Some movies are just difficult to make. Historical dramas, for example, pose a difficult conundrum to the storyteller, who must balance a desire to tell a compelling story to the audience with a responsibility to adhere to the historical details upon which the story is based. Time travel stories pose a similarly difficult problem to the writer, who must somehow balance the narrative possibilities afforded by the premise of defying the linear nature of time while also recognizing the challenges of causality and continuity. And then there is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a movie that manages to blow up all of that in one swift stroke with a story that violates every law about time travel stories to tell a story that violates every law about historical fiction, and all to the sweet, sweet soundtrack of some awesome air guitar. If more movies like this were made, we could probably do away with high school.
It is 1989, San Dimas California, and fate of the world is in dire peril. Two boneheaded slackers—Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Theodore (Ted) Logan—have spent so much time goofing off with their garage band WYLD STALLYNS that they are on the verge of flunking their history class. When that happens, Ted’s hardcase father is going to send Ted to military schoo—you know what? This is stupid. All you really need to know about this is two dumb-as-hell surfer-dudes score a low-rent TARDIS and go around history collecting important people, drop them off at the mall and somehow become righteous rock stars anyway, thereby saving all of human civilization.
Even by the standards of teen time travel comedies—there were more than one might expect in the late 80s—Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is impressively two-dimensional. Our heroes are just dopes with few qualities except for the fact that they’re fun to watch and they don’t mean anybody any harm. Their jaunt through history is goofy and episodic. There is zero character development, and the movie often seems to struggle to fill its 90-minute runtime (including opening and end credits, mind you). So with all that against it, it’s not hard to see why so many critics lined up to beat the daylights out of this thing when it opened. It celebrated idiots for their idiocy. It crafted the thinnest stereotypes of historical figures and the eras they lived in. It provides a story that does not hold up to its own logic. It is a ball of cliches trying to eclipse a lack of cinematic skill. The hits go on and on.
Those people, of course, are all wrong, for this movie is not just great, or even awesome. It is excellent. It is bodacious, and Bill? Yes, Ted? I fear this review will not be complete without a proper guitar solo. *air guitar solo* This is a movie that launched a thousand memes before memes were a thing, it is a movie more reliably quoted than the lesser-known parts of Shakespeare’s body of work (why wasn’t he in this thing, by the way?). And perhaps most importantly, it did a lot to launch the career of Keanu Reeves, a global treasure who is proof positive that the world is a great place where great things can happen, even if you don’t have a time machine to tip the odds in your favor.
There were an awful lot of stupid teen comedies produced in the 80s, and this might have been the stupidest of them all, but Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is still a really fun movie that ages surprisingly well, since the San Dimas of this story is about as alien to us as any of the historical eras our heroes visit. After all, even in the most vapid corners of 1989 SoCal, there was never a pair of lovable doofuses quite so dumb and charming as Bill and Ted, whose surfer outlook and endless vocabulary of throwaway dudeisms kind of make you wish you lived in their world. They’re the kind of guys who, even when given a time machine, somehow almost don’t get back to their own school presentation in time. They figure that an Old West gunfighter, a medieval holy warrior, an ancient philosopher, a deaf composer, a sex-crazed coke fiend, a bloodthirsty warlord and an American president will all fare equally well in a California mall. The best thing they can think of when they realize Napoleon Bonaparte has accidentally hitchhiked through time to the present is to remand him to the custody of Ted’s little brother Deacon and send them all off to a water park for the day. Geniuses, these guys are not. But wherever they go, they are so well-meaning, earnest and simple that their every look of puzzlement reminds you why you love even the dumbest of puppies.
Bill and Ted aren’t here to give a moral or send a message. They’re just trying to protect their own friendship have a good time at nobody else’s expense. (Is that so wrong?) That their success will save human civilization seems to matter less to them than the confirmation that their band will actually succeed, which is kind of backward, but whatever. They don’t have an iota of malice within them, which is saying a lot, considering how mean a movie like this usually becomes at some point.
The moment of truth isn’t a big one, but it’s surely when Bill and Ted learn that Deacon and his friends ditched Napoleon for being a complete tool. Never mind what this would do to history itself, Bill and Ted both kind of shrug at Deacon’s logic: sure, they need to go find Napoleon now, but when the kid’s right, he’s right. It’s not cool to be mean to people. For a movie that doesn’t dive deep into the historical characters it summons, it at least realizes that a guy who tried to conquer Europe probably wasn’t that much fun to hang with. A+, dudes. Party on.