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Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

My history with William S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan is literally as long, strange, and embarrassing as my own life.

Back in my formative preschool years, I didn’t think Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was the greatest movie ever — I thought it was the only movie ever. Until I finally grew out of the phase (roughly around the time when Power Rangers became a thing), my household played this movie on such heavy rotation that we wore out at least two VHS tapes. Did you even know that a VHS tape could be worn out just from playing it too much? Do you even know what a VHS tape is?

I know, I’m old, get over it.

To this day, I couldn’t begin to explain why I was so obsessed with this movie at such a young age. I don’t even know why my parents thought this film was appropriate for a three-year-old to watch. And I sure as hell don’t know why this movie means so much to so many people over thirty years later.

But then I pop in the DVD, that synth beat starts pulsing, and some part of me deep down inside says “Oh, right. That’s why.”

It’s so perfectly fitting that this is a movie about time travel, because if you’ve got a nostalgic itch for the late ’80s, nothing will get you back to 1988 faster than this movie. Whatever “cool” was back then, this is it to a solid T. The effects, the fashion, the lingo, that incredible soundtrack, the casual homophobia, absolutely EVERYTHING in this movie (for better or worse) perfectly and completely embodies the mythical American ’80s that has crystallized over thirty years of hindsight.

(Side note: And yet, right when this movie gets into its ’80s groove, we’re treated to a young black woman talking about how the stratification of our society resembles that of Marie Antoinette’s time. If you only knew, sister.)

Then we have the cast. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters are perfectly charming in the two lead roles, and even all this time later, who doesn’t like Keanu Reeves? It’s a treat to see the late Grandmaster George Carlin put his colossal comedic chops to a more sagely and understated use. And every last person in the supporting cast — most especially those playing the historical figures — came to play and play HARD.

That may ultimately be the secret to the film’s inexplicable lightning-in-a-bottle success: It’s fun. It’s just plain fun.

On one level, this is the rare time-travel movie that doesn’t have any grand cosmic stakes. Yes, Bill and Ted are unwittingly trying to save a utopian future, but they don’t learn that until after the climax — through most of the film, they’re just trying to get through a school report, put together a band, meet some hot babes, hang out at the mall, and so on and so forth. These kids don’t mean any harm — in fact, they’re too shallow and stupid to be any harm.

And yet the utopian future of the premise makes this an inherently optimistic and upbeat film. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that while “be excellent to each other” may not exactly be insightful or eloquent, it’s a solid philosophy to build a life and a future around.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about people who change the world. Yes, we meet with such timeless figures as Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc, but we only ever meet them after their place in history as already been assured. And we’re meeting them through Bill and Ted, who don’t even realize yet that they’re destined to be world-changing figures on the same level. Improbable? Sure. But we all have to start somewhere. Once upon a time, it’s safe to assume that Abraham Lincoln and Ludwig von Beethoven were just clueless teenagers themselves.

You never know where the next big thing may come from. Given time and determination, even an ignorant child could grow into the next artist, the next politician, the next scientist who could change the world for the better. Of course, I’m sure it helps to be a white boy living in affluent suburbia, but I digress.

On the other hand, there’s something inherently subversive about showing revered historical figures going hog wild on modern technology and creature comforts. To say nothing about the irony of modern suburbanites making fun at their expense. (“You are such a geek!”) The 20th century mentality and pop culture references contrast against those from older times and cultures, yet it’s all done in such a way that they celebrate each other, even as they poke fun at each other.

The late Chris Farley had a famous SNL routine in which he would interview famous guest stars, and he kept flubbing the interview because he was this star-struck doofus too nervous to make a good first impression. Bill and Ted strike the same kind of chord. They’re not geniuses, they’re not heroes, they’re just ordinary people and they react to meeting all these great legendary figures like any of us would.

(Side note: Incidentally, this was a huge factor in the popularity of Bill and Ted’s long-running and tragically cancelled annual Halloween show at Universal Studios. Literally ANYONE from the past, present, or even fiction could’ve stopped by, greeted with the characteristic blissful ignorance from our two leads.)

Also — because I feel this bears repeating — the filmmakers contrived a premise in which a freaking high school history presentation could determine the fate of the entire human race. It’s such an asinine pretense, yet everyone on both sides of the camera plays it so sincerely, taking it so seriously, that it immediately becomes endearing and comical. It’s a mundane crisis with a high-flying gimmick that doesn’t just make the title characters relatable, but it humanizes the long-dead figures and makes them more accessible to a modern audience. (Especially a younger audience who might’ve been introduced to the likes of Socrates and Napoleon through this film.)

Even the method of time travel itself is approachable. It’s not a bunch of complicated keystrokes and lever pulls, it’s not even anything so complex as a DeLorean, it’s a freaking phone booth! Just go in, look up your destination in the phone book, type in the numbers, and you’re off. Any child could do that, and anyone could understand it. (In fact, if it was any more complicated, Bill and Ted probably couldn’t figure out how to operate the thing and we wouldn’t have a movie.)

Of course, it’s implied that a lot of stuff is going on under the hood, all hand-waved away with the “circuits of history” visual effect and George Carlin’s effortless line delivery. (“Modern technology, William.”) But when the phone booth breaks down, they don’t fix it with technobabble and sonic screwdrivers, they literally repair it with chewing gum and pudding cups!

I’ve never been a fan of time travel in most other movies and TV shows, because the timelines and paradoxes tend to complicate everything mighty quick. Not here. Again, because our protagonists are so perpetually clueless, everything about time travel has to be dumbed down and sugar-coated so they (and we) can understand it. So instead of going into this huge expository monologue to explain everything so that Bill and Ted believe it, let’s just have Bill and Ted themselves drop in from later in the movie. Instead of contriving some way to get everything to where it needs to be in the climax, let’s have Bill and Ted themselves do some time travel shenanigans and arrange everything offscreen. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and yet the end result is so much funnier and more accessible than straight science fiction typically is.

Basically put, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is somehow both innocent and transgressive in equal measure, and at the same time. It’s a deceptively intelligent movie about rock-stupid characters. The entire movie sits right on that juvenile PG-13 razor’s edge where kids and adults can both watch this movie and feel like they’re getting away with something. It’s like the best kind of prank: There’s a shock, everyone laughs, and everyone walks away unharmed.

So why didn’t Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey ever reach the same level of fame and adoration? Well… I humbly submit that the filmmakers took the premise a little too far into the fantastic. Heaven, Hell, robots, aliens… all of these things are way too abstract. A million different filmmakers could interpret the afterlife in a million radically different ways that have virtually nothing in common. There are significantly fewer ways to portray Thomas Edison onscreen in a way that audiences will immediately recognize.

When Bill and Ted meet some figure we’ve come to know and respect through a million history books and successfully bring them on board, it feels like an accomplishment. Even as we’re making fun of a sacred idol (which itself has a kind of transgressive thrill), we’re humanizing them and getting to know them directly without the intervening centuries getting in the way. It is fundamentally impossible to get that same feeling with an alien, an android, or any other kind of purely fictional construct.

What’s more, if the first film is like the absolute best kind of prank, the second film is like a prank that results in somebody poking an eye out. Even if Bill and Ted both come back to life later on, the fact remains that the both of them really do end up dead and the film plays it totally serious. I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a great comedy about dead people (Beetlejuice cracked that nut a year before Excellent Adventure came out) but it makes the comedy inherently darker in a way that precludes the warmth and optimism that made the first film so innocent and fun.

The first film depended on so many delicately tuned balances, and pretty much the one and only aspect of the sequel in which all the balances are in perfect alignment is Death (as portrayed by William Sadler). Though he may be a purely fictional construct, we immediately recognize him as the Grim Reaper, just as anyone would immediately recognize any portrayal of the Grim Reaper anywhere in the world. And though he’s respected as such, he’s still made to contrast with modern concepts (most especially modern games) in a comical way — not unlike Napoleon’s earlier misadventures in San Dimas. For this reason, it’s not remotely surprising that Death is by far the most beloved and enduring new character in the sequel, to the point where he was brought back for the upcoming third entry, complete with William Sadler reprising the role.

After twenty years of waiting, Bill and Ted Face the Music is finally set to hit streaming platforms on August 28th. Will it be worth the wait? Will it recapture the magic of the first? Time will tell.

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