‘88 in Back to the Future

July 4, 2020 — Leave a comment

I had this thought about America while writing on Back to the Future. Why does time-travel happen at 88 miles per hour? Why not a 100 or 99? Could it mean something, like a lot of the other seemingly meaningless details in the film?

For instance at the beginning, when Marty goes to turns on the amplifier, below the ignition key is a red label: CRM 114. It’s a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In Dr. Strangelove, the C.R.M. 114 is an important piece of equipment which upon being destroyed, causes a B-52 crew to drop a nuclear bomb. In Back to the Future, Marty’s turning on of the CRM 114 results in a similar explosion.

The opening shot of the film, just prior to the CRM 114 label, reveals the same meaning. The camera slowly pans across Doc Brown’s collection of ticking clocks to then reveal Marty dropping his skateboard and backpack (in the shape of the Delorean) which then rolls across the floor, hitting a yellow box that bares the ‘trefoil’ sign for radioactivity along with the words “handle with care.” The ‘trefoil’ symbol becomes important in the film as its also the shape of the flux-capacitor, the piece of equipment which, according to Doc Brown, makes time-travel possible. But it’s not the only thing needed for time-travel. The flux-capacitor (the sign for radioactivity) runs on plutonium. Just like a nuclear bomb. And we’ll find out that Doc Brown gets this plutonium by promising to build his Libyan benefactors a bomb. The bomb he makes is the Delorean.

For all these reasons and more, it’s clear Back to the Future, released in 1985, is saying a lot about America’s then nuclear arms race with Russia. The film, for instance, pokes fun at then President Ronald Regan. In the future, Marty tells Doc in 1955, Ronald Regan is president. “The actor!?!” Doc incredulously exclaims. One might even venture to say that Doc Brown with all his crazed eccentricities is a sorta Ronald Regan. But I think it’s more likely that Doc is meant to represent America in general, in our historic spirit of innovation. Above the hearth of Doc Brown’s 1955 home are the images of American inventors: Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. Even Albert Einstein, whom Brown names his dog after, became an American inventor.

So might 88 miles per hour refer to America’s 1988?

I had this thought while thinking about the end of the movie. Marty tells Doc “we don’t have enough road to get up to 88 miles per hour.” They’re talking about traveling into the future from 1985. Doc’s just arrived back from the future. He’s found a way to stop using Plutonium. The time-machine is now fueled by recycling. Doc tells Marty, “roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And they lift off and fly into the future. Essentially they’ve gotten around the limits imposed upon them by the length of the road. 88 miles per hour isn’t just the point at which the time-machine travels through time. It’s the point at which it explodes. It’s a deadline of sorts.

88 was the next presidential election. Most films don’t end with the phrase, “to be continued.” Even those with planned sequels. But it also makes sense if the film had this further meaning.

Matthew Scott Miller

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