Mutant Popcorn #20

Nick Lowe

Back to the Future Part II

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II, Leviathan – appeared first in Interzone #34 (March/April 1990).

First of all, I’d just like to protest on all our behalf at the wanton and philistine destruction of the world’s one half-decent alternate reality. Millions of people devote forty years to history’s one controlled political experiment (scoop a neat line down the middle of the agar dish, smear socialism on one side and capitalism on the other), and suddenly the bacteria decide they want to close the lab down. I was in Alexanderplatz in October 1989, when it still looked like we’d had our ration of history for one decade, and like many before me I couldn’t help thinking how incredibly, really tears-in-eyes beautiful the whole thing was. I don’t mean just the wall with its culture-shock graffiti (“Don’t worry DDR! Baldrick has a cunning plan”), or the Stalkeresque puddlescape of no-man’s-land, but all the subtly alien production design with the funny cars and smell and vaguely naff clothes, like taking a U-Bahn straight into Watchmen. We should have done more of these, not fewer: thrown a wall across every western city, with the nice half given over to museums dedicated to socialist histories of the universe, and the half that looks like Ealing Broadway full of movie houses showing Steve Reeves all-nighters. But the chance is gone. It’s like the end of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, where the faery authorities open their borders and send an optical sparkle-effect sweeping over the fields we know, and the real world is absorbed into just another twinkly province of never-never-land.

Well, they’ll find out. On Kurfurstendamm this Christmas, they’re probably too busy spending their currency handouts on cycle shorts and Gloria Estefan to afford to go to the season’s pictures. But when they do turn from consuming material goods to consuming images, they’ll learn too late the truth about this happy world of Elfland: that we and all our world are property, mere transient manifestations of a ruthless nonhuman lifeform that controls our every thought. Self-replicating, voraciously competitive, it lets us believe we’re thinking, creative agents of free will, but it’s all just emergent projections of the selfish buck. If there’s one thing we learned in that gruesomely fascinating decade just past, it’s that money isn’t made by films, or by people, but by money. At bottom, a movie is neither art nor fun; it’s just a dollar’s way of making another dollar.

So as predicted by classical Darwinian economics, the films that breed best are the ones that compete most successfully for the limited resources in punters’ pockets, and pass their competitive advantage on to their offspring. It’s not surprising, then, the two most successful cash-siphons in the UK this Christmas were efficient sequels to past Christmases’ hits, one of which has even managed to breed twins. But in so many ways Back to the Future Part II deserves it anyhow, because for all its disavowal of pretension this is actually a film of such ambition, novelty, and complexity that it’s impressive it could get made even on the back of its barnstorming precursor.

Part II is only cousin to the original in superficial respect of its characters and setup. But everything that makes it run is new, and a lot of it is sophisticated and demanding far beyond what you’d normally expect from a seasonal blockbuster. The first film was carried above all by two elements in which this sequel wisely has not the slightest interest, and which combine to make the original now look surprisingly, not to say ironically, dated. For one, it was retro about style and culture in a very eighties sort of way, with most of the favourite jokes coming out of the clash of teen cultures from two great American decades, and reflecting a nostalgic interest in the fifties that already seems as kitschily passe as particle-beam weapons (can anyone remember how they were supposed to work?). And even worse, it was full of nicely-played character comedy from then-rising stars, with squeaky subtexts on great eighties themes like assertiveness and the nuclear family.

Not so II. This extraordinary sequel virtually expunges all characterisation, significantly barring only the toony Doc and Biff. Crispin Glover was wise to jump boat, since this is no longer a film for the likes of him – as witness the fate meted out to poor Lea Thompson, reduced to hamming around in a latex cleavage. Neither is this a film for teen romance, which passes conveniently out on a backporch sofa as soon as the real fun starts, or for the virtues of sensitive macho and how a well-aimed swipe can change your destiny from abject American failure to perfect American role-model papa. Here, and even more in Part III, Michael J. has to learn not to stand up for himself when called out by ruffians. As for the leisurely lifestyle jokes about fifties culture, Part II has no time for such stuff; there’s a few rather weak gags early on about future life, but soon we sensibly abandon both the jokes and the future for the real business, which is nothing much to do with either.

For this is a real, hundred-up authentic and uncompromised, time-paradox story on film: something that so self-evidently couldn’t be done that the few attempts to date have either stuck with the familiar single loop or, like Millennium, died trying to break out of it. And, in a way, it couldn’t. The only way Back to the Future Part II has managed to accommodate the necessary convolutions of plot in an intelligible way is to teleport vast chunks of it into the audience’s own past and future. The fifties bit cheekily takes it for granted you’ve seen the first film enough times to remember it shot-for-shot, while the resolution of dangly bits like Marty’s accident and the identity of Biff’s gran is merely promised in a message from the future (what lesser films might call a “trailer”) tacked on at the end. Despite all the protestations, I can’t believe the extraordinary decision to make two sequels back-to-back was made by anything more purposeful than the overambitious script bursting its banks.

So what we have here, straight up, is a film with a plot, which is just as well as there isn’t much room for anything else. It’s hard to think of a fantasy film (bar maybe Dune) that’s made comparable demands on its audience’s power to process essential narrative information at speed; nor, indeed, one that finds it necessary to draw a map of the plot on a blackboard to guide them through. It’s pretty mechanical and McGuffin-driven, but it’s still new ground for the cinema, and much of the buzz comes from the sheer daring of the attempt, the intoxication of having to catch all the clues on the hop before attention span blinks and we’re on to the next hump of the rollercoaster. The major flaw, of course, is the leakage of tension in the last twenty minutes as it gradually dawns that few of the major goals will be achieved in this instalment; and it’ll be a further disappointment if Part III, as seems likely, has its hands so full of loose ends from this one that it can’t spring any comparable twists of its own. But that’s in the future, and by then this film’ll be history. At present, the future looks good.

Still, I keep wondering how these films would look if I’d just chugged in from the cold in my stylish wee Trabant. Future II presents an odd view of western aspirations (the highest callings are sf writer and rock’n’roll axe hero), but a satisfactorily intelligible moral about the pursuit of individual competitive gain at the expense of the community leading to corporate corruption, drug abuse, bad heavy metal, and bikers. But what’s to be made of Ghostbusters II? What on earth would a new arrival from the real world make of writer Aykroyd’s astonishing trademark style of comic potlatch, in which enormously expensive displays of effects and destruction are blown away on jokes that really aren’t terribly funny? What can possibly be made of a film that throws away an idea like a mink coat coming to life in a mass of vicious little snapping heads trying to eat the owner alive? What, above all, would anyone make of a finale in which a bumbling but evil East European villain is trounced by the Statue of Liberty (“something pure…”) brought to life by the magic of western r’n’b? Oh, your wonderful capitalist sense of irony! And this river of slime flowing beneath the city streets, and growing arms to pull Mr Aykroyd under and bubbling up unwanted through the cracks in the pavements – this is allegory of History, yes? How clever! Back home, you understand, the deconstruction of popular icons is only permitted under Party control, in state-run semiology clubs with four-year waiting list…

Well, the Ghostbusters films are for sure a breed apart. Their achievement, I suppose, is to come up with a formula that makes horror completely safe and unfrightening. The monsters are cute, all nursery colours (even the slime is candyfloss pink) and marshmallow textures, while the incarnation of absolute evil is here embodied in an atrocious painting of a scowling foreigner who steals babies. Scary, huh? and to show how daring they all are, they make jokes about their own merchandising and the relationship between Original, New, and Real. Meanwhile, the concept and characters are as dumb as ever, and each flimsy gag costs about the annual GNP of Burkina Faso – though around half of them still fall so flat that even a holiday matinee audience just grunts “hnuh” and “heh?”. All the same, I expect it does better here than in the States, because it’s much more of a Christmas film than a summer one: not too fast, not too bright, not too hard, with the same mix of nostalgic sentiment, childishness, and tacky commercialism as the feast itself. And afterwards, you feel like you’ve just sat in front of the tv for a week pigging out on junk.

But of course there are original films around. In Leviathan, for instance, the director of Rambo and Cobra brings us a startling tale of a team of deep-ocean miners trapped in their seafloor station by a nameless indestructible terror from the depths – wait, no, come back, it’s completely different, honest. This one, for a start, has Peter Weller as an American renaissance man, a research geologist who reads The One Minute Manager on camera and pumps rock with the guys when the quota looks in doubt. No? Well, it also has Amanda Pays as an entirely unexplained English astronaut, Meg Foster as a vampiric financier whose power videoconferencing tactic is to point her remote control right at you and press, and Richard Crenna as, well, the Richard Crenna character. And the nameless indestructible terror is neither killer shrimp nor tinkerbell alien, but a pesky commie virus planted in the vodka on a scuttled Soviet ship (“wait! this video – it’s the captain’s log!”), which turns all the drinking members of the crew into undead vampire fish monsters. Suspense is ingeniously maintained in this one by the early elimination of all the remotely feasible means of escape to the surface, leaving the innocent viewer to speculate agreeably on which completely impossible means will actually be used, not to mention how Foster’s going to get her comeuppance when she’s in New York and everyone else is at the bottom of the Atlantic. And if you have trouble remembering the difference between the endings of Leviathan and Deep Star Six, just remember Leviathan’s the one with the textbook shark attack sequence to leaven the fun.

The simplest way to define Leviathan is to say it’s neither as taut as the good bits of The Abyss nor as silly as Deep Star Six, while missing the former’s pretensions to grandeur and the latter’s inane plot googlies. It’s also a load more shameless than either, with much more blatant Alien lifts than its rivals – from slime drips from the ceiling to an actual no-blushes parasite-busting-out-the-tummy sequence. Much of the direction and editing is pretty slipshod, and it’s surprising the writers of Blade Runner and Die Hard couldn’t scratch better than this, but Leviathan manages a certain ungainly charm from its imrobable cast and unembarrassable appetite for cliche. A year ago, after all, this genre didn’t even exist; now, you can almost chant the dialogue along with the cast. (“Thank God we’ll be out of this place in three days,” &c.). All the same, I think that’s enough to be going on with. I don’t envy Fox, who seem to have lumbered themselves with distributing all three (and presumably opted to launch Deep Star and Leviathan on the wake of The Abyss, whence the rescheduling of their releases in descending order of quality). Direct-to-video for Lords of the Deep, one hopes, and if the market’s still saturated, who knows? perhaps by then they’ll be able to export it to Prague. Those lucky reds, they don’t know what freedom is.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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