Catching up with future today

Back To The Future, Part II, proves prescient with some gadgets accurately depicted in the 1989 film

Michael J. Fox (far right) with a hoverboard in Back To The Future II.
Michael J. Fox (far right) with a hoverboard in Back To The Future II. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Google Glass­like lenses which were used to watch television in the movie. Michael J. Fox (left) with a hoverboard in Back To The Future II.
Google Glass­like lenses which were used to watch television in the movie. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • On Wednesday at 4.29pm, the world will finally catch up with the tomorrow depicted in Back To The Future, Part II.

In that 1989 film, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) appear with a flash in their DeLorean time machine from 30 years in the past.

Suddenly, they find themselves in the same town, Hill Valley, but surrounded by impossible technology and outlandish social mores. It is a place where cars can fly, hoverboards are the norm and, most incredibly, the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series.

This collision of science fiction with present-day fact will be marked by a deluge of merchandise, including a new Blu-ray and DVD release packaging the first Back To The Future with its two sequels, and the animated series. There will also be multiple book retrospectives and a documentary, Back In Time.

One product you will not see, however, is the hoverboard.

Despite recent advances, Kickstarter prototypes and oddly popular "hoverboards" that have wheels, the movie version remains stubbornly out of reach.

People have enough trouble driving in two dimensions. I don't think it's a good idea to give them the Z axis.''

BOB GALE, who wrote and produced Back To The Future, Part II, with director Robert Zemeckis, on why he does not mind being wrong when it comes to flying cars

But still, perhaps this strange world is not so far-fetched after all.

With the benefit of hindsight - and a closer look - Back To The Future, Part II proves surprisingly prescient. Coexisting with inventions and trends that may never come to fruition are those that have arrived, including the use of drones, eyeglasses as wearable tech, video conferencing and a focus on urban renewal and green space.

Bob Gale, who wrote and produced the film with director Robert Zemeckis, discussed their original vision in a telephone interview.

He said: "Bob and I knew we were never going to accurately predict the future."

At least when it comes to flying cars, Gale does not mind being wrong.

"People have enough trouble driving in two dimensions," he said. "I don't think it's a good idea to give them the Z axis."

Unshackled by the need to become all-knowing futurists, they kept their vision hopeful, imagining a 2015 that audiences would want to visit and they assigned their crew to make that concept a reality.

Visual effects art director John Bell designed many of the fantastical elements.

"I just started taking stabs at anything from the vehicles to the hoverboards to the costumes and town square, where Marty lived," Bell said. That included passing visuals such as a drone dog walker.

"We thought that was kind of a joke, but that's going to happen," Gale said. Another drone appears as a remote photographer for USA Today.

The art team, which was overseen by production designer Rick Carter, took part in brain- storming sessions to add as many blink-and-you'll-miss-them background details as possible.

"We were all just driving to the unknown," costume designer Joanna Johnston said. "So everyone was going: 'What about this? What about this? But what about this?'"

For the town square, it was decided that the future Hill Valley would be more forward thinking in its urban planning.

Gale, Zemeckis and the production team believed that community space would be emphasised and old architecture would be maintained, which mirrors the trends in urban design that gave birth to destinations such as the High Line in New York.

In 1985, the site in front of the Hill Valley clock tower is a parking lot; in 2015, it is a luscious green park with a lake.

"That town square could exist now," Carter said. "We'd build upon what was and turn it or embrace it."

The residents of Hill Valley also seem to make some strange fashion choices. Bell and Johnston exaggerated the designs so that almost everything was asymmetrical and overly colourful.

But underlying their choices was another accurate directive from Zemeckis. "I was told that people were going to be wearing athletic clothes all day, which they didn't then," Johnston said. "And now they do all the time."

In the McFly household, gadgets permeate every facet of home life. Carter pointed out that while technology would continually advance, one thing would remain the same: "If it doesn't work, it's just frustrating," he said.

So the television screen is on the fritz. A retractable garden struggles to follow voice commands.

"Young Marty is exasperated when it doesn't function perfectly," Carter said.

Some of the gadgets are on the edge of tomorrow, such as the Google Glass-like spectacles designed by Doug Chiang. They are used by Marty's son (played by Fox) to watch television and his daughter (also played by Fox) to check on an incoming phone call.

Other on-screen developments, such as the fax machine, have seemed archaic for years now.

"We missed the smartphone completely," Gale said. (Although some of the devices in the film work via voice recognition, a la Siri.)

But, when viewed in 2015, it is that incoming phone call that is, perhaps, the most eye-opening moment. Marty talks to his co- worker Needles (Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) via a large screen that is an incredible combination of Skype and Facebook.

As Needles antagonises Marty, a running list of personal profile data appears on the bottom of the screen - from occupation, age, date of birth and address to favourite alcoholic beverages and hobbies. Needles, it turns out, is an "avid basketball fan".

Gale said this idea came from the assumption that computers would one day contain the information that in the 1980s could be found in a Rolodex.

Marty wonders aloud if their boss is monitoring the call. Sure enough, in a twist that might surprise even Edward J. Snowden and the National Security Agency, Marty's boss immediately calls him and admits that he was tapped into the conversation the whole time. And this is after the screen reads, "Thank you for using AT&T" .

What of the film's boldest prediction of all - that the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series this year?

Amazingly enough, the Cubs made the playoffs this year, impressing even Gale, a lifelong St Louis Cardinals fan.

"I will absolutely be rooting for them."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2015, with the headline 'Catching up with future today'. Print Edition | Subscribe