100 Film Favorites – #7: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
(Stephen Herek, 1989)
“Hi. Welcome to the Future: San Dimas, California, 2688. It’s great here. The air is clean, the water’s clean, even the dirt is clean. Bowling averages are way up; mini-golf scores are way down. And we have more excellent water slides than any other planet we communicate with. I’m telling you, this place is great. But it almost wasn’t…”
With these words, the enigmatic future-dweller Rufus (George Carlin) welcomes us to Number Seven on our Countdown.
27th Century society, Rufus informs us, is a utopia based around the music and philosophy of the band Wyld Stallyns. So when something threatens the Stallyns’ origins, Rufus must travel back in time and lend a hand to the “great ones,” the band’s two founding members, to ensure they stay together.
We meet the “Stallyns” in a suburban garage, attempting to make a “triumphant video” for their band’s debut. The not-yet-so-great ones in question are Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan, two surf-talkin’ slackers who live and breathe their band…even though they don’t quite know how to play yet. But this is the least of the duo’s worries, for another threat looms larger: Bill and Ted are failing history, and unless they can miraculously manage to ace their final report, Ted’s father plans to send him away to an Alaskan military academy.
While attempting some last minute “studying” in a convenience store parking lot, Bill and Ted are taken by surprise when a telephone booth falls from the sky and Rufus emerges in a trenchcoat and shades. “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K,” Ted muses.
Things only get stranger when a second, identical phone booth lands next to the first, and Bill and Ted’s future selves step out. The “future usses” assure Bill and Ted that Rufus is trustworthy and “knows what he’s talking about” before taking off once again in their booth. Seeing no reason not to trust themselves, Bill and Ted approach Rufus, who informs them that he has come to deliver a trump card to aid in their history report: the phone booth is in fact a time machine, which the duo can use to traverse the “circuits of time.” Rufus warns Bill and Ted that the clock in “their” San Dimas will continue to advance regularly, so the boys have one night in which to explore history and prepare a most bodacious report.
Bill and Ted make a trial run with the machine, which lands them in the midst of the French invasion of Austria in the early 180ss. As they depart, Napoleon Bonaparte himself falls through the portal opened by the time-booth. The Stallyns return home to find they are now plus one French general, and inspiration hits. The report asks students to speculate on how prominent figures of the past might view the society of contemporary California…so why not ask them? Bill and Ted decide to gather historical figures from each of their required time periods and bring them back to San Dimas, that they might experience the modern world and give their opinions firsthand. Ted palms a confused Napoleon off on his younger brother, and our intrepid time-travelers set about gathering other prominent personages from throughout the world’s history.
First, our excellent heroes visit the wild west and team up with Billy the Kid, who “handles the oddity of time travel with the greatest of ease.” Next on the itinerary is Ancient Greece, where they pick up venerable philosopher Socrates (or, as they pronounce it, “So-krayts”). Things are going swimmingly, but Bill and Ted are soon sidetracked by “historical babes” in Medieval England. The time-hopping teens encounter two beautiful princesses and ask them to the prom…which doesn’t go over well with the “royal ugly dudes” to whom they are betrothed.
With some help from Billy and Socrates, Bill and Ted narrowly escape public execution and resume their jaunt through the ages. In rapid succession, the little posse grows to include such eminent personages as Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Ludwig von Beethoven (“Beeth-uvvin”), Sigmund Freud (“Frood”), and Abraham Lincoln.
Meanwhile, back on the homefront, Ted’s brother Deacon and his friends are struggling to deal with the obnoxious Napoleon. They go to an ice cream parlor called Ziggy’s (where Napoleon finishes an eating challenge dubbed “The Pig,” thereby earning himself the title of “Ziggy Piggy”) and then to the bowling alley, where the kids finally ditch the unpleasant and ill-mannered emperor.
With the booth now full to bursting, Bill and Ted set a course for home…only to discover that the time machine was damaged in their flight from the “royal ugly dudes,” and they can now only jump from era to era at random. One such jump takes them to the far fuiture – Rufus’ time – and the Stallyns are wowed by the utopian society and their “excellent music.” When pressed for words of wisdom, “the great ones” share their simple philosophy:
“Be excellent to each other.”
“Party on, dudes!”
The situation with the busted booth is remedied in short order. During a stopover in caveman times, Bill and Ted pass around chewing gum to the historical figures, and use the masticated mass to haphazardly repair the booth’s damaged antennae.
The sticky fix works well enough to get home (after one final mis-jump lands them in the Circle K parking lot and Bill and Ted encounter the “past usses”). Bill and Ted are dismayed to find that Deacon has lost Napoleon. They drop off the other seven historical figures off at the mall (to take in contemporary culture) and set off in search of Napoleon, ultimately finding him thoroughly enjoying the local waterpark, ironically named “Waterloo.”
Back at the mall, the historical figures are captivated by the wonders of modern living: Beethoven is enthralled by a display of synthesizers in a music store, and begins an impromptu performance. Joan of Arc is impressed with the “training regimen” exhibited by an aerobics class…led by a woman. And, in a brilliant moment which I totally missed until my most recent watch-through, Freud buys a corn dog.
Before Bill and Ted can return, however, things get out of hand: Joan of Arc hijacks the aerobics class, Genghis Khan upgrades his wooden club to an aluminum bat and “totally ravages” a sporting goods store, and the attendant at the “old-timey” photo booth calls security when Abraham Lincoln refuses to “give back” his hat and “the stupid beard.” Soon, the cops arrive and apprehend the historical rabble-rousers.
Bill and Ted rush to the police station, where Ted’s father, a cop, is holding their chrono-crossing compadres in lockup. With only a brief time remaining until they must deliver their report,the Stallyns are stumped as to how to free their friends.
But the day is saved when they stumble upon, and then masterfully manipulate, one of the most unusual systems of “time-travel rules” in film history. Ted observes that, if they could simply find his father’s keys (lost earlier in the film), they would be able to unlock the cells. Bill suggests they use the time machine to go back before Officer Logan lost the keys, and take them then. Next, they will stash the keys in a convenient location to be retrieved later.
“Like where?” asks Ted.
“How about…behind this sign?” offers Bill. Then, he reaches behind the indicated sign…and pulls out a set of keys.
“Okay,” says Ted, “but we can’t forget to do all that, or it won’t happen…but it DID happen. Alright!”
The duo race back into the station and use their newfound power to outsmart Ted’s dad. Whenever they encounter an obstacle, Bill and Ted simply announce that they intend to time travel back and provide themselves at some point in the past with the means to overcome said obstacle. Then, the solution described magically manifests. Discussing this facet of Bill & Ted time travel almost requires a new tense. This may sound crazy, or just super dorky, and maybe it’s both, but I’ve talked about this matter at length with friends, and we’ve given this tense a rudimentary name: “häd.”
Let me illustrate:
Upon encountering a setback, the boys declare what they will have had done (this is already a grammatically iffy tense). Then, instantly, but also projected a specified period of time into the past, the situation is, and has been, as they describe it.
Moment A: Bill & Ted have no keys.
Moment B: They announce they will have had taken the keys.
Moment C: They häd taken the keys, so now they have them.
Ignoring this temporal and semantic headache, Bill and Ted free the historical figures, and arrive at school just in the nick of time to deliver their report. In a fittingly excellent montage, we see bits and pieces of the truly epic presentation, showcasing the different figures and what they have learned on their journey through time. Beethoven (whose “favorite pieces include Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’ Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ and Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet'”) performs on the synthesizer. Freud psycho-analyzes the boys (suggesting that Ted’s father’s own fear of failure triggers his aggression toward his son). Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan lead military training drills, and Napoleon explains, in French, his strategy for an upcoming battle (something about sneaking behind enemy lines via water-slide). Finally, Abraham Lincoln takes the stage and delivers a rousing final speech:
“Four score and seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends, Bill and Ted. These two great gentleman are dedicated to a proposition which was true in my time, just as it’s true today…
Be excellent to each other. And PARTY ON, DUDES!”
The crowd erupts into cheers, shouting for an encore even as Bill, Ted, and the historical figures cram into the time-booth and disappear.
Bill and Ted ace their final, but little else changes at first. The last scene of the film has them once again rehearsing in the garage. Rufus pays them a visit and reveals the pivotal role that they and their music are to play in the destiny of mankind. He has also brought along a few surprises: radical, top-of-the-line new instruments…and the two princesses from earlier. “After all, they are part of the band,” he says. The boys thank Rufus for all he has done. But before the excellent future-dweller departs, he has one final request – to jam with the Stallyns.
Rufus turns out to be a master guitarist, and is taken aback when the as-yet amateur Stallyns bang away akwardly on their instruments. Rufus turns to the camera and sheepishly mutters, “They do get better…”
Okay, that was a long one…and we’re only through the plot summary. So, the moment of truth: What do I like about this one?
Well, there’s quite a few things which are excellent about Excellent Adventure. For one, there’s the bodaciously quotable dialogue. In addition to the “be excellent” mantra, my personal favorite line probably comes from the Ziggy’s waiters (perhaps not coincidentally played by the film’s screenwriters themselves, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson). Upon Napoleon’s completion of the ice cream-eating challenge, they emerge and begin to chant:
“Behold, he ate The Pig. Thus proving that he’s a Ziggy Piggy…ZIGGY PIGGY…ZIGGY PIGGY!” [the waiters dissolve into loud snorting]
Like the “snake ranch” scene in Ernest Saves Christmas, this is another moment whose grandeur I can’t fully capture through text alone. But trust me, seeing a cadre of kitschy waiters snorting at a thoroughly stuffed Napoleon is hilarious, and they really get into it. One gets the sense that this is one movie which must have been fun to make.
If there’s one common trait among my favorite films, it’s that they show you something you haven’t seen before. Cinema offers the opportunity to bring impossible scenarios to life, and many of the films in this Countdown really swing for the fences in that regard. In a film-free world, I might go an entire lifetime without witnessing two surfer-dudes sharing gum with Abraham Lincoln in caveman times. But now, thanks to Bill and Ted, I have safely avoided that terrible fate.
The film also demonstrates expert pacing. No moment seems extraneous. The movie is relatively concise (with a running time of just over 90 minutes), and never feels like it’s dragging. The final act of the film showcases this skilled pacing particularly well: From the moment that Bill and Ted drop off the historical figures at the mall, a feeling of energy is evident, and the excitement, tension, and hilarity all build as the figures become engrossed in modern culture, are arrested, get sprung by Bill and Ted, and finally deliver their triumphant presentation.
So, if you haven’t already, hop into your own personal time machine and zip back to the 80s to experience Bill & Ted. It promises to be an Excellent Adventure.
-Okay, admittedly the idea of a time-traveling phone booth is taken straight from Doctor Who. But apparently the filmmakers originally planned to make the time machine a totally tubular 80s van. After the massive success of Back to the Future, this idea was deemed too similar to the Delorean time machine of that film, and was scrapped. So I guess they had to fall back on ripping off another time-travel franchise. Oh well.
-Speaking of the phone booth, the actual prop booth used in the film was given away (through Nintendo Power magazine of all things) to one lucky film fan in a sweepstakes. It’s current whereabouts are unknown. If you’ve seen it, please give me a call. I may have some requisitioning to do.
-Movie goof: One of the eras required for Bill & Ted’s report (many of the figures and eras they choose to represent are optional) is the medieval period…and yet they don’t actually pick up anyone. A deleted scene featured Bill & Ted collecting “John the Serf,” a commoner. Though he was ultimately cut from the film, two references remain: Before getting sidetracked by spotting the princesses, Ted suggests picking up “that gnarly goat dude,” pointing at an unseen figure off-screen. Then, in the credits, the name “John the Serf” is listed, despite the fact that “John” himself never appears in the movie. It may not be as glaring an omission as the Goonies octopus scene or the “Jitterbug” number in The Wizard of Oz, but it is interesting to note.
-In addition to the sequel (discussed in post #89 of this Countdown), the film also inspired a short-lived live-action television series and TWO cartoon shows. The first animated series actually had Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves and George Carlin resume their roles as Bill, Ted, and Rufus respectively, and isn’t half bad for what it is.
In turn, the cartoon spawned…and I’m not making this up…Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal. Maybe someday I’ll do a post dedicated solely to Ralston Foods’ string of shameless, short-lived cereal tie-ins to whatever media property happened to be in vogue at the time: Batman Returns Cereal, anyone? How about some URKEL-O’s?
Finally, here’s an excellent suggestion for your next Halloween or Comic-Con excursion. If you have a fairly large group, why not go as the film’s hodgepodge of historical figures (Bill, Ted, and Rufus optional)?
P.S. – On a much less excellent note, I may need to go on a brief hiatus after this post. At worst, you’ll see the final six posts here starting on Sunday the 29th. In the meantime, keep watching the original Brian Terrill Movie Night page, where the final posts will be popping up first.