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THIS WEEK: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) – Two dim-witted high-schoolers travel through time, borrowing famous historical figures so they can pass their History finals.
Enjoy the Moment!
HOW IT STARTS: Abraham Lincoln is detained behind bars. Ted’s dad is the jailer. In order to not flunk most heinously, our time travelling heroes must discover a way to break in and set the President free.
THE PREFACE: Keanu Reeves portrays Ted Theodore Logan, Alex Winters portrays Bill S. Preston, Esqurie… and together they are Wyld Stallyns – a rock band that currently sucks, but one day in the future their music will save the human race. But first, they totally have to not fail their History class. It’ll be hard, since these dim bulbs think Joan Of Arc is “Noah‘s Wife” and Julius Caesar is “a salad dressing dude.”
Rufus (comedic legend George Carlin) is sent from the future to ensure their success in the past. He arrives in a time travelling phone-booth (Dr. Who anyone?), magically appearing out of nowhere as our aloof heroes hang out a convenience store. As Ted so aptly puts it, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” After Rufus breaks down how time travel works, our heroes set out on a most excellent adventure through time.
If they can bring back historical figures like Billy the Kid, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan they can most triumphantly pass their History Report due in 18 hours. However, as Rufus explains, the clock in San Dimas is always running. They can travel back centuries in time, as long as they don’t miss their report. This is some refreshingly small stakes and some great urgency.
Bill & Ted don’t have to change history, they just have to make sure history doesn’t change!
THE SET-UP: Our non-non-non heinous heroes go about recruiting historical figures, but they can only cram so many into that phone-booth. Ted gets his brother to babysit Napoleon, while the others like Sigmund Freud and Abraham Lincoln hang out at the local mall. It isn’t long before they get into trouble and are placed in jail. Somehow, someway, Bill & Ted must find a way to free their new-found friends and get to that report on time. In order to overcome this obstacle, their time travelling phone-booth will surely come in handy.
The time travel science in this amazing cult classic comedy is easy to understand. There are no multiple timelines or paradoxes or 12 Monkeys free will alterations. It’s less like Primer, and more like Back To The Future. History is fixed in this cinematic universe. They’re not trying to go back in time and kill Hitler or something. They just have to pass History class. Time travel movies can get complicated fast. For example, if time course corrects and they killed Hitler, someone else would get the idea to take over the world.
With this Excellent Adventure, these guys have already succeeded. History is fixed, from a future point of view like Rufus’. We’re just witnessing this timeline from the observer’s point of view. (Nerd Alert: This might help with deciphering Interstellar‘s time travel antics.) When Bill & Ted travel back to the Circle K where they met Rufus earlier in the movie Ted says, “That conversation made more sense this time.” This sequence clearly demonstrates that the universe isn’t really in danger. We know they succeed. We’re in a casual time loop. Since we know, we can just sit back and enjoy this goofy trip through time.
THAT MOMENT: Earlier in the film, Ted’s dad complains about his keys missing. Our heroes remember this when they are trying to bust out their friends from jail. All they need is those keys and mission impossible becomes very possible. We know they succeed with this mission, but we don’t know how. Watching them overcome these playful traps with causal time loops is a pure joy. The first step, is how to find those keys that have been missing for a couple of days.
Let’s break down this scene with Bill & Ted’s conversation, and That Most Triumphant Time Loop Moment when they realize the true powers of time travel.
Ted: We could steal them, but he lost them two days ago.
Bill: If only we could go back in time to when he had them and steal them.
Ted: Well… Why can’t we?
Bill: Because we don’t have time.
Ted: We could do it after the report!
Bill: Ted, good thinking, dude!
This is a most brilliant idea! Playful. Clear. These guys explain it so simply that the whole audience is on board. Our anticipation rises. It’s so fun, we can’t wait to see how they pull this off. The writer’s even take it a step further. If Bill & Ted steal the keys, where will they put them so no one else finds them?
Bill: How about behind that sign? That way when we get here now, they’ll be waiting for us. (He picks them up.) See!
Ted: Whoah, yeah! So after the report, we –can’t- forget to do this otherwise it won’t happen… But it did
happen! Hey, it –was- me who stole my dad’s keys!
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: This was time travel done right. We not only get the “a-ha moment”, but also the absolute fun of watching Bill & Ted figure this out, and avoid all the other obstacles along mission: prison break. This Moment is so significant because these two can basically pull causal loops whenever they like. It’s almost like: think it, do it later, and it already happened. In effect, upon this realization our time travelling heroes become superheroes, transcending the laws of time.
Perhaps, this is why they are so important to the future history of humankind? Maybe the future council just humour these guys with saying they love the music from Wyld Stallyns, when really Bill & Ted are so revered because of their breakthrough in time travel science. Maybe telling them that would stop our heroes from discovering this new power somehow?
Bill & Ted is such a well-regarded guilty pleasure of mine because of the lovable duo and constant firing of hilarious jokes. The movie is infinitely re-watchable and infinitely quotable — like this reply when they talk about Socrates’ philosophy of true wisdom coming from admitting you know nothing: “That’s totally us, dude!”
Even if you’re not into the time travel elements, there is much much more to enjoy. The excellent pacing makes this movie fly by. You get adventure, laughter, and science fiction. For those of you who have seen this cult classic, I hope this edition of Cinema Remembered brings back a lot of great memories. If you haven’t seen this Excellent Adventure, find it, watch it, enjoy it. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh… and “Party on, dudes!”
David’s Take: How can anyone not like Bill & Ted? This is just plain dumb fun and both Winter and Reeves are perfect as the leads. There’s something liberating about their total abandonment of logic and intellect as we watch since it frees them to approach and overcome obstacle with no sense of reason. They just “do” and somehow it all works out. I really enjoy both films in this series, especially the characters in history in the first and “Death” in the second. Endlessly quotable and still influential, Bill & Ted are cinema icons not just because they are funny, but because they are all a little bit of us. Plus, George Carlin!