The film was produced on a $40-million budget and was filmed back-to-back with its sequel, Part III. Filming began in February 1989 after two years were spent building the sets and writing the scripts. Two actors from the first film, Crispin Glover and Claudia Wells, did not return for the final two. While Elisabeth Shue was recast in the role of Wells' character, Jennifer, Glover's character, George McFly, was not only minimized in the plot, but also was obscured and recreated with another actor. Glover successfully sued both Zemeckis and Gale, changing how producers can deal with the departure and replacement of actors in a role. Back to the Future Part II was also a ground-breaking project for effects studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM): In addition to digital compositing, ILM used the VistaGlide motion control camera system, which allowed an actor to portray multiple characters simultaneously on-screen without sacrificing camera movement.
On October 26, 1985, Dr. Emmett Brown arrives in his flying time machine and persuades Marty McFly and his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, to come back to the future with him to help their future children. Biff Tannen witnesses their departure. They arrive on October 21, 2015, where Doc electronically knocks out Jennifer and leaves her asleep in an alley, explaining that she should not have too much knowledge of future events. He has Marty pose as his own son and lookalike Marty Jr. to refuse an offer to participate in a robbery with Biff's grandson Griff, thus saving both of Marty's children from prison.
Marty switches places with Marty Jr. and refuses Griff's offer, but Griff goads Marty into a fight. Griff and his gang are arrested, saving Marty's future children. Before rejoining Doc, Marty purchases an almanac containing the results of major sporting events from 1950 to 2000. Doc discovers it and warns Marty about attempting to profit from time travel, but before Doc can adequately dispose of it, they are interrupted by the police, who have found Jennifer incapacitated and are taking her to her 2015 home. They pursue, as does Biff, who has overheard their conversation and picked up the almanac which Doc discarded.
Jennifer wakes up in her 2015 home and hides from the McFly family. She overhears that her future self's life with Marty is not what she expected, due to his involvement in an automobile accident. She witnesses Marty being goaded by his co-worker Douglas J. Needles into a shady business deal, which leads to Marty's firing. Attempting to escape the house, Jennifer encounters her 2015 self and they both faint. While Marty and Doc attend to her, Biff steals the time machine and uses it to travel back to 1955 and give the almanac to his younger self to get rich betting, then returns to 2015. Marty, Doc, and an unconscious Jennifer return to 1985, unaware of Biff's actions.
The 1985 to which they return has changed drastically: Biff has become wealthy and corrupt, and has changed Hill Valley into a chaotic dystopia. Marty's father, George, was killed in 1973 and Biff has forced Marty's mother, Lorraine, to marry him. Doc has been committed to an insane asylum. Marty and Doc determine that 2015 Biff took the time machine to change 1985, and Marty learns from 1985 Biff that he got the almanac on November 12, 1955. Biff attempts to kill Marty, but Marty flees and returns to 1955 with Doc, leaving Jennifer on her own front porch.
Marty secretly follows the 1955 Biff and watches him receive the almanac from his 2015 self. Marty then follows him to the high school's dance, being careful to avoid interrupting the events from his previous visit. Marty and the 1955 Biff steal the almanac back and forth, but Marty and Doc retrieve it and leave Biff to crash into a manure truck. Marty burns the almanac, reversing Biff's changes to the timeline, as Doc hovers above in the time machine. Before Marty can join him inside, the machine is struck by lightning and disappears. A Western Union courier immediately arrives and delivers a letter to Marty; it is from Doc, who explains that he was transported back to 1885. Marty races back into town to find the 1955 Doc, who had just helped the original Marty return to 1985. Shocked by Marty's sudden reappearance, Doc faints.Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, Marty McFly, Jr., and Marlene McFlyChristopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett "Doc" BrownThomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen and Griff TannenLea Thompson as Lorraine Baines-McFlyElisabeth Shue as Jennifer ParkerJames Tolkan as Mr. StricklandJeffrey Weissman as George McFlyCrispin Glover as George McFly (archival footage)Flea as Douglas J. Needles
Elijah Wood, eight years old at the time of filming, makes his first film appearance as one of the boys watching Marty playing the Wild Gunman arcade game in 2015.
Director Robert Zemeckis said that, initially, a sequel was not planned for the first film, but its huge box office success led to the conception of a second installment. He later agreed to do a sequel, but only if Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd returned as well. With Fox and Lloyd confirmed, Zemeckis met with screenwriting partner Bob Gale to create a story for the sequel. Zemeckis and Gale would later regret that they ended the first one with Jennifer in the car with Marty and Doc Brown, because it required them to come up with a story that fit her in, rather than a whole new adventure.
Gale wrote most of the first draft by himself, as Zemeckis was busy making Who Framed Roger Rabbit. At first, the film was to take place in 1967, but Zemeckis later stated that the time paradoxes of it provided a good opportunity to go back to 1955 and see the first one's events in a different light. While most of the original cast agreed to return, a major stumbling block arose when negotiating Crispin Glover's fee for reprising the role of George McFly. When it became clear that he would not be returning, the role was rewritten so that George is dead when the action takes place in the alternative version of 1985.
The greatest challenge was the creation of the futuristic vision of Marty's home town in 2015. Production designer Rick Carter wanted to create a very detailed image with a different tone from the film Blade Runner, wishing to get past the smoke and chrome. Carter and his most talented men spent months plotting, planning and preparing Hill Valley's transformation into a city of the future. Visual effects art director John Bell stated they had no script to work with, only the indications that the setting would be 30 years into the future featuring "something called hoverboards".
When writing the script for the film, Gale wanted to push the first one's ideas further for humorous effect. Zemeckis said he was somewhat concerned about portraying the future because of the risk of making wildly inaccurate predictions. According to Gale, they tried to make the future a nice place, "where what's wrong is due to who lives in the future as opposed to the technology" in contrast to the pessimistic, Orwellian future seen in most science fiction. To keep production costs low and take advantage of an extended break Fox had from Family Ties (which was ending its run when filming began), it was shot back-to-back with sequel Part III.
It took two years to finish the set building and the writing on the script before shooting could finally begin. During the shooting, the creation of the appearance of the aged characters was a well-guarded secret, involving state-of-the-art make-up techniques. Michael J. Fox described the process as very time consuming. "It took over four hours, although it could be worse". Principal photography began on February 20, 1989. For a three-week period nearing the conclusion of the film, the crew split and, while most remained shooting Part III, a few, including writer-producer Gale, focused on finishing its predecessor. Zemeckis himself slept only a few hours per day, supervising both films, having to fly between Burbank, where it was being finished, and other locations in California for Part III.
The film was considered one of the most ground-breaking projects for Industrial Light & Magic. It was one of the effects house's first forays into digital compositing, as well as the Vistaglide motion control camera system, which enabled them to shoot one of its most complex sequences, in which Fox played three separate characters (Marty Sr., Marty Jr., and Marlene), all of whom interacted with each other. Although such scenes were not new, the VistaGlide allowed, for the first time, a completely dynamic scene in which camera movement could finally be incorporated. The technique was also used in scenes where Thomas F. Wilson, Christopher Lloyd, and Elisabeth Shue's characters encounter and interact with their counterparts. It also includes a brief moment of computer-generated imagery in a holographic shark used to promote a fictional Jaws 19, which wound up unaltered from the first test done by ILM's digital department because effects supervisor Ken Ralston "liked the fact that it was all messed up.”
Animation supervisor Wes Takahashi, who then was the head of ILM's animation department, worked heavily on the film's time travel sequences, as he had done in the original film and in Part III. As the film neared release, sufficient footage of Part III had been shot to allow a trailer to be assembled. It was added at the conclusion of Part II, before the closing credits, as a reassurance to moviegoers that there was more to follow.
Crispin Glover was asked to reprise the role of George McFly. He expressed interest, but could not come to an agreement with the producers regarding his salary. He later stated in a 1992 interview on The Howard Stern Show that the producers' highest offer was $125,000, which was less than half of what the other returning cast members were offered. Gale has since asserted that Glover's demands were excessive for an actor of his professional stature at that point in time. Later, in an interview on the Opie and Anthony show in 2013, Glover stated that his primary reason for not doing Part II was a philosophical (and ethical) disagreement on the overall moral that the film was conveying.
Rather than writing George McFly out of the film, Zemeckis used previously filmed footage of Glover from the first film as well as new footage of actor Jeffrey Weissman, who wore prosthetics including a false chin, nose, and cheekbones. Various techniques were used to obfuscate Weissman's appearance, such as placing him in the background rather than the foreground, having him wear sunglasses, and even hanging him upside down. Glover filed a lawsuit against the producers of the film on the grounds that they neither owned his likeness nor had permission to use it. As a result of this suit, there are now clauses in the Screen Actors Guild collective bargaining agreements which state that producers and actors are not allowed to use such methods to reproduce the likeness of other actors.
Claudia Wells, who had played Marty McFly's girlfriend Jennifer Parker in the first film, was to reprise her role, but turned it down due to her mother's ill health. The producers cast Elisabeth Shue instead, which involved re-shooting the closing scenes of the first film for the beginning of Part II. The re-shot sequence is a near shot-for-shot match with the original, with only minor differences: for example, Doc noticeably hesitates before reassuring Marty that his future self is fine – something he did not do in the first film. Marty is also wearing a watch in the second film whereas he was not in the first.
Wells returned to Hollywood with a starring role in the 1996 independent film Still Waters Burn. She is one of the few cast members not to make an appearance within the bonus material on the Back to the Future Trilogy DVD set released in 2002. However, she is interviewed for the Tales from the Future documentaries in the trilogy's 25th anniversary issue on Blu-ray Disc in 2010. In 2011, she finally had the opportunity to reprise her role from the first film, 26 years after her last appearance in the series. She provided the voice of Jennifer Parker for Back to the Future: The Game by Telltale Games.
Zemeckis said on the film's behind-the-scenes featurette that the hoverboards (flying skateboards) used in it were real, yet not released to the public, due to parental complaints regarding safety. Footage of "real hoverboards" was also featured in the extras of a DVD release of the trilogy. A number of people thought Zemeckis was telling the truth and requested them at toy stores. In an interview, Thomas F. Wilson said one of the most frequent questions he was asked was if they are real.
According to Zemeckis, the 2015 depicted in the film was not meant to be an accurate depiction of the future. "For me, filming the future scenes of the movie were the least enjoyable of making the whole trilogy, because I don't really like films that try and predict the future. The only ones I've actually enjoyed were the ones done by Stanley Kubrick, and not even he predicted the PC when he made A Clockwork Orange. So, rather than trying to make a scientifically sound prediction that we were probably going to get wrong anyway, we figured, let's just make it funny." Despite this, the filmmakers did do some research into what scientists thought may occur in the year 2015. Bob Gale said, "We knew we weren't going to have flying cars by the year 2015, but God we had to have those in our movie."
However, the film did correctly predict a number of technological and sociological changes that occurred by 2015, including: the rise of ubiquitous cameras; unmanned flying drones for mundane tasks; flat panel, widescreen television sets mounted on walls with multiple channel viewing; video chat systems; hands-free video games; talking hologram billboards; wearable technology; Tablet computers with fingerprint scanners; and head-mounted displays. Payment on personal portable devices is also depicted. Although payment by thumbprint is not widely used, fingerprint scanning is in use as security at places such as airports and schools, where it is also used to authorize payments for meals. Cars and other vehicles have been able to be run using fuel generated from food wastes, though not through a fusion reactor as suggested in the film. The popularity of 3-D film in the 2010s was also somewhat accurately predicted, although overlaid polarized imagery remains the standard format (as it has been since the 1950s, since updated in modern times to digital) and holography is still not in use for major films.
Other aspects of the depiction of the future had not come to pass by 2015, but efforts were made to replicate the technology advances.The film shows Marty putting on Nike "Air Mag" tennis shoes with automatic shoelaces. Nike released a version of their Hyperdunk Supreme shoes, which appear similar to Marty's, in July 2008. Fans dubbed them the Air McFly. In April 2009, they filed the patent for self-lacing shoes, and their design bears a resemblance to those worn by Marty in the film. In 2010, a fan named Blake Bevin created shoes that tie themselves. Though Nike had made very limited quantity of Air Mags in the same style as the movie, they stated in September 2011 that their consumer-line MAG line of shoes would not feature the self-lacing feature shown in it. Tinker Hatfield, one of the shoe's designers, indicated in 2014 that they would introduce shoes with power-lacing technology the following year, 2015. In March 2016, Nike unveiled the HyperAdapt 1.0 shoe, which is a consumer-market model of the Air Mag and features the same self-lacing technology they used for the commemorative Air Mags, and are expected to start selling in late 2016.The concept of the hoverboard—a skateboard that can float off the ground—has been explored by various groups since the release of the film. Attempts similar to hoverboats, which blast air at the ground, have been demonstrated, with a 2015 record distance of 275 meters. A different type is the MagBoard, developed by researchers at the Paris Diderot University. It uses a large superconductor plate on the bottom cooled with liquid nitrogen as to achieve the Meissner effect and allow it to float over a special track; it was shown capable of carrying the weight of a human in its practical demonstration. However, the requirement to run the superconductor at higher, more ambient temperatures prevents this from becoming practical. In March 2014, a company named HUVr Tech purportedly demonstrated a working hoverboard along with several celebrities including Lloyd, though this shortly was revealed as a hoax created by the website Funny or Die. self-balancing 'hoverboards' became popular in 2015 even though they do not hover above the ground.
In the 2015 scene, the film imagines the Chicago Cubs winning the 2015 World Series against the fictional Miami-based Gators, referencing the Cubs' longstanding failure to win a championship. In the actual 2015 season, the Cubs qualified for the postseason, their first postseason appearance since 2008, but the Cubs lost the National League Championship Series (not the World Series) to the New York Mets on October 21, 2015, which coincidentally was the same day as "Back to the Future Day," the day Marty McFly arrived in 2015 in the film. Despite losing in 2015, one year later the Cubs did win the 2016 World Series against the Cleveland Indians. In the real 2015 World Series, the Kansas City Royals defeated the Mets to win their first World Series championship since 1985, the same year from which Marty and Doc time traveled in the film. As for the fictional Miami Gators, when the film was made Florida did not yet have a Major League Baseball team, but the state has since gained two franchises: the Florida Marlins (now the Miami Marlins) in 1993 and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now the Tampa Bay Rays) in 1998. Neither qualified for the postseason in 2015.
The film was released to theaters in North America on Wednesday, November 22, 1989, the day before Thanksgiving. It grossed a total of $27.8 million over Friday to Sunday, and $43 million across the five-day holiday opening. On the following weekend, it had a drop of 56 percent, earning $12.1 million, but remained at #1. Its total gross was $118.5 million in the United States and $213 million overseas, for a total of $331 million worldwide, ranking as 1989's sixth-most successful film domestically and the third-most worldwide—behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman. However, this was still short of the first film's gross. Part III, which Universal released only six months later, experienced a similar drop.
As of March 2016, the film received a 63% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 60 reviews with an average rating of 6.1/10, with the critical consensus reading, "Back to the Future II is far more uneven than its predecessor, but its madcap highs outweigh the occasionally cluttered machinations of an overstuffed plot". The film has a score of 57 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 17 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars. Ebert criticized it for lacking the "genuine power of the original," but praised it for its slapstick humor and the hoverboard in its chase sequence. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film is "ready for bigger and better things." Maslin later said that it "manages to be giddily and merrily mind-boggling, rather than confusing." Tom Tunney of Empire magazine wrote that the film was well-directed, "high-energy escapism", and called it "solidly entertaining", though noting it as being inferior to the other two films in the franchise.
Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader gave the film a negative review, criticizing Zemeckis and Gale for turning the characters into "strident geeks" and for making the "frenetic action strictly formulaic." He believed that it contained "rampant misogyny," because the character of Jennifer Parker "is knocked unconscious early on so she won't interfere with the little-boy games." He cited, as well, Michael J. Fox dressing in drag. Variety said, "[Director Robert] Zemeckis' fascination with having characters interact at different ages of their lives hurts it visually, and strains credibility past the breaking point, by forcing him to rely on some very cheesy makeup designs."
The film won the Saturn Award for Best Special Effects (for Ken Ralston, the special effects supervisor), the BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects (Ken Ralston, Michael Lantieri, John Bell and Steve Gawley), an Internet-voted 2003 AOL Movies DVD Premiere Award for the trilogy DVDs, a Golden Screen Award, a Young Artist Award, and the Blimp Awards for Favorite Movie Actor (Michael J. Fox), and Favorite Movie Actress (Lea Thompson) at the 1990 Kids' Choice Awards. It was nominated in 1990 for an Academy Award for Visual Effects (John Bell, Steve Gawley, Michael Lantieri and Ken Ralston).
Most visual effects nominations were due to the development of a new computer-controlled camera system, called VistaGlide, which was invented specifically for the film – it enables one actor to play two or even three characters in the same scene while the boundary between the sections of the split screen and the camera itself can be moving.
The film ranks 498 on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.
The film was released on VHS and LaserDisc on May 22, 1990. Universal reissued it on VHS, LaserDisc, and compact disc in 1991, 1995, and 1998. On December 17, 2002, Universal released it on DVD in a boxed trilogy set, although widescreen framing problems led to a product recall. The trilogy was released on Blu-ray Disc in October 2010.
Universal re-released the trilogy alongside new features on DVD and Blu-ray on October 21, 2015, coinciding with Back to the Future Day. The new set included a featurette called "Doc Brown Saves the World", where Lloyd, reprising his role as Doc Brown, explains the reasons for the differences between the future of 2015 as depicted in Back to the Future Part II and in real life.
The soundtrack was released by MCA Records on November 22, 1989. AllMusic rated it four-and-a-half stars out of five. Unlike the previous soundtrack, it contains only a musical score by composer Alan Silvestri. None of the vocal songs featured throughout the film are featured.
On October 12, 2015, Intrada Records released the complete score of Back to the Future Part II in a 2-disc set including early scoring sessions and alternate takes.