'Back To The Future Part 2': Designing A Future For 30 Years Ago

Oct 20, 2015
Originally published on October 21, 2015 2:01 pm

Tomorrow, some kid named Marty McFly will arrive in a flying car.

Oct. 21, 2015, is when the first act of Back to the Future Part II is set. In the sequel, Marty McFly goes forth and back in time, and complications ensue. It's a 2015 that's different from the one we know now — but not that different.

On one hand, in the movie, electric cars quietly hum around the streets. We've got those. A hologram for Jaws 19 pops out of a theater marquee and freaks Marty out. You can find holograms like that on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. When bad guy Griff gets arrested for wrecking the clock tower near the lake? A drone takes his picture for USA Today. And the Chicago Cubs, in the Back to the Future universe, win the World Series in 2015. As of right now, they can still make that happen.

Of course, there's a lot of stuff that Back to the Future Part II doesn't get right. Our cars don't fly. Our shoes don't tie themselves. Our clothes don't blow dry themselves, either. And what we call "hoverboards" today don't really hover, if we're going to be honest.

So what does a 1980s movie tell us about ourselves today in 2015? Does it say anything about how we got here?

Not really, according to Rick Carter. He was the production designer on the movie.

"It's an attempt to stimulate in the time it was made. It wasn't made for now."

Carter's got strong credits when it comes to time travel. He also worked on A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Avatar and the new Star Wars movie.

Carter says time-travel stories are more about the time in which they were made. And what was big in the late '80s when Back to the Future Part II was made? Buying stuff.

"Not just product placement, but the branding of our culture," says Carter. "This was no longer the hippie era where everything that was of corporations was being pushed to the side in terms of being hip or cool. It was a celebration of what the culture and the economy was creating."

Like a hologram Ronald Reagan selling fast food.

It was, at least, a somewhat optimistic view of the future. More optimistic than, say, Blade Runner. To Carter, creating the future wasn't about predicting. It was about making the present seem better.

"That's how we saw the holograms coming out of the movie theaters, or the litter bug that's running around that's positive, sweeping things up," says Carter. "It was about projecting from a very exuberant sense we had at the time being young until now."

That exuberance was tempered a bit, though. With some pointed jokes knocking nostalgia, the movie knew that the future wouldn't be perfect. Or was it the past?

Whatever. Nothing's perfect.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Some kid named Marty McFly will arrive tomorrow in a flying car.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: The first act of the movie "Back To The Future Part II" is set on October 21, 2015. In the sequel, Marty McFly goes forth and back in time, and complications ensue.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The 2015 in the movie is different from the 2015 we know. As NPR's Andrew Limbong tells us, it's not that different.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: On one hand, there are electric cars quietly humming around the streets. We've got those. The hologram for "Jaws 19" pops out of a theater marquee and freaks Marty out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

MICHAEL J. FOX: (As Marty McFly, screaming). The shark still looks fake.

LIMBONG: You can find holograms like that on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. When bad guy Griff gets arrested for wrecking the clock tower near the lake...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, screaming).

(GLASS SHATTERING)

LIMBONG: A drone takes his picture for USA Today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

THOMAS WILSON: (As Griff, yelling) I was framed.

LIMBONG: And how's this for a sports prediction?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

FOX: (As Marty McFly) Cubs win World Series.

LIMBONG: The Chicago Cubs, as of right now, can still make that happen. Of course, there's a lot of stuff that "Back To The Future II" doesn't get right. Our cars don't fly. Our shoes don't tie themselves. Our clothes don't blow-dry themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Marty's Jacket) Drying mode on. Jacket drying.

LIMBONG: And what we call hoverboards today don't really hover, if we're going to be honest. So what does a 1980s movie tell us about ourselves today in 2015 and about how we got here? Rick Carter says it doesn't tell us anything.

RICK CARTER: It's an attempt to stimulate in the time that it's made. It wasn't made for now.

LIMBONG: Carter was the production designer for "Back To The Future Part II." He worked on "A.I.," "Avatar." He's also the production designer for the new "Star Wars" movie.

CARTER: I'm probably someone who's been to the future more than anybody (laughter).

LIMBONG: I know. I know. "Star Wars" is set in the past - whatever. The point is, Carter says time travel stories are more about the time in which they were made. And what was big in the late '80s when "Back To The Future II" was made? Buying stuff.

CARTER: Not just product placement but the branding of our culture. This was no longer the hippie era, where everything that was of corporations was being pushed to the side as far as being hip or cool. Instead, it was more of a celebration of what the culture and the economy was creating.

LIMBONG: Here's a hologram Ronald Reagan selling fast food.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

JAY KOCH: (As Ronald Reagan) Our specialty today is mesquite grilled sushi...

CHARLES GHERARDI: (As Ayatollah Khomeini) Yes, you must have the hostage special!

KOCH: (As Ronald Reagan) Cajun style.

FOX: (As Marty McFly) Hey, hey, hey. Quit it. Hey, hey, hey guys. All I want is a Pepsi.

LIMBONG: There's that product placement. It was at least an optimistic view of the future - more optimistic than, say, "Blade Runner." To Carter, it wasn't about predicting the future. It was about making the present seem better.

CARTER: That's how we saw the holograms coming out of the movie theaters or the litterbug that's running around that's actually positive, sweeping things up. It was about projecting from a very exuberant sense that we had at the time, being young, into now...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II")

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: (As Dr. Emmett Brown) In exactly two minutes, you go around the corner into the Cafe '80s.

FOX: (As Marty McFly) Cafe '80s?

LLOYD: (As Dr. Emmett Brown) It's one of those nostalgic places but not done very well.

LIMBONG: But even the movie knew the future - no, no, no, wait, the past - no, no, no, the future - wasn't - won't be? - perfect. Whatever, nothing's perfect. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.