Whatever your feelings towards this cult slacker comedy film it's difficult to argue about the main duo's mantra of 'Be excellent to one another.' If everybody had the same attitude to their fellow human beings as Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter, The Lost Boys) and Ted 'Theodore' Logan (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) then the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Mind you, if everybody had their general attitude to life as well then nothing would ever get done either. Not known for their motivation, those two.
Much as I like the overall film, and embarrassing as it is to admit, I don't really understand the central premise of this film, or at least, the time travel part of it. To explain what I mean let's flash forward a bit to the year 2688 shall we?
In this year we discover that life is very different to the way we know now, and it's all down to the teachings based on the musical abilities of 'The Great Ones,' Bill and Ted. Everybody lives in a Utopian society where it's all harmonious and wonderful. Ok, so that bit I understand. The next bit, however, is where my brain starts to hurt, and as it doesn't normally take an awful lot to make that happen I'm willing to concede that it's more likely to be me not getting it than the actual science being wrong.
The leaders of this calm and peaceful world ask Rufus (the sublime late comedian George Carlin) to travel back to San Dimas, California in 1988, to ensure that the Bill and Ted of that time pass an important history exam. The boys of that time have great smiles, but not an awful lot of IQ points between them. If they don't pass then Ted's father, Captain Logan (Hal Langdon) of the local police department will send Ted to the Oats Military Academy in Alaska. This will not only split up the boys' friendship, it will also put the kibosh on the promising (if by 'promising' you actually mean 'not a hope in hell of making it') future of their band 'Wyld Stallyns', although I'm guessing their poor neighbours would be pretty happy if they saw Ted loading his luggage into the back of his father's car.
Anyway, Rufus obediently hops into his time machine, which has been designed to look like a 1980's US phone booth, and whizzes off back 700 years to try to explain to our heroes the importance of their current education. They quite rightly have some initial issues with Rufus and where he says he comes from but (and this is where I start to look a bit glassy eyed), just at the right moment another time machine phone booth arrives in front of them, and another Bill and Ted pop out. They are from the future (although not as far as Rufus), and they've come back to tell the original Bill and Ted to listen to Rufus now, as they did a while ago. During the comedy of the two identical couples chatting to each other I didn’t question it, but once I started thinking about it…how on earth can the two sets of Bill and Teds exist at the same time? If the second lot have already done the whole Rufus thing and moved forward, how can another set still be around? Surely by this logic then if they went into a restaurant there would already be another Bill and another Ted sat at a table just waiting for their main course, and maybe another set paying the bill and waving cheerily to the waitress as they leave? You get my point anyway. Or maybe not. You might be sitting there wrapping up a copy of ‘The Simpleton’s Guide to Time Travel’ to send to me as you read this, shaking your head unbelievingly. I did warn you my lack of knowledge in this field was embarrassing.
Obviously the time travelling also throws up similarities between it and Back to the Future, but hey - I get Back to the Future. Marty goes back and accidentally disturbs the past, meaning that the present that he knew can't happen anymore because the path that led there has been altered. But here, there was nothing wrong with the 2688 present; Bill and Ted had obviously done whatever they needed to do to get society to the near-perfect state that it is in, as they were all there enjoying it, so why send somebody back to interfere with what didn't appear to need changing? I just read that sentence back to see if it made sense and I only got as far as 'there was nothing wrong' before my brain started throbbing and I had to lie down. I DON'T UNDERSTAND. If anybody can explain it to me please email me last Wednesday. Thanks.
Anyway, once Bill and Ted (the unconvinced ones) are finally persuaded to let Rufus help them when Bill and Ted (the already convinced and somewhere in the future ones) guess the number that they were thinking of, because a little while earlier they WERE them, and so know they thought of the number 69 (I need some asprin). Rufus shows them how the time machine works by taking them back to 1805 and glimpsing Napoleon rushing about in battle. As they try to leave, an explosion throws Napoleon in their general direction, and the mysteries of time travel pulls him back with them to 1988. This then illuminates a dusty light bulb above their heads, and they decide to travel back and forwards through time, capturing famous figures from history to help them complete their history report.
They leave Napoleon with Deacon (Frazier Bain), Ted’s younger brother who proceeds to show him round modern day San Dimas, then send Captain Logan on a wild goose chase to give them a bit more time before Ted has to start packing and set off in the time machine. We see them meeting up with Socrates and Billy the Kid before bumping into a couple of medieval babes in 15th century England. A bit of argy-bargy with the girls’ father (who just happens to be the King) means the hapless pair need a hand from their historical mates to help them get away, which they do, but not without a bit of damage occurring to the time machine. This damage sends them ricocheting through time at random; ending up visiting the society which runs on their teachings. This helps them to see that they should be working hard on their report to ensure it all ends up happening as it should. But it already has…oh, let’s not go there again.
As the machine leaps about through time they collect more characters, in order to give them a bit more credit. Joan of Arc, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud and Ghengis Khan are all encouraged to join them, and after a quick trip to see the dinosaurs, Bill and Ted manage to fix the machine enough to get them back to 1988, albeit to the night before they left in the first place, when they originally met Rufus. As they step out the machine, they see last night’s Rufus talking to themselves (keep up now) and trying to persuade them to trust him, and they realise that they are now the second Bill and Ted. I can’t be bothered to explain that any better so we’ll just gloss over it. Rufus then tells them how to get back to the correct day and off they go.
There’s obviously some fun to be had with historical characters suddenly being plonked into a modern day setting, and we witness Napoleon at a water park and Beethoven getting busy with the electric keyboards in the mall amongst other things. Suffice to say they don’t go unnoticed, and their high jinks gets them arrested by Captain Logan. Thankfully Bill and Ted work out how to rescue them with the time machine before heading to school and presenting their report. It’s a huge success and the boys pass their history course. Ted is safe, and San Dimas life can continue for the gormless pair. Joan, Ludwig, Abe, Siggy, Ghengis and Boney are all sent back to the relative normalcy of their own time periods.
So, their project was acceptable, and Ted won’t be shipped off to Alaska. Can the boys’ day get any more ‘excellent’? Well yes, as it happens. Rufus make a brief stop back in 1988 to deliver Princess Elizabeth and Princess Joanne to them, stating that Wyld Stallyns will, in the future, be a foursome. The group begin to play, and on hearing the woeful guitar riffs Rufus feels compelled to break the fourth wall and tell us, the audience, that they ‘do get better.’
Released in 1989 the film did well at the box office and has since gained comedy film cult status, leading to two spin-off TV series (one animated, one live action) in 1990 and 1992. A follow-up film, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey arrived in 1991 (which personally I remember as being even better) where they end up playing board games with Death.
Whilst this is never going to be the most intellectual film you’ll see, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is very watchable, gently amusing and might even improve your historical knowledge. If you don’t understand time travel however it might scramble your brain.