Perhaps it’s just as well that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure closed out the 1980s. The film, focused on two affable, teenage rockstar wannabes (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) who travel through time to do a history presentation, is as ’80s as it gets. With its fashion and music that would later transmute into early-’90s grunge stylings, you could say that the movie is peak ’80s, a shred-metal apotheosis, and ’80s comedy at its zenith.
Of course, the obvious film to compare it to would be 1984’s Back to the Future, but that almost feels unfair in this case. Whereas Back to the Future is a well-oiled machine with little-to-no unnecessary scenes — stop me if you’ve heard this before — Bill and Ted is a feature-length Looney Tunes skit. And that is not a negative.
I love the Looney Tunes. I still celebrate seeing Bugs Bunny get one over on Elmer, Yosemite Sam, and Daffy Duck. I get excited every time I see Tweety Bird outsmart Sylvester the Cat. I hoot every time an anxious old Porky Pig enters the scene. Cartoons, no matter how silly, have a place in comedy and are worthy of respect. In that sense, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is the perfect live-action cartoon. Ironically enough, the movie was made into an animated spinoff TV series from 1990 to 1991.
The film’s logic, where it exists, is cartoonish, even tautological. There is never a situation the boys can’t get out of because their future selves have already devised clues and gadgets to get them out of any pinch. They are their own deus ex machinas (and they’re also rock gods of the 27th century). The movie doesn’t trouble itself with how or why its historical figures are reacting to reality-altering technology with mild fascination. For example, it makes sense why Bill and Ted wouldn’t be in reverent awe of time travel — they’re kind of idiots — but Freud? Socrates? Lincoln? And this brings up another problem: Bill and Ted have created at least eight alternate timelines.
There’s no reason life as we know it would exist if any of these figures returned to their respective places in history and told people about their exploits. Instead, we would have the reality where the South might’ve won the Civil War because Lincoln apparently suffered some sort of breakdown and was alleging two men took him to the future with a “telephone.” We’d have music’s evolution accelerated by centuries because Beethoven was around the electric guitar and digital music as he jammed on several organs. Freud himself might have been considered a paranoid neurotic based on his ravings about being called a “geek” by 1980s girls in a shopping center. (Freud’s contemporaries, however, might’ve just chalked that statement up to too much coke.) And how did the boys actually learn anything about the historical figures they kidnapped? There were zero scenes of Bill and Ted talking to them about their lives. Even if they had, there would have been almost insurmountable language barriers since modern translators might not know Genghis Khan’s centuries-old Mongolian nor Joan of Arc’s Medieval French.
No, Bill and Ted is cartoonish rubbish, but that’s why it’s fantastic.
If you need evidence for why the film is more Marvin the Martian than Marty McFly, look at the character motivations. Back to the Future is about a boy needing to fix a timeline so he can exist. Bill and Ted is about wanting to alter the time-space continuum in order to avoid a stint in military school. Even as someone who would have hated to have been in an institution such as that, I’m not sure I’d have risked the fabric of reality just to dodge it.
Bill and Ted have perfect comedic timing, as did the best of Tex Avery’s and Chuck Jones’ characters. Take, for instance, the moment where the boys’ history teacher asks Ted who Joan of Arc is. The way Keanu Reeves delivers the line “Uh, Noah’s wife?” had me laughing hard enough that my dog stopped to stare at me. Lines like “What number are we thinking of?” getting the response “69, dude!!!!” are so sophomoric that you can’t help but be charmed. The cartoonish antics reach their height in moments like Ted’s dad getting stuck in a garbage can, various historical figures having a romp at the mall, and Ted knocking a guy out accompanied by the sound of birds twittering around the man’s head. If there had been a scene of Bill and Ted foiling a gunman by saying it was “Ted Season” or “Bill Season” it would have been in keeping with the film’s tone.
But again, this is not to say the film is bad. In fact, it’s great. It’s just that this is the type of film where, instead of turning your brain off, you have to unplug it completely. Yes, it’s dumb, and the big-brained ’89 film critic for The New York Times will tell you as much. But, so what.
It’s harmless fun. Mindless fun, to be sure, but harmless nonetheless. I actually don’t care that there’s no way they could have set up a Broadway-level production for their final project short of their future selves being able to get ahold of high school theater techs, bribe them all to do far more work than they would’ve had to for a basic school assembly, and still have the AV kids fail to tell the history teacher that Bill and Ted had something big planned. I don’t care that the film’s use of Joan of Arc is almost blasphemous in its portrayal of a warrior-martyr-saint as a jazzercising mute. Anyone who expected anything other than 90 minutes of dudebro humor is far dumber than the film’s lead characters.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, to put it simply, what it is. It’s the kind of film you throw on in the background of an ’80s nostalgia party; it’s a time-travel film, like the much more self-serious Looper, that asks the audience to focus on the characters rather than the internal logic and mechanics. All of this works to set it apart from other films whether they concern adolescent goofballs, space-time paradoxes, or both.
To quote Bill and Ted’s friend “Sō-crātes,” one must know oneself, one’s use to mankind, and one’s own powers and limitations. This film knows exactly what it is: a foolish, preposterous ton of fun. Viewing it is so damn excellent.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure can be found on HBO Max, Hulu, and Prime Video.
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Wayne Broadway is a writer from Sacramento, CA. He writes fiction, non-fiction, and is currently obsessed with Pomeranians.