Andy's Anachronisms
Time Travel Movie Reviews


Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can't spell...

Directed by Stephen Herek

The Basic Plot

Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted "Theodore" Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two teenage slackers that dream their garage band the Wyld Stallyns will one day bring them unlimited fame and fortune.

Bill and Ted's failing grades in History class jeopardize their dream as Ted's father threatens to ship Ted off to an Alaskan military school should he fail his upcoming oral presentation in History.

Divine intervention arrives to help Bill and Ted in the form of a visitor from 700 years in the future. Rufus (George Carlin) explains to the bewildered pair that he is from a future where the civilization is founded on Wyld Stallyns music and Bill & Ted's philosophy of "Party on Dude!" and "Be Excellent To Each Other". Rufus loans the pair his time machine / phone booth and instructs them to use it to help them with their History presentation since the future of the world depends on them passing it.

Rufus then turns the pair loose on the past to kidnap historical figures to use in their presentation.

The Analysis

Set in 1988 San Dimas, California this 1980s cultural touchstone unwittingly launched the career of Keanu Reeves. Despite the fact that the film owes a lot to existing teen movies of the decade, most notably Fast Time at Ridgemount High (1982) and Back to the Future (1985), it manages to succeed on its own merit. The script keeps the material light and fast paced; successfully preventing the audience from become too aware of the gaps in logic and continuity in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure".

The premise of an entire culture and civilization being based around the music of one group is admittedly absurd; yet in the context of the movie works as being the ultimate wish fulfilment of Bill and Ted. Also equally absurd is Bill and Ted's kidnapping of historic figures against their will in one scene while in the next scene they are shown as willing accomplices. While the historical figures are rarely fazed by the cultural or language differences associated with time travel, to the writer's credit Genghis Khan, Beethoven and Socrates at least don't instantly speak and understand English, as often is the case with such fare.

As for the time travel aspect of the movie the time machine is pretty unimaginative in that it takes the form of a telephone booth. An inside out umbrella frame glued to the top of the machine comes across as an after-thought intended as an added visual clue that the phone booth was out of the ordinary. Scenes of Bill and Ted travelling the "Circuits of Time" feature special effects that are somewhat dated, but don't detract from the overall story.

As they jaunt through time Bill and Ted manage to squeeze into their phone booth a wide variety of characters. Here's a brief itinerary of their travel through time and the characters they encounter along the way.

  • Austria 1805 - Napoleon
  • New Mexico 1879 - Billy the Kidd
  • Athens Greece 410 B.C. - Socrates
  • England 15th Century - The Princesses
  • Austria 1901 - Sigmund Freud
  • Orleans, France 1429 - Joan of Arc
  • Mongolia 1209 - Genghis Khan
  • Washington DC 1863 - Abe Lincoln

The character actors enlisted to play the historical figures nearly steal the show at time especially when they are turned loose on modern day San Dimas (Actually Scottsdale Arizona, standing in for sunny California). I especially enjoyed Al Leong as Genghis Khan. Al's background in stunt work often has him playing the Asian bad guy in movies that is quickly killed off. One of my favourite Al Leong roles is as one of the bad guys in Die Hard, you might recall the scene where the long haired Asian guy sets down his gun and steals a chocolate bar from the lobby newsstand before the battle starts.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure also contains some unusual casting the form of four musical personages. Jane Wielden of the Go-Go's shows off as Joan of Arc. The other three people are credited as "The Three Most Important People in the World" of 2688 and are the people who Rufus takes his orders from at the beginning of the film. Clarence Clemons, a legend in his own right, but probably best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the central figure of the three. The other two are Martha Davis of The Motels and Fee Waybill of The Tubes. I'm not sure of the significance of the casting of these three musicians, but I'd be curious to how it came about.

The magic of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is largely in the script and credit rightly goes to writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon for keeping the story light and well paced while managing to make two really dumb dudes sound intelligent talking about time travel.

My favourite scene -- okay second favourite after the riot at the mall -- is when Bill and Ted arrive at the police station to free their historical figures from jail. Bill realizes that it would be easy to break them out of jail if they could somehow steal Ted's father's keys. Ted agrees, but points out that his dad lost them a couple of days ago - a scene established at the beginning of the film when Ted's father accuses him of stealing his keys. The following exchange of dialogue happens between Bill and Ted while standing outside the police station:

Bill: "If only we could go back in time to when he had them and steal 'em then"
Ted: "Well why can't we?"
Bill: "Cause we don't have time!"
[Referring to the pressing deadline to give their report]
Ted: "We could do it after the report."
Bill: "Good thinking dude! After the report we'll travel back to two days ago, steal your dad's keys and leave them here."
Ted: "Where?"
Bill: "Don't know. How about behind that sign? That way when we get here now, they'll be waiting for us."
[Bill bends down to retrieve the keys]
Bill: "See!"
Ted: "Whoa! So after the report, we can't forget to do this otherwise it won't happen."
Ted: "But it did happen! So it was me who stole my dad's keys."
Bill: "That's exactly it Ted!"

What's great about this exchange is that Bill and Ted have created a paradox without actually travelling time - at least from their current perspective. They agree they must remember to travel back in time otherwise the keys won't show up when they need them, but since they are there then they must have travelled back in time so there seems no need to worry about remembering to do it in the future. Confused yet?

The exchange also outlines a fundamental principle of time travel that unless multiple trips in time is explicitly prohibited by the premise than it should be assumed that a time traveller is free to return to the past and will do so to benefit himself given the opportunity. Time travel writing suffers when a time traveller could easily circumvent a plot development if they simply jumped in their time machine and bypass or sidestep the event, yet the writer is blind to the flaw in their own logic. I wish I could site an example of such flawed writing off the top of my head to underline what I am saying, but I will try to do so at a later juncture.

Getting back to Bill and Ted, having deduced their virtual time travel powers they use the ploy on several more occasions during the jail break, first to distract Ted's father with a tape recording of Ted's voice and then to stall Ted's father by dropping a garbage bin on him.

Having successfully saved the day and received an A plus on their History presentation, Bill and Ted come to the realization that nothing really has changed for them. They agree that perhaps its time they stopped posing as the greatest rock band ever and started learning to play their instruments. Rufus makes a final appearance to reassure Bill and Ted as well as the audience that Wyld Stallyns does indeed get much better and that they do have a huge impact on the future of humanity.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure may be simple wish fulfillment, with time travel thrown in for good measure, but it's a fun movie that does the best to capture both the spirit of the 80's and Keanu Reeves acting ability.

Review Posted: 2003-01-05

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