21st-century Fox

Hollywood’s time-travelling hero returns

Brian D. Johnson December 4 1989

21st-century Fox

Hollywood’s time-travelling hero returns

Brian D. Johnson December 4 1989

21st-century Fox

Hollywood’s time-travelling hero returns


Michael J. Fox was running late. The news conference was already half over by the time he slipped into the crowded room, like a schoolboy sneaking into class long after the bell. “Hi guys,” he said, taking a seat beside his costars from Back to the Future Part II. Like his character, time-traveller Marty McFly, Fox seems in a constant race to catch up to himself.

He has spent the past 10 months on the set of two sequels being shot backto-back—a procedure unprecedented in Hollywood history. Back to the Future Part II opened last week in theatres across North America. Back to the Future Part III, out next summer, will keep Fox busy until the new year.

During the arduous shooting schedule, the 28-year-old Canadian actor found time to wind up the seventh and final season of NBC’s hit sitcom Family Ties—and to start his own family as a new father. At the Nov. 19 news conference in Los Angeles, director Robert Zemeckis said that the second sequel would be the last. Turning to Zemeckis, Fox quipped: “I thought we’d go back to 1985 and do a Back to the Future/Family Ties Christmas special.”

Almost guaranteed to be the openme-first hit of this year’s Christmas season, Back to the Future Part II uses time travel to reinvent the whole concept of a Hollywood sequel. With characters who zip backward and forward through the decades at a synapsesnapping pace, the story overlaps the first movie and ends with a trailer for the one to follow. Future II is far more hectic, violent and complex than its predecessor. Turning the theory of relativity into Hollywood formula, it offers an off-the-rails roller-coaster ride through time. And the plot has more brainteasing twists than a Rubik’s Cube.

Playing multiple roles, Fox appears in so many places at once that keeping his characters straight, he recalled, became “a kind of mental chess—it was a lot of fun.” In fact, American TV’s favorite son is cast as a virtual one-man family in Future II. As well as portraying teenage Marty McFly, he plays Marty as a middle-aged father, Marty’s son and Marty’s daughter. Through the magic of special effects, all of them are seen sharing a pizza together in the year 2015. Those unfamiliar with the first movie may find much of the plot incomprehen-

sible. And others may find it implausible. But for fans of the original movie, Future ITs relentless energy provides the sort of videogame challenge that pushes an idle mind into euphoric overdrive.

In the first movie, Marty blazed a trail back

to the 1950s, where he arranged his parents’ courtship, taught his father to overcome his cowardice and dazzled crowds with displays of 1980s virtuosity on guitar and skateboard. Upgrading his family by tampering with the past, Marty returned to a new and improved 1985. Then, the movie ended with a scene that cried out for a sequel: Doc Brown, the mad scientist, hauled Marty back into his time machine and set the controls for the future. “It’s your kids,” said Doc. “Something’s got to be done about your kids.”

Zemeckis claims that he did not design the first movie with a sequel in mind—“It was just a joke, what we did at the end,” he said. But the movie’s $410-million worldwide gross made a sequel irresistible. “And then, the joke was on us,” said the director. Future // begins with the final scene of the first movie. Then, within minutes, the DeLorean is flying through a rainy

sky of airborne rush-hour traffic in the year 2015. After touching down in a future version of Hill Valley, his home town, Marty is horrified to discover that he has a son who is a wimp. Just as the bully, Biff, made Marty’s father’s life miserable in the 1950s, Biff’s punk offspring now terrorizes Marty’s teenage boy in the 21st century. And Marty rides to the rescue on a flying skateboard.

The story goes through a dizzying number of time warps, with time-travellers encountering earlier and later versions of themselves. When Marty gets back to 1985, he finds that his nice middle-class neighborhood is unrecognizable. It has turned into a ghetto afflicted by drive-by shootings. His mother is tranformed into a silicone-breasted babe, and Biff has become a cruel tycoon ruling Hill Valley from a casino tower. It seems that Marty has landed in a parallel reality, a stray tangent of the space-time continuum. And the only way that he can set history back on its proper course is to return to the 1950s, where he will cross paths with the Marty who travelled back in time in the previous movie.

It is complicated. But that is all part of the movie’s Byzantine charm. The most entertaining scenes occur in the future, with a myriad of sight gags and special effects. Most are clever exaggerations of contemporary pop culture. Skateboards become hoverboards; billboards become holograms. A three-dimensional shark lunges from a marquee advertising Jaws 19—a reference to Steven Spielberg, director of Jaws and executive producer of the Back to the Future trilogy.

Many of the novelties in the § movie’s futuristic vision bear £ the stamp of corporate spon“ sorship. Space-age running shoes automatically wrap themselves around Marty’s feet, lighting up Nike labels. A Black & Decker appliance, resembling a microwave oven, inflates a dehydrated pizza. Future II is a triumph of fantasy as product. It shows that director Zemeckis has become a Walt Disney for the computer generation. With Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, last year’s top-grossing movie, Zemeckis stretched the technical frontiers of the screen by blending animation and live action. With Future //, he again proves that he is at the cutting edge of Hollywood technology. Even the story, which he developed with Los Angeles screenwriter Bob Gale, has been concocted like an elaborate special effect.

The comedy that results is not hilariously funny, but it is consistently witty. Unfortunately, the movie’s onslaught of devices—narrative and technical—leave little room for emotion. Fox performs with ease and agility in all of his roles, whether he is wearing a dress or hiding

behind layers of ugly latex. But the movie rarely slows down long enough for him to actually relate to the other characters. For his part, Thomas F. Wilson tends to overact the cartoon-like villainy of Biff and his son, Griff. Christopher Lloyd, however, seems gloriously in sync with the movie’s hyperbolic energy as the bug-eyed Doc Brown. Unravelling the paradoxes of time travel with breathless exuberance, he steals every scene that he plays.

Only one of the principal cast members

elected not to return for the two sequels— Crispin Glover, who portrayed Marty’s father. Consequently, the sequels simply sidestep his character. Future II and III grew from one script, according to Zemeckis. “We had a tremendous wealth of ideas about time travel,” he said, “and every time we wrote the screenplay as a single film, we felt the ideas were being shortchanged.” The director explained that shooting the sequels back-to-back was the best way to keep the cast together—and to finish the trilogy before Fox became too old to pass for a teenager.

Zemeckis says that, in planning his series, he studied proven models. “We looked very closely at the Star Wars trilogy and The Godfather Part II,” said the director. “Those were our favorites.” But, he added, “ ‘Sequel’ is a term

we don’t really like to use—we like to call it a continuation.” Future II does not exactly end with a cliff-hanger, but the hero’s fate is left in limbo when “To be continued” flashes onto the screen. Highlights from the next movie then show Marty in a pink-fringed jacket being chased on horseback through the Old West.

Asked why the second movie is so much darker and more violent than the first, Zemeckis said, “It’s a different story, one where the villain has to become more of a villain—you can’t have drama if you don’t have conflict.”

The dismal future that Marty faces in Future II will sort itself out, he promised. “We would never leave that hanging—everything will be wrapped up at the end of part three.” Offering his own explanation, Fox added: “Part one had that gentle nature and familial thing. Part two just zips along. A lot of the heartstring aspects of the story get wrapped up in part three.” For Fox, the Back to the Future trilogy has turned into a coming-of-age marathon. Spending 10 months on the set of the same movie was exhausting, especially when the shoot overlapped the filming of Family Ties and his wife’s pregancy—American actress Tracy Pollan gave birth to their son, Sam, last May. “When you’re a father for the first time,” said Fox, “it gives you a new appreciation for your parents. So when I was playing Marty as an old man, I

think it made me a little less rough on him. Poor Dad—no one appreciates dads.”

While working on Family Ties, Fox spent his days at the sitcom and his nights on the movie set, where it often took him four hours just to get into makeup. For scenes that required him to play multiple roles, he would usually start out by portraying the old Marty. Then, he would remove the latex and put on a different kind of makeup—and a dress—to play Marty’s daughter, Marlene. Finally, he would change faces again to appear as Marty Jr. Using a

computerized camera technique called Vista Glide, shots featuring the different characters were seamlessly combined, without using the old split-screen technique.

Of course, Fox’s most provocative character—and she appears all too briefly—is Marlene. The actor said that when he first walked out in drag before the 50-member film crew, it took him an hour just to stop blushing. He said that he prepared for the role by talking to his wife about “female physical attitudes and watching Little Darlings about 40 times.” As for his wife’s opinion of her husband as a woman: “She thought I was cute. That seemed to be the consensus, that I was really cute.” Fox was also asked what he thought of himself as Marlene when he first looked in the mirror. “Tempting,” replied the actor, displaying the keen timing that made him a sitcom star.

The humor and charm that Fox brought to Family Ties seem to come naturally. But in the past few years, he has tried to break out of the comedy mold by taking on dramatic roles, most recently in last summer’s Casualties of War, in which he portrayed an American soldier witness-

ing U.S. atrocities in the Vietnam War. So far, Fox has been unable to transfer his box-office appeal to serious themes.

But the actor appears unperturbed. “I had no grand plan,” he said. “Between Back to the Future and Family Ties, there was a real secure place for me in being that kind of accessible character, the typical Michael J. Fox character. I thought it would be foolish not to exploit the opportunity to do other things.” He added: “I’m really not trying to say that I can stretch and grow or whatever. It’s just a privilege to do this for a living.” For Fox, the former child actor from Burnaby, B.C., there is no going back. And the future seems to be taking care of itself.