Back to the Future Part II: the irony of the alternate 1985

If you use Back to the Future II as an unofficial yardstick for technological progress, you have to ask yourself: what kind of path we’re on today? Still no flying cars, as David Graeber has pointed out. If you add cellphones and take away fax machines, much of the world today looks the same as in 1989. It is much more familiar than the futuristic 2015 predicted in the film. This article for The Age marks the 26 years since the movie asks whether the film’s most enduring legacy is its optimistic view of the future.

Biff Tannen's Pleasure Paradise
Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise

But the arrival of October 21, 2015 also brings to mind one aspect of Back to the Future Part II that has often been on my mind in recent years: how closely the “alternate 1985” has hewn to the reality in the US today.

In the “alternate 1985” segment, George McFly has died and his rival, the bully Biff Tannen, marries Marty’s mother. Tannen uses the knowledge of future sports scores, found in the book [something akin to insider knowledge] to bet and win big [a big case of inside trading], amassing a fortune and dominating the once idyllic Hill Valley [like the politicized billionaires in US politics today]. And Tannen, of course, keeps it all for himself. Outside, the streets are plagued by violence and darkness.

Guns a plenty in alternate 2015 of Back to the Future Part II
Guns a plenty in the alternate 2015 scenes of Back to the Future Part II

Didn’t these trends [winner-take-all capitalism, a gamed system] take hold in the US since the time of Back to the Future II in 1989? Sure, things were already under way before 1989. But when the Cold War ended, there was, to use Thatcher’s phrase, ‘no alternative’ to the more corrosive excesses of capitalism. Ideologically, market fundamentalism came to dominate politics.

In the “alternate 1985” of the movie, what was the town hall of Hill Valley, a public space, is gone. In its place comes the ultimate private space, the casino. And it’s an institution in which many small players must lose in order for the big boss, Biff Tannen, to gain [again, a bit like the wild inequality in the US economy in recent years]. I think of hard-luck communities in the US, the losers of the 1980s reforms, that have embraced gambling as a way to raise much needed tax revenue.

In the “alternate 1985” ultra-violence is depicted comically with the high school discipline officer Mr Strickland exchanging gunfire with well-armed ‘slackers’ passing in a car. Except now in the US, semi-automatic assault weapons are being used in slaughters which have become routine.

Gun show in Texas (courtesy:
Guns aplenty at gun show in Texas (courtesy:

A lot of the images and ideas in the film were a tongue-in-cheek comment on the direction of society. They were funny then and they are today, too, but not quite as funny given the drift of the US in the past 26 years. The wild imbalances of the US economy, the senseless violence enabled as much by a too-powerful gun lobby as the violent hearts of the country’s citizens, suggests the nation is living through the long shadow of the Reagan Revolution. There is a final irony that Ronald Reagan, the self-styled Cold Warrior, set in motion the political and cultural shift which leaves the US today with no shortage of domestic challenges, even as it finds itself in a fresh geopolitical struggle. Something to think about amid all the nostalgia for Back to the Future Part II. 

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