanting to see a little bit of the future?
But watching the film in a marathon viewing with the first entry, as I often do, proves otherwise. Part 2 insists upon the viewer that the series is dedicated to its own continuity, in spite of its recasting. (Crispin Glover as George McFly is similarly missing, although his absence is less apparent due to a minimized role, as well as archival footage and creative make-up design.) This is admirable and appreciated, especially when watching through a modern lens. Most sequels these days just drop you right into the film without set-up, presuming your full awareness of the previous title's proceedings — or, more likely, hoping you don't remember what happened last time so you won't notice the plot holes.
Back to the Future Part 2 doesn't have plot holes, because Back to the Future Part 2 is fully aware of its own history. Its confidence in this regard borders on smarminess, with a high volume of callbacks and references to the earlier film. But really, is it so bad to remind the viewer of a film that they love? I vote no. Besides, the sequel just as quickly shakes any preconceived notions of the burgeoning franchise as soon as it hits the ground running — or rather, hits the air.
As Doc Brown tells us at the end of the first film, and then repeats at the beginning of the second, where Marty ends up within the first 15 minutes of the sequel is the hoverboard-filled, high-tech 2015. This is what people remember the most about it. This is what many people talk about when they talk about Back to the Future: Hoverboards, Pepsi Perfect and self-tying sneakers are among the most notable items contributed by the movies to pop culture.
Actually letting us see into the future is where Part 2 wins out over the first film, let alone the third one, which goes completely off the rails and into the opposite direction to its detriment. Part 2 is Zemeckis at his most imaginative, employing the DeLorean to take us on a tour of his vision of the future. While Doc and Marty aren't totally enamored with what they see — mostly because Marty discovers that he grows up to be a cipher — this all-too-brief glimpse at 2015 remains exciting to explore, even today.
While the 2015 part sets up the sports almanac-chasing central plot effectively, what it really does is tease fans with a slew of in-jokes. And that is completely fine, because any fan of the series should have no problem watching Biff — err, Griff — Tannen get toppled by manure yet again.
Back to the Future Part 2 is an essential and important work in the history of cinema.
Not only do we visit 2015, but we follow Marty, Doc, Jennifer and the rest of the McFly/Tannen clan to 1955 and two different versions of 1985, as well. There's plenty of new stuff going on in the parallel 1985 timeline for that to be interesting and unique, especially considering it's a dark, bizarro world take on Marty's present.
It's when the crew heads back to the past that the film stumbles. Part 2's version of 1955 is mostly a retread, although with the added benefit of hindsight on the part of both the viewer and Marty. But scenes like Marty playing "Johnny B. Goode" at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance are never unwelcome, and it really is impressive to see Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson once again playing their younger selves, especially when contrasted to the various older forms they take on in the other timelines.
1955 is where the sports almanac part of the plot is also at its most prominent, and it's that device that is so memorable as to be enviable. Biff handing off the almanac to his younger self so that he can cash out by betting on teams he already knows will win is a genius plan. If that's not something you would do if you had access to a time machine, then you're lying, because that is exactly what you would do.
At no point is Back to the Future Part 2 boring, even when it is frustrating or bloated or heavy-handed with the references. It is an exciting film for 100 percent of its runtime, thanks to the classic cast of characters, the intricacies of the plot and the utmost willingness on the director's part to push the film as far as it can go. That the film has to end at all is probably my least favorite part, especially considering that the ending serves as a teaser for the third film that I refuse to acknowledge as canon.
Lest we forget, there's a reason we're celebrating the Back to the Future series today. That reason is because Back to the Future Part 2 exists and is an essential and important work in the history of cinema. October 21, 2015 is a significant date in the lives of thousands because of their unabashed love for a movie that deserves it. Sure, our world doesn't quite mirror the one presented in the film — although we're getting closer and closer to it — but no one is arguing that Back to the Future is a documentary series. They're just saying that Part 2 is a fantastic film, and they're right. It is.