Before The Matrix movies transformed Keanu Reeves into an international movie star, his biggest contribution to the popular culture zeitgeist was Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). It is a charming little movie about two metalheads that travel through time in order to pass their history class. Reeves nailed the role so well and the movie was so popular that it took him years to shake the notion that he’s as dumb as the character he played (even today it is still invoked by his detractors), even after a carefully cultivated and diverse body of work (from My Own Private Idaho to Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two clueless, but well-meaning teenagers that live in San Dimas, California. They dream of making it as rock stars with their band The Wild Stallyns. Sadly, they suck as musicians, but dream of one day getting Eddie Van Halen to play in their band. This sparks an amusing argument (if you can call it that as it is so good-natured) about making a “triumphant” music video in order to get Eddie’s attention.
As a result of spending so much time on their band, Bill and Ted have neglected their studies and are flunking their history class. For example, Bill refers to Napoleon as “a short, dead dude,” and Ted believes that Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife. Unless they get an A+ on tomorrow’s oral presentation they will flunk the class “most heinously” and this will split up the band as Ted’s father (Hal Landon, Jr.) will send his son off to military school in Alaska (?!). Fortunately, Rufus (George Carlin), a man from a future where Bill and Ted have had a profound influence on society, arrives to help the boys out by letting them use a time machine disguised as a phone booth (a sly reference to Doctor Who) so that they can bounce around various periods of history collecting (a.k.a. kidnapping) famous historical figures (like Billy the Kid, Socrates and Abraham Lincoln) for their presentation.
Capitalizing on the success of Back to the Future (1985), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure takes that film’s basic premise and runs with it. Hardly an original concept/story, the movie fuses the horny, dim-witted teens from Weird Science (1985) and sends them back in time a la Back to the Future all in the service of trying to avoid flunking out of high school, much like the protagonists in My Science Project (1985), but does so in an entertaining and engaging fashion.
Most of the movie’s humor is derived from these two metalheads interacting with famous historical figures in their time period and then flips it so that we see these people deal with the culture shock of being in San Dimas, 1988. And so, we have Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron) helping Bill out with his chores around the house or Ludwig van Beethoven (Clifford David) hanging out in the San Dimas Mall. Some notable character actors play a few of the historical figures, like Dan Shor (Tron) as Billy the Kid and John Carpenter’s long-time stuntman Al Leong as Genghis Khan. More than a few musicians pop up in supporting roles as well with the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin playing Joan of Arc and future elders played by the late-great E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and The Motels’ Martha Davis in brief, uncredited roles.
One of the more memorable pit stops in time is 15th Century England where Bill and Ted meet a pair of cute princesses (“Those are historical babes,” says a clearly smitten Ted) and features a memorable exchange used extensively in the trailers for the movie. When Bill and Ted are captured by the King’s men, they are sentenced to the iron maiden, which sounds pretty cool to these heavy metal loving fans as they exclaim, “excellent!” But instead of meeting the band, the King responds, “Execute them.” Bummed at the news, our heroes reply, “Bogus.”
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works as well as it does because of the chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. They play well off each other – Reeves is the goofy one while Winter is the ... not as goofy one. You have to give these actors credit – they commit fully to their roles and look like they’re having a lot of fun playing clueless teens. Their characters may be idiots, but when it counts they get it together and actually demonstrate a modicum of intelligence. There’s a goofy, good-natured charm to this movie that evokes a more innocent time.
Veteran comedian George Carlin gamely plays along as Bill and Ted’s bemused adviser, helping them achieve their goal. The scene where Rufus and the boys meet for the first time is a hoot, especially when Bill and Ted meet themselves from the future. After witnessing this, Ted is understandably wary about going with Rufus through time to which Bill replies, “Ted, you and I have witnessed many things, but nothing as bodacious as what just happened.” Carlin doesn’t have much to do – he basically bookends the movie and pops up at one point, but does so with his trademark cool, laidback persona.
The time travel special effects are pretty snazzy with Bill and Ted going through the “circuits of history,” which was kinda trippy for 1989. It’s all silly fun and the movie comes across as an entertaining snapshot of the time in which it was made – that is to say, it has a very late 1980s vibe to it. The movie, like Bill and Ted, has a goofy logic all its own. For example, after Ted’s brother (Frazier Bain) loses Napoleon (Terry Camilleri), he and Bill have to figure out where one of the greatest leaders of Europe would go – why a water park, of course!
The idea for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out of an improvisational exercise between screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon while working with an improv group in Los Angeles. They had met at UCLA in 1983 when the former directed a one-act play that the latter had written. They came up with the notion of 15-year-old boys talking about world affairs. Matheson said, “We had them talking about the world trouble spots and trade problems, but their only impression of anything going on in the world was that it was ‘bogus’!” They spent hours fleshing out the characters, but soon parted ways with Matheson going off to grad school in San Diego, while Solomon worked as an executive story editor on the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. During this time, they wrote letters to each other as Bill and Ted and talked about the characters over the phone, imagining that they had gone back in time and “through sheer bumbling, were responsible for everything bad that ever happened to mankind.”
Originally, Matheson and Solomon envisioned writing a sketch comedy movie in the vein of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) with Bill and Ted as one of the skits, but Chris’ father, legendary writer Richard Matheson, told them that the skit could be a whole movie. They began writing the screenplay in 1984 as a “lark,” according to Solomon and finished it in seven days at Lake Tahoe. With help from Chris’ father, they got the script in the hands of Warner Brothers and spent a year developing it, tailoring it to the studio’s demands. It was at this time that director Stephen Herek came on board. After directing the science fiction/horror comedy Critters (1986), he started getting more offers from several studios to direct films like that one. The only script that he responded favorably to was the one for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Warner Brothers felt that with his background, the movie could be done cheaply.
Herek worked with Matheson and Solomon, helping them develop their script. Some of the details changed, like the time travel device, which was originally a ’69 Chevy van, but Herek felt it was a little too close to the device in Back to the Future. He suggested changing it to a phone booth. Ultimately, the director and the studio disagreed over the size of the movie’s budget. He felt that it needed a medium budget, the studio wanted it lower and, along with their feeling that the teen comedy genre was dead, put the project in turnaround. By the end of the year, Dino De Laurentiis’ company picked up the option and it soon went into pre-production.
For the two lead roles, the filmmakers saw hundreds of actors and narrowed it down to 24 finalists. Then, they spent a day mixing and matching couples to see if any had chemistry together. When the producers saw Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter together, they knew that the two actors were their Bill and Ted. Filming began in March 1987 in and around Phoenix, Arizona and lasted ten weeks with two of them spent in Italy for the historical sequences. Unfortunately, De Laurentiis’ company collapsed financially and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was without a distributor. Fortunately, a co-deal was struck between Orion and Nelson Entertainment.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was absolutely savaged by critics when it was first released. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it, “a painfully inept comedy.” USA Today gave it one out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Bill might have worked as a Saturday Night Live skit, but a whole brain-dead movie is depressing beyond imagination.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “If the director, Stephen Herek, has any talent for comedy, it’s not visible here. More than anything, the picture looks paltry and undernourished.” However, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen gave it a grudging thumbs up: “Destined to flunk most egregiously, this flick squeaks right through our critical defences. Most excellent surprise.”
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure turned a tidy profit and spawned a sequel, an animated television series, and a live-action show. Not bad for what is essentially a cult film. It has certainly left its mark on the cultural zeitgeist, inspiring movies like Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). Maybe it’s looking at the movie through the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia, but Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure seems much more innocent and ... well, smarter many of the ones it inspired, which are more preoccupied with being raunchy than anything else. Plus, there is something fun about watching Keanu Reeves early on in his career during simpler times.
“Bill & Ted’s Unexpected Blockbuster.” San Jose Mercury News. April 16, 1989.
Biodrowski, Steve. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Cinefantastique. August 1991.
Johnson, Kim Howard. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Starlog. May 1988.