BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989)

  • Director: Stephen Herek
  • Writers: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
  • Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, and George Carlin
  • Accolades: Only in my heart
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with ads (with cable subscription) on SyFy app, Free streaming (with ads) on YouTube, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

In addition to going through films listed by places like the American Film Institute and Sight & Sound as the greatest films of all time, as I’ve said I’d like to include some of the movies that maybe should be in that conversation but aren’t for various reasons, one major one being that they are in genres that are not normally taken seriously for whatever reason. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is not really one of those movies, either, but it does showcase my chronic weakness for time travel stories, the sillier the better. And they don’t come much sillier than this. So it seemed like a good time to re-visit this stoner (?) comedy of my youth, given that it’s long-planned second sequel, Bill & Ted Face the Music, comes to your streaming platform of choice this weekend.

This original adventure starred Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (in his first major film role) as two burn-out friends who want to start a band but can’t play their instruments. They talk in a bizarre late-80s California dialect mixed with an almost Shakespearean declarativeness (“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”). They are told they need to ace their history class presentation the next morning or Ted will be sent to military school in Alaska. Then George Carlin shows up in a time traveling phone booth (where have we seen that before?) and announces that he is there to help them pass their history test, as all of future society is based on the music their band will one day make, and therefore he cannot allow them to be split up. Hijinks, to put things mildly, ensue, as the boys cut a swath through history, picking up historical figures such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Socrates (or “So-craytes,” as the boys call him) and bringing them back to late-80s suburban LA to guest star in their presentation.

The sense of humor is very “off-center,” as Wikipedia puts it, and how much you laugh will depend, even more than usual, on the nuances of your personal sense of humor. The production hired the Production Designer from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, citing that movie as one of their major influences, if that tells you anything. One sequence of this movie includes Billy the Kid and Socrates trying unsuccessfully to hit on girls at a mall food court. They are soon joined by Sigmund Freud, who they complain has no game with the ladies and leave sadly eating a corn dog. This is also a movie that casts a member of the Go-Gos (Jane Wiedlin) as Joan of Arc, then introduces her to her new passion, aerobics. In one of the more famous sequences, Napoleon causes havoc at a water park, conveniently named “Waterloo.” The water park sequences were actually shot at Raging Waters, the San Gabriel Valley institution made famous among a very specific niche of the populace by its prominent role in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Watching Bill & Ted today, it feels like a movie aimed at kids, tonally and in most of the content. Though it feels like an ancestor of many more recent “stoner comedies,” (Dude, Where’s My Car? differs mostly in the quality of the writing and the lack of time travel), much more so than, say, Cheech & Chong movies, no one in this movie mentions drugs, even though they’re only way Bill & Ted make sense as human beings. Nor did anyone ever actually talk like this, even in San Dimas (which, I suppose, is in a valley, if not THE Valley). In their own way, some movies of the 80s and 90s feel more alien, looking back from 2020, than movies from, say, the 30s or 50s. People in those times had real problems, like people in 2020. Bill & Ted’s lives are great, they just need to pass the history test. And while old movies often took place in bars and offices, which still exist, 80s and 90s comedies often took place at the Mall, which basically doesn’t at this point, not in the same way. Not as many people still dress exclusively in suits the way you’ll see in a Film Noir, but it’s a lot more than wear whatever purple polka dot shirt Bill wears for a lot of this movie.

Another reason why Bill & Ted is known today is for introducing the world to Keanu Reeves, who would go on to superstardom and meme-ification. Though he is sometimes criticized for his lack of expression (a fact The Day the Earth Stood Still took advantage of to cast him as a robot), he has featured in numerous iconic action-movie roles since, especially in Speed, The Matrix (which definitely should, but probably won’t, be on any future edition of the AFI Top 100), and John Wick, and become known in the meantime as one of the good guys of Hollywood. Alex Winter, meanwhile, often leaves people asking “whatever happened to him?” He actually has been working ever since this movie, but mostly as a writer and director. For a while he had a sketch comedy show on MTV, and since then has built a career as a working director that includes everything from live-action Cartoon Network movies (apparently a thing) to documentaries railing against Donald Trump.

The director of the original Bill & Ted, meanwhile, was Stephen Herek, who had to this point directed one cult-horror semi-classic, Critters. He would follow this movie up with another hit comedy in a similar milieu, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, which got him hired by Disney to direct a series of family movies that included The Mighty Ducks and Mr. Holland’s Opus. I had never heard of this guy before today, but I’ve seen a lot of his movies in my life. In the early 2000s, he had a series of flops (do you remember an Eddie Murphy movie called Holy Man? I sure don’t.) and ended up moving over to TV, where’s he’s directed two separate Dolly Parton specials and seven episodes of the new MacGyver series.

For a movie about two extremely dumb guys, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure feels weirdly intellectual today. There are plenty of silly jokes, sure, but there is also a certain level of base knowledge required to really crack up about Ted impressing Socrates with the line, “all we are is dust in the wind,” one that I’m not sure most people had in 1988 any more than they do today. Yet this movie was a big hit, and spawned a sequel with a much larger budget, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. If anything, that movie is more bizarre, its plot involving robot doppelgängers from the future killing Bill & Ted, which leads to their adventures through Hell (heavily influenced, it seems, by Beetlejuice) and Heaven, accompanied by William Sadler’s memorable portrayal of Death. As with Excellent Adventure, Bogus Journey’s references are amusingly esoteric. In particular, the Bergman classic The Seventh Seal comes in for parody at length. Again, even in 1988, how many people had seen both this movie and The Seventh Seal?

Did there need to be a third Bill & Ted movie, thirty-one years after the original? Of course not. But there is a strong, intrinsic appeal to the original beyond just that of nostalgia. Especially for those of us who will watch anything with time travel involved.

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