Back to the Future 2 might be the best sequel ever made.
Last month, we discussed Terminator 2 and how revolutionary it was as a sequel, but you don’t need to be revolutionary to be great. Back to the Future 2 is the supreme exemplar of sequel methodology. It does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do in a way that’s organic, engaging, and clever.
The Five Rules of Sequels
(According to Back to the Future 2)
1. Actualize Your Biggest Potentialities
Most story premises open doors for multiple possible storylines. If your Part I did this, now is the time to explore one of those opens door. If your Part I didn’t do this, it’s not a Part I–it’s a standalone story and should not have a sequel.
Back to the Future’s premise is time travel, and Part I explored the storyline of traveling to the past. The clear and natural course for Part II to take was traveling to the future, and that’s exactly what the movie did.
Every cool and quirky aspect about traveling into the future was explored: discovering cool technology, seeing weird ways people dress, learning about your own future, and, of course, the potentially lucrative side effects of time travel, which leads to our second rule.
2. Raise the Stakes
If your Part I is about saving your town, Part II should be about saving your country. If your Part I is about saving your country, your Part II should be about saving the world.
In Back to the Future I, we saw Marty inadvertently messing up his own present era by interfering with his parents’ past. The stakes of the story were simple: if he doesn’t fix the past, he will cease to exist in the present.
When Marty’s almanac ends up in the hands of Biff in Back to the Future II, the consequences are much more disastrous. Now, the stakes aren’t just limited to Marty’s own existence: if he doesn’t fix the past, the entire present era as a whole is condemned to chaos and doom and the corrupt hands of a wealthy Biff.
3. Use What People Liked From Part I
This perhaps the biggest sequel rule of them all. People didn’t come to see a new movie, they came to see more of what they love. Do not mess with the formula that made your Part I so great.
Back to the Future II had the same great relationship between Marty and Doc. It had the same jokes about Biff messing up common idioms. It had cool exploration of different time periods and complex time-travel logic. Audiences LOVE seeing what they loved the first time around, so long as it’s in a slightly different package.
The greatest example of this rule, however, has to do with the next rule.
4. Do What Only Your Story Can Do
We’ve all seen when in an attempt to raise the stakes and go bigger, a sequel ends up becoming Generic Sequel Movie II, with explosions and big battle scenes and everyone coming together to save the world! Sequel or not, every story needs to do something unique to set it apart from all other stories. Uniqueness shouldn’t be random, it should be natural. It should be something that only your story can do. This is where the genius of Back to the Future 2 shines the most.
How did Back to the Future 2 give us what we loved about Part I?
It used literally the exact same scenes!
Doc and Marty’s hunt for the almanac leads them right into the final scenes of Back to the Future I. The entire dance sequence, including Johnny B Goode and George punching out Biff, ends up playing heavily into the plot. In other words, the Back to the Future franchise used Rule #3 in a way that ONLY a time travel movie could. It was a decision that both felt natural and showed old favorite scenes in a new light.
Back to the Future does this repeatedly in less extreme ways as well by repeating the same iconic scenes in each movie. There’s always a confrontation scene in a bar or cafe where Biff tells Marty, “I thought I told you never to come in here.” There’s always a scene when Marty wakes up to his mother comforting him after what he thinks was a bad dream, only to abruptly realize that the time travel is, indeed, real and he’s not where/when he thought he was. There’s always a sequence where Biff challenges Marty, Marty wins, and Biff gets in manure.
Each of these iterations, due to the different eras and contexts of each movie, are slightly different so that they feels fresh. If any other movie tried to follow Rule #3 so blatantly and literally, it would be seen as lazy or cheesy. Only in a time travel movie, both because of what time travel allows and because repetition is a natural theme of the genre, could Back to the Future pull off with what it did and do it so elegantly.
5. Set Up Part III
If Part I was popular enough that audiences wanted a Part II, chances are they’ll want a Part III. That means that in Part II, you’re more free to set up a next installment. In fact, trilogy structure is often the following: Part I is a standalone that leaves room for a sequel, but doesn’t necessitate one, Part II is the first half of a bigger story and ends with a midpoint reversal, Part III begins with the rising action of the third act and carries through until the end. Back to the Future doesn’t follow this structure, opting instead for three separate stories. But notice the difference between how Part I set up for Part II, and how Part II set up for Part III.
In the first movie, the story ends completely, we have a nice, comfy denouement where we see all the awesome results of Marty’s actions. Then, only after all that, in the last minute or so of the movie, Doc comes crashing back in the DeLorean and introduces the inciting incident of the second movie.
Contrast that with Part II, as soon as the climax is finished, Doc gets struck by lightning in the DeLorean. Instead of a quick introduction to the next movie, there’s a rather lengthy scene of Marty coming to terms with Doc vanishing, the man from the post office finding Marty, the reading of Doc’s letter, and finally Marty interrupting the end of the first movie to ask 1955’s Doc for help.
Also noteworthy is that the conflict introduced in Part I is somewhat gimmicky and doesn’t actually necessitate a Part II. We don’t know Marty and Jennifer’s future family, we’re not too concerned with them, and if there wasn’t a Part II, the story would still feel resolved. The teaser of Part III in Part II, however, IS about a character we care about very much, Doc, and we won’t feel satisfied until he’s rescued by Marty. Part III needed to happen in a way that Part II didn’t.
Audiences expect some kind of awesome preview of an even greater story in the franchise they love, so go all out.
These rules, as we know, are not absolutely necessary to follow. As mentioned before, Terminator 2 ignores most of these and was still spectacular. But if you’re working on your own Part II and you find yourself in need of guidance, there’s no better movie to learn from than Back to the Future 2.