1980's, 80’s movie, Abraham Lincoln, alex winter, back to the future, be excellent to each other, Beethoven, big pig, bill and ted, bill and ted face the music, bill and ted third movie, bill and ted's excellent adventure, Bill S Preston Esquire, Billy the Kid, bogus journey, circle k, circle k convenience store, doctor who, excellent, excellent adventure, Freud, george carlin, ghendis khan, heavy metal, historical figures, historical in joke, history, history lesson, history report, i can't break away, in time, Joan of Arc, keanu reeves, Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven, mall, missy, Napoleon, Napoleon Bonaparte, old west, party on dudes, phone booth, princesses, robbi rob, rock, rock and roll, rock music, rock soundtrack, Rufus, san dimas, san dimas high school football rules, Sci-Fi, sci-fi parody, science fiction, shopping mall, Sigmund Freud, Socrates, Ted Theodore Logan, time travel, time travel movie, two heads are better than one, water park, waterloo, waterslide, wyld stallyns
“Bill…strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is an odd little movie when you think about it. Who’d have thought a story about two lazy teens who talk in surfer slang and take some of history’s most iconic figures on a joyride through time would reach cult status? It began as a comedy club act about two clueless adolescents summarizing current events they knew nothing about before evolving into a perennial flick for 80’s cinephiles. And, for better or worse, it’s the movie that kickstarted Keanu Reeves’ acting career. I wrote a small dissertation of its central theme around the time of its 30th anniversary earlier this year, but now I get to go into more detail and I can’t wait.
The movie opens rather ominously with Big Pig’s “I Can’t Break Away” playing over an enormous metallic object (which as we’ll see later, contains the time machine) slowly landing on a glass floor resembling a clock face in a dark cavern. It paints a grim picture about the futility of fighting fate and sets up the theme of the main conflict.
Rufus, played by the late great comic George Carlin, welcomes us to the future San Dimas, California, where pollution is a thing of the past, mankind has reached peace with themselves, extraterrestrial life and even the plants and animals, and the music has never been better. All this is thanks to the band on which this utopian society is founded, the “great ones” known as Wyld Stallyns.
But events in the past threaten the great ones’ destiny, and it’s Rufus’ job to go back to 1988 and ensure things come to pass as they’re meant to. Said great ones are Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves), two high school students with aspirations higher than this movie’s fanbase. They want to form the greatest band in the world, but they believe they can only do that if they get Eddie Van Halen on board. But they won’t be able to get Van Halen unless they have a great video, which itself won’t happen unless they get some better instruments, which is rendered pointless because the boys don’t even know how to play them, which is why they need Van Halen. It’s like some kind of warped zen riddle.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, THIS is the movie where that meme comes from.
Things don’t fare much better at school where their history teacher isn’t impressed with Bill and Ted’s lack of retained knowledge. He informs the lads that the only way they can pass his class is if they get a perfect grade on their final report, which is due tomorrow. Though theoretically speaking the report should be easy since the theme is how one of the historical figures they’ve studied might view modern day San Dimas. It’s not so much a history report as it is speculative fiction.
Ted returns home to his uptight father, a captain on the San Dimas police force, who’s upset with his son for flunking school. That and his keys have mysteriously gone missing. Captain Logan is the personification of the oppressive attitude that threatens Bill and Ted and the closest thing this movie has to an antagonist. Like most of the authority figures, he has no faith in his son and is convinced his dream will lead to nowhere. Logan threatens to send Ted to a military academy in Alaska unless he gets his act together.
Bill and Ted try to work on the report at Bill’s house, but they’re easily distracted, mostly by Missy. She’s a pretty attractive young woman all things considering, and she’s only a couple of years older than the boys.
She also happens to be Bill’s stepmom.
Then Bill’s dad checks up on them – but mostly Missy. He gives the boys some cash and tells them go out for a bit…while he and Missy go boink each other…in Bill’s own room.
Despondent, Bill and Ted hang out at the local Circle-K convenience store hoping somebody there will be able to help them out.
On that note, there are no Circle-Ks where I live so I assumed it was either a franchise that went extinct after the 80’s or one that was made up for the movie. Then I moved down to Florida for my run at the Disney College Program and found them EVERYWHERE I went. I tell you it was downright surreal.
Rufus arrives in a time machine resembling a phone booth. The original plan for the time machine was for it to be a 1969 Chevy van but when it looked like they might be ripping off Back to the Future, it was changed. And thankfully there’s no other sci-fi property that uses a phone booth as a form of time travel that could ever accuse them of stealing from them.
Rufus offers his assistance, though the boys don’t know what to make of him. Then without warning, another time booth appears from the future carrying another Bill and Ted who come out and chat with their past selves.
No, thankfully it’s not THAT kind of time-travel movie. Future Bill and Ted assure ours that Rufus is trustworthy. Future Ted also reminds himself to wind his watch and “say hi to the princesses”. Convinced, our Bill and Ted join Rufus in his phone booth. He demonstrates that any period and place in time is represented by a phone number in the booth’s yellow pages –
– and all they have to do is dial it up to go there. The Circuits of Time, represented by a stream of early CGI cables, carry them along to 1800’s Austria, which is in the middle of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion. Bill, Rufus and Ted marvel for a bit then return to the present, unaware that Napoleon himself got caught on to the booth as they left and was dragged back with them. Rufus warns them that the clock in San Dimas runs concurrently no matter where they go so they have to return and finish their report before it’s due at 2pm the next day. After he gains their assurance that they will, another booth materializes to take him back to his era.
Bill and Ted discover an unconscious Napoleon and get the idea to bring more historical figures to the present so they can help them with the report. They leave the “short dead dude” in the care of Ted’s little brother Deacon while they go round up some others. But Capt. Logan has decided to skip the middleman and already signed up Ted for military school without even giving him a chance to turn things around. He kicks Bill out and orders Ted to go pack his bags, but Bill distracts him with a call from the booth and soon the lads are history.
Using their textbook as a guide, the duo make their first stop in the Old West, which they immediately declare is just like Frontierland, except you can get shot at.
The boys enter a saloon and are thrilled that they don’t get asked to see an ID. It’s this moment that makes me question why Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure tends to be classified as a stoner comedy. There’s no weed or drugs involved at any point in this story; Bill and Ted share some cold ones in this scene it those don’t count. Is it their pseudo-surfer dude dialect and lackadaisical attitude that sells it as such?
Bill and Ted wonder which of the cowboys at the bar they should take with them when who should saunter in but notorious outlaw Billy the Kid. Billy recruits the hapless boys into a poker game rigged in his favor. Despite Keanu Reeves having mastered a poker face so well he keeps it on even when he’s acting in most of his other films, Bill and Ted screw it up anyway and a good old fashioned bar fight breaks out. They earn Billy’s friendship by rescuing him from the posse and he joins them in the phone booth before it disappears to everyone’s bewilderment.
The next stop is Ancient Greece where Bill and Ted sit in on a lecture by the father of modern thought, Socrates, or as they call him, “So-crates”. In order to get through to him, they join in his philosophizing the only way they know how: rock lyrics. Socrates is won over thanks to the “philosophy” of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind”. It also leads into one of my favorite jokes where Socrates builds off of their musings using the intro to the soap opera Days of Our Lives.
With the philosopher firmly simpatico, they fly to medieval England and immediately terrify the superstitious peasantry. Ted catches sight of two “historical babes” who have their eye on them. Certain these must be the princesses his future self mentioned, he convinces Bill to storm the castle and meet them. The two deck themselves in suits stolen from the castle armory, but they can’t help but have a little fun on the way by reenacting some Star Wars. This gets Ted in trouble and Bill watches what he thinks is his best friend get stabbed by the guards. He charges into battle with the famous cry “You killed Ted, you medieval dickweed!!” And despite having no prior experience in medieval fighting, he does a good job holding Ted’s killer off, at least until a still very much alive Ted (who crawled out of his suit in time) knocks him out. The two are thrilled to see each other and indulge in a hug that speaks volumes about their deep abiding friendship.
…Unfortunately that bromance is immediately torpedoed with one word:
If there’s one thing I don’t miss about the 80’s, it’s how much they threw that disgusting slur around, especially in movies that were considered family-friendly. My generation remembers that decade as a golden age of pop culture, but between the AIDS crisis and the Regan administration it was a hard ten years for the LGBT community, and men using that word whenever they felt their fragile masculinity was threatened didn’t help.
Ultimately the duo reach the princesses, Joanna and Elizabeth, and ask them to the school dance with some lyrics they make up on the fly. It’s not the best prom-posal I’ve ever seen, but since the princesses are to be married off to some “royal ugly dudes” that day, they’re happy to take any escape route that presents itself. Unfortunately their father King Henry catches them. Some confusion ensues when Bill and Ted are thrilled at the prospect of being introduced to the iron maiden (unaware that he’s not referring to the band), so the king orders them to be beheaded instead. And just when this Excellent Adventure is about to end most heinously, the executioners free Bill and Ted. Surprise, they’re Billy and Socrates in disguise! They make a break for it with the time machine in tow. However a knight smashes the antenna just as they take off and it sends them hurtling out of control.
The booth lands in the cavern from the opening. I know what I’m about to say sounds like I’m over-analyzing a cheesy scene from a silly little cult comedy, but there’s a deeper meaningful significance to it than most people give it credit for. The boys explore their new surroundings and meet its rulers, who not only recognize them but look upon them in awe. Little do Bill and Ted realize they’ve landed in the utopia inspired by their music. The leaders perform the air guitar moves featured on Wyld Stallyns’ album cover joined by the citizens witnessing this historic movement. It’s something beautiful and strange, something that Bill and Ted may never be able to fully comprehend, but they know they’re in the middle of something important.
The music playing in the background is part of what elevates this moment. If I had to pick a favorite movie song (that wasn’t from a Disney movie), this would be it. Robbi Rob’s “In Time” is virtually perfect with some sweet guitar work by Stevie Salas. But it’s the lyrics that give it such a strong emotional resonance. Anyone who watches Mr. Robot will recall this song from one of the more emotional scenes in Season 3 where the main character Elliot comforts his friend Angela by reminding her of the good times they shared as children. “In Time” itself isn’t about revisiting the past but looking towards the future and seeing all the bright possibilities there if we work towards it together. And lord knows in this day and age we could use some assurance that things will improve.
Bill and Ted ultimately have to say farewell to their admirers. But they leave some valuable parting words:
Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes!
To put it laconically, Bill and Ted are reminding their onlookers to treat each other right and have fun. It’s a positive statement that’s as simple as they come, but no less important to remember. This is one philosophy sci-fi dramas with bigger budgets and higher concepts have tried to convey for years, but none have managed to get their point across as well as Bill and Ted have. The two are consistently kind to everyone they meet, even those who threaten their lives or belittle them, they’re endlessly optimistic, and they try to show the people they take with them to the present the best time yet. This philosophy is so timeless that it rings true even in the future: Rufus and the leaders exchange this exact sentiment before he travels to the past at the film’s start.
Since the booth is still speeding around uncontrollably through time, they kidnap pick up whatever famous person they happen to stumble across, including Beethoven, Ghengis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln. Ultimately the time machine grows too full and unwieldy to travel back to the present and they wind up in prehistoric times. No worries, they keep their victims guests well fed with some pudding cans and chewing gum, which Bill uses to fix the antenna.
Meanwhile Napoleon tags along with Deacon and his friends as they go out for ice cream and bowling. But the little brat ditches him at the alley. Bill, Ted and the rest return to the Circle-K where this all began and have the previous conversation with themselves, thus closing the loop. But Rufus pulls them aside and warns them they don’t have much time left. Ted still forgot to wind his watch (hence his earlier warning) and now there’s only a few hours left in San Dimas time before the report is due. The way they go about this “San Dimas Time” makes virtually no sense, even as a way to up the stakes, but I can’t really complain about it because the movie’s focus isn’t presenting an engaging sci-fi feature with credible theories on time flow but a fun ride. If you’re looking for something as tightly scripted and plausible as Back to the Future, this ain’t it.
Bill and Ted fly the booth to current San Dimas time (roughly noon for those of you keeping track) and to Bill’s house. They introduce Missy to their new friends, though by the time they get to Abraham Lincoln they give up trying to pass them off as ordinary people with strange last names and attire. Missy takes meeting all these historical figures very well, but asks Bill to finish his chores before she drives them anywhere. Cue a cleaning montage set to a sped-up William Tell Overture.
With the household duties wrapped up, Bill and Ted escort their motley crew to the most elite cultural center the 1980’s has to offer: the mall. They leave them to their own devices while they go pick up Napoleon. Not bound by the limitations of their eras, everyone cuts loose and has the time of their lives. Joan of Arc hijacks an aerobics class, Ghengis Khan runs amok at a sporting goods store, and Freud, Billy and Socrates try to pick up girls with varying success. If you want to see one of the best subtle visual jokes of the film, watch the corn dog in Freud’s hand during this scene. Let’s just say this is his type of humor.
A common complaint among even the biggest fans of this movie is why Bill and Ted don’t try to change the terrible fates in store for their passengers or at least warn them: remember, Socrates winds up drinking poison, Joan of Arc is burned at the stake, Beethoven goes deaf, and Billy the Kid and Lincoln are gunned down in their prime. But it’s been well established that Bill and Ted aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed and most likely don’t remember what becomes of the people they meet. Then there’s the matter of altering history too much. One of the comics has them learn about Lincoln’s assassination and their attempt to save him causes the space-time continuum to go horribly out of whack. More importantly, however, the way Bill and Ted show their guests a good time reflects their philosophy. From the historical figures’ point of view, they get a glimpse of a bright future that they played a part in shaping. With the knowledge that they gain, they can leave the world a little better than it was before. Bill and Ted get a taste of this themselves when they travel to the future and see the impact they’ve made.
Bill and Ted are dismayed to learn Deacon lost the diminutive dictator, but quickly deduce he must have wandered off to the local water park. Why? Because it’s called Waterloo. I know it’s a hell of a contrived coincidence, but I like to think that after Napoleon was left behind he just followed the signs pointing to there because it’s the one thing from his own time that sounded like a familiar place. The way they film Waterloo makes it look like they’re promoting it; it’s your generic water park, but it make me want to go there whenever I watch this scene. Napoleon has a ball on the slides until Bill and Ted arrive and drag him away.
Things are going a bit haywire at the mall, however. The historical figures’ shenanigans bring out the mall cops who chase them all down and arrest them. Even Beethoven, whose only crime is drawing in dozens of eager customers to the music store by jamming on four different keyboards simultaneously, isn’t safe from the Paul Blart brigade.
Bill and Ted return to the mall with Napoleon in tow, learn what happened and track them to the police station. They’re giving Ted’s father plenty of trouble but he won’t listen to them or his son. So it’s up to the boys to play some Heavy Metal Gear Solid and sneak around the station just out of sight to rescue their friends. They get some help from their future selves who have planted some excellently timed distractions for Capt. Logan. Ted also finds his dad’s keys to the jail cells planted in a convenient location and realizes he was the one who took them in the first place. Bill and Ted make plans to time travel after the report to steal the keys and set everything in the station in motion.
As they help everyone escape, the captain barges in and tries to stop them. So Ted reminds himself out loud they need a trash can and one falls on top of Logan. It’s the point where I really do have to call bull on the whole San Dimas Time thing because now it makes it seem like you call out something and bang, it’s a given right then and there. The finale of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey pulls off even more mental gymnastics in a similar vein. But since it’s near the very end I do have to let it slide.
The group skedaddles to San Dimas High with Captain Logan, Missy, and Bill’s father not far behind. They reach the auditorium just in time to witness Bill and Ted present the greatest history report of all time. It’s not even a presentation, it’s a rock concert that Schoolhouse Rock wishes it was cool enough to replicate. It’s high energy, educational, and it leaves the crowd wanting more.
While this is arguably the scene that inspired the long-running Bill and Ted show at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, I think there’s a big missed opportunity here: Occasionally my elementary school got people like Native American chiefs, actors from local theater troupes, and even Ronald McDonald himself to spend a day in the auditorium and teach us stuff. Why did nobody think to license out the Bill and Ted characters and have them visit schools to teach kids about history in the same way they gave their report? That would have been awesome!
After how excellently Bill and Ted have treated everyone, the figures in turn help them make the report the success that it is. Socrates, who once questioned the point of living, now loves everything he sees. Ghengis Khan and Joan of Arc demonstrate the fitness techniques they picked up at the mall. Napoleon shows how he plans to implement battle maneuvers based on Waterloo’s slides. Beethoven performs a rocking sonata. Freud analyzes Ted in a way that bridges the gap between him and his father (he offers to do the same for Bill, but Bill says he can live with his minor Oedipus complex). And it closes out with Abraham Lincoln summing up the lessons they learned.
To give a report like that anything less than an A+ would be blasphemy. Thankfully, that’s exactly what Bill and Ted earn.
Back in the garage that evening, Bill and Ted contemplate what they’ve taken from their travels. They’ve accomplished one goal, but nothing seems to have changed. It’s then they decide that instead of sitting around wondering how to get Van Halen to join them, they should take some serious action, starting by learning how to actually play music. Fittingly enough, “In Time” is once again playing while this happens.
Then they receive a surprise visitor – Rufus, who’s brought along the princesses. He rescued them from their arranged marriage because it turns out they’re meant to be part of Wyld Stallyns too. Rufus reveals the future they visited was built on their music, which is why he was sent back in time to make sure they didn’t break up. He also gives them some sweet new guitars to help them start out, on the condition that he gets to jam with them. Though seeing how Bill, Ted and the princesses are still inexperienced and Rufus is a reincarnated Jimi Hendrix by comparison, it’s a bit…unbalanced.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a ridiculously fun good time with a positive and enduring message. While the movie is obviously dated with every 80’s trappings you could imagine, it’s actually much smarter than it appears. I joke about Keanu Reeves’ acting, but he and Alex Winter are very enjoyable and likable here. I think he missed his calling as a comedic actor because he’s far more lively and interesting in an intentionally humorous setting than when he has to be serious. Or when he’s being a cold-blooded former assassin. George Carlin’s subdued turn as Rufus makes him a great straight man and mentor to offset our goofy heroes. The actors they got to portray the historical celebrities are perfect. They look and act so much like their real life counterparts it’s uncanny. There’s many subtle in-jokes relating to each one that you have to watch the movie multiple times to catch them all. The soundtrack, from the rock songs to David Newman’s score (which reminds me of The Brave Little Toaster in places), is also great.
While I haven’t seen the sequel in a long time, I remember it being okay. William Sadler as the Grim Reaper was easily the best part. Even though Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey ended their odyssey through time and space on a high note, it goes without saying that I’m a bit hyped for the long-awaited third movie. It was as much as a chimerical wish of cult film lovers as Ghostbusters 3 and Evil Dead 4 and production was teased for years. I have no idea how they’ll do it without George Carlin, but with Alex and Keanu onboard I still have faith it’ll be at least somewhat excellent.
I know I’m not the first to poke fun at Bill and Ted ripping off Dr. Who by using a phone booth as the main mode of transport, it’s actually rather appropriate for our main characters. They, like the Doctor, pick up companions from different eras, change their lives for the better, and spread goodwill wherever they go. Hope and cheer are two fundamental human qualities that should never be underestimated. Rufus’ aside glance and promise of things getting better isn’t just directed at Bill and Ted’s unpolished skills but at us. And because of what we’ve seen before, we know he’s right. That underlying optimism, more than the comedy, acting and the music though all are good, is what draws me back to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure whenever I need a pick-me-up. It gives me hope that in time we’ll be dancing in the streets all night, and that anyone, even a couple of teens everyone dismisses as good-for-nothings, can change the world for the better.
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Artwork by Charles Moss. Screencaps courtesy of cap-that.com. Check out billandted.org for a most excellent fansite that has behind the scenes facts, first drafts of the screenplay, and everything you ever wanted to know about all things Bill and Ted.
Also, Happy 20th Anniversary to Spongebob! I was preparing a list of my top 20 favorite episodes, but because I messed up the date it won’t be ready on time. Expect it in the coming weeks, though!