Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a movie where future-America, seven hundred years from now, is a utopia thanks to the transcendent rock music of a band called Wyld Stallyns. Unfortunately, the members of the band were extremely stupid teenagers, and they will not get to form Wyld Stallyns if they don’t pass high school. George Carlin is sent back in time to give them a time-traveling phone booth so they can give a report that will please their teachers.
I rewatched this with my 13yo Eldest, whose favorite movie is Back to the Future. Their review was, “I knew it was going to be one of the movies of all time (sic) when Napoleon went down a waterslide.” Too true, offspring. Too true.
It’s probably good I watched this with my kiddo because I had to play it cool. Otherwise I would have spent the entire time *screaming* over how cute Keanu Reeves and Alex Winters were. It truly feels like these two young lads were just kind of tossed around a movie set so they could react to things with wide-eyed earnestness, dropping many a “whoaaa” and “far out!” The pairing of their clueless-stoner voices with their sometimes loquacious vocabulary is probably (sincerely) the basis for how I talk: extremely casually, like a total idiot, with multisyllabic words thrown in simply because I know them. It’s extremely adorable coming out of these babyfaces. (The jury is out on having it come from a middle aged mother.)
The titular characters speak half their lines simultaneously. It’s just so cute – these boys clearly only share a single brain cell between them, and that lonely braincell is overclocked. Charmingly, I’m not sure any of the historical figures they grabbed have extra brain cells to share. They are deeply underwritten in a way that feels totally unimportant. It’s just a total frivolous delight.
I actually didn’t realize this feels like a pretty straightforward kids’ movie until this watch. The realization came around the time we time travel to the Wild West and are treated to fart sounds in an outhouse. In order to keep the plot moving, everyone in all time periods are casual about the weird events unfolding, so characterization always plays second fiddle to concept, and the shallowness feels like part of its appeal.
The extremely “history lite” version of the world is wholly appropriate as a platform for merely introducing various historical figures. I didn’t realize, for instance, that my child (who is well-versed in Napoleonic history) had yet to hear of Joan of Arc, so having to look up an article to explain exactly what she did counts as homeschooling. But if you already have the 101 on historical figures, you can just enjoy the way the script puns about what each of them might do when unleashed in a 1988 California shopping mall.
Of course this movie still has to be weird and gross about someone’s mom. It’s not as incesty as BTTF, but Bill’s dad married a woman who’s only three years older than his own son, and her hotness/Bill’s attraction comes up repeatedly. This is also why I had to explain what an Oedipal complex is to my 13yo, and I’m not grateful to the 80s for that one. Homeschooling doesn’t need to cover all subject matter.
The time travel is given exactly the rigor it needs, which is to say, none at all. Where Back to the Future delights in the science fiction questions raised by time travel, Bill & Ted is just here to have simple fun. I’m not even offended when these two dumdums call each other fags for hugging. They call each other fags at the exact same time, doing the thing where they speak their lines together, and it’s the faggotiest thing I’ve ever seen. Of course these sweet babies are in denial. How could I even be offended. I wanna pinch em.
It was really interesting coming back to Bill & Ted on the same day that I watched The Breakfast Club. Both movies feel like they came out of the drug cultures of the 80s, but The Breakfast Club feels like the bitter memories of someone crashing off a coke high, whereas Bill & Ted feels like a grownup stoner imagining how much easier high school would have been if Sigmund Frood Dood could have given him therapy for his final grade. Yet it also touches on that authoritarian rift between parents and kids that we also saw in TBC.
Worth noting that Ted “Theodore” Logan’s rift with his father is central to his character, yet he remains a joyful weirdo who wants to play lightsabers with medieval swords while time traveling, a rescuer of princesses, and a supportive friend. If we want to read the creators’ narrative/tonal choices as a reflection of their values, then I might observe not everyone reacted to the ultra-authoritarianism with anger and violence: some embraced cheery absurdity instead.
It’s kinda thinking too much to even broach this subject with Bill & Ted. I mean, this is truly the movie of all time. Napoleon really does go down a waterslide (at a park called Waterloo, no less). They’re not aspiring for anywhere near the same level of humanity as John Hughes’s work. Tonally and stylistically, they’re completely different. But I think you can kinda get a sense of life of teens in the 80s in the places that the venn diagram of these movies overlap, which makes them a fascinating double feature.
(Image source: Orion Pictures Corporation)