'Back to the Future Part II': science fiction vs. reality

by Nathan Ingraham

If you came of age in the late '80s, there's a good chance that Back to the Future Part II was a formative film that helped inform your idea of what society might look like in the not-too-distant future. BTTF creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis certainly weren't trying to predict the future as much as they were trying to build a world that worked with their story. And in fact, the entire trilogy features less than 40 minutes of time in 2015. But that doesn't mean this limited glimpse at the future wasn't thrilling and hilarious to moviegoers in 1989. Now, it's just fun to look back and see what, if anything, they got right -- particularly today, the day that Marty and Dr. Emmett L. Brown traveled forward in time to. We can now finally judge how the fictional world of Hill Valley in 2015 matches up with reality.
All images courtesy Screencapped.net

Flying cars

Let's get the big one out of the way first: No, we're not even close to the flying-car technology seen in Back to the Future Part II. Where we're going, we still need roads, unless we're torturing ourselves with commercial air flight. The good news is that while our cars are still strictly land-based, they're becoming increasingly less reliant on gasoline.

The Mr. Fusion system that powers the DeLorean's time-travel capabilities with garbage in the second and third BTTF films shows that Gale and Zemeckis were thinking about alternative energy, but we don't know what the main power source for 2015's flying cars is. Here in reality, electric vehicles are becoming more commonplace and getting better every year. Couple the advances Tesla is making with hydrogen-powered cars like the Toyota Mirai and there's no question our automotive technology has made great leaps since 1985.

A car that's only emission is water is a lot more important to the future of transportation than one that can fly above traffic. And that's not even mentioning self-driving cars, technology that could make driving a lot safer than it is today -- there's no sign of any such vehicles in the BTTF universe at all. There's still no word on replacing our ancient license plates with barcoded versions, however.


If flying cars were the most iconic part of Back to the Future Part II's vision of 2015, hoverboards are right behind them for capturing our imagination. The hoverboard that Marty "borrows" from a little girl ends up being an essential tool for many of his adventures over the second and third films -- he wouldn't have gotten back to 1985 without it. Hoverboards aren't commonplace toys yet like they are in the film, but they're getting a lot closer to being a reality. Lexus showed off a prototype recently, and last year we got to take a $10,000 hoverboard out for a spin. For now, we'll just have to keep hoping that hoverboards make it to the mainstream sooner than later.


Much like hoverboards, the fashion tech in reality hasn't quite caught up with Back to the Future Part II just yet. Marty's self-lacing Nikes were easily the most memorable future fashion shown off in the movie. Nike tried to capture that magic back in 2011 with a pair of Nike MAGs that didn't lace themselves, but there have been plenty of rumors about a self-lacing pair actually being released this year. Future day has arrived and Nike hasn't yet dropped that bombshell, so we're still waiting for this one to come true.

Update: Nike apparently gave a real pair of self-lacing Nike MAG sneakers to Michael J. Fox today and promised to put them on sale for real in the spring of 2016, with proceeds to benefit Fox's Parkinson's disease research foundation. Nike has more details here.

People generally are dressing a lot less outlandishly in reality than they do in the film, no big surprise there. In a lot of ways, the fashion of BTTF's 2015 just takes a lot of the worst tendencies of '80s fashion and draws it out to its logical conclusion. Marty's future outfit is a bit of an exception -- sure, his self-drying and self-fitting jacket has a number of futuristic technological and fashion touches, but it's otherwise pretty tame compared to what everyone else around him is wearing. Even though we don't have self-drying clothing yet, there have been numerous advances in high-tech fabrics that let clothing wick moisture away, dry quickly and breathe or stretch more than ever before. Anyone who spends lots of time outside for fitness or recreation has likely benefited from the advances in clothing technology we've seen over the last 30 years.


Google Glass may have crashed and burned thus far, but there's still plenty of interest in augmented reality and virtual reality here in the real world. The same goes for Back to the Future's 2015. Doc sports a sort of digital binoculars that overlay data on top of the display, and he also wears a pair of opaque metallic shades while flying that seem like they should block his vision -- but they don't.

Marty's kids both wear some sort of augmented reality goggles when hanging around their home (even at the dinner table!). We don't get a lot of details on what exactly those goggles are for -- all we know is that Marty Jr. answers a video call on them before sending the call to his dad on the living room TV screen. Furthermore, video calling seems entirely commonplace in BTTF's 2015. It seems like the default way of communicating, with voice-only calls apparently phased out for the most part. Of course, video calling is quite popular here in the real 2015, but we're even more addicted to text-only communication at this point.

In the home

Video calling is far from the only forward-looking technology in Marty and Jennifer McFly's future home -- there are plenty of other smart home innovations that should sound familiar. It starts at the front door, where your thumbprint is used to enter instead of a doorknob. We may still mostly use locks and keys, but you can get your hands on a doorknob and lock that you can open with your finger. Marty's home also adjusts the lights and temperature for him when he enters, something similar to what many smart home systems promise.

Perhaps the thing that's most notable around the McFly household is how much voice control has been integrated into the home. The TV, phone, lights, air conditioning, kitchen appliances and more all respond to human speech. We're getting there with Siri, Cortana, Google Now, Alexa and all the rest, but we're still not quite to the point where we can just bark commands from anywhere in the home and expect our wishes to be granted.

The house also features a "video shade" over the windows that projects whatever sort of image you want outside. Not something we have yet (nor something that makes a whole lot of sense), but we do sometimes Chromecast fireplace scenes to our TVs. It's not all that different. Marty's kitchen is also advanced in some ways that we don't have, most notably the food rehydrator that takes a tiny little pizza and blows it up to a fully cooked pie in just a few seconds.

Marty's son vegges out with a giant flat-screen TV before dinner, something that's pretty commonplace in many homes around the world now. However, most of us don't try to binge-watch six channels at a time, fortunately. (Although you could argue we're just distracted in different ways, with plenty of people multitasking on other screens while they watch TV.) One staple in the McFly household that is definitely not a factor in the real 2015 is the fax machine. For some reason, their house has multiple fax machines all over the house -- even in the closet.

Life in 2015

Back to the Future Part II is filled with plenty of other small tidbits about life in 2015, some of which I surely wish were real. Doc notes that the justice system is incredibly fast and efficient now because they abolished all lawyers, something that makes me wonder just what other massive changes to the justice system may have taken place. Weather forecasts are even better and more efficient as well, with up-to-the-second predictions routinely coming true. It's something that causes Doc to wish that the post office were as efficient as the weather service. It sounds like the good old USPS is just as maligned in the BTTF universe as it is here.

When it comes to pop culture, BTTF does a good job at predicting the sequel-itis that plagues Hollywood -- a giant 3D ad for Jaws 19 nearly scares Marty out of his self-lacing shoes. We're fortunate not to have 19 Jaws films, but Robert Downey Jr. has played Iron Man in six different movies in the last seven years or so. And we're in the middle of a world in which reboots on film and TV are incredibly commonplace. The idea of Jaws 19 doesn't seem so laughable now.

One thing we can sadly say has definitely not come true yet is a World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs -- although this could be the year. Marty sees a new reel claiming the Cubs won over a team from Miami for its first title in well over 100 years. While Gale and Zemeckis did predict the existence of a team in Miami, the Marlins and Cubs both play in the National League, making it impossible for them to play each other in the World Series. Additionally, the Cubs are currently down to the Mets in the National League Championship Series, and the World Series hasn't even started yet. We'll give the BTTF team a pass on not realizing that the baseball season would somehow get even longer in the last 26 years. Still, there's hope that the Cubs could make the craziest part of this prediction come true -- but the team will have to step up its game to do so.

[Image credits: Screencapped.net]

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