3.5 out of 5 stars

Screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon got their big break with the sci-fi comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which they based on dimwitted characters they’d performed themselves in a comedy sketch. Envisaged as “14-year-old skinny guys, with low-rider bell-bottoms and heavy metal T-shirts”, the titular teen heroes Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan would be heavily rewritten once Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves were cast, as the young actors brought an innate likeability and coolness to the roles.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure concerns two high school friends who are more concerned with jamming as rock band Wyld Stallyns than doing schoolwork. However, when Ted’s father (Hal Landon Jr.) threatens to send his son to military school if he doesn’t pass his history oral report, Bill and Ted are thrown a lifeline by the arrival of suave time-traveller Rufus (George Carlin) from the year 2688. They’re informed that their music and philosophical teachings have become the cornerstone of a coming utopian age, but this rosy future rests on ensuring they’re not separated. Consequently, Rufus gives Bill and Ted their own time machine (resembling a phone booth in an unintentional nod to Doctor Who), and they try to ace their report by collecting historical figures for use in a staged presentation.

Matheson and Solomon’s script, which they wrote in four days, attracted the attention of director Stephen Herek (Critters), who identified with the characters as a modern-day Abbot & Costello. And once the legendary producer Dino de Laurentis came aboard, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was given an $8.5M budget and underwent a 10-week shoot that includes a trip to Italy for sequences set during Ancient Greece and medieval Rome.

When you read the synopsis of Excellent Adventure, it’s easy to roll your eyes at the lunacy of its premise. If the casting of the leads hadn’t been so perfect, I’m almost certain it wouldn’t have become a big sleeper hit and cult favourite. Alex Winter was living in Venice Beach when he auditioned after already tasted success with The Lost Boys (1987), and his sleepy-eyes are perfect for laidback Bill; while Keanu Reeves had appeared in a number of prior movies, but this became his first big hit and led him onto Parenthood (1988), Point Break (1991), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Speed (1994), and then decades of stable fame.

These two young actors—then aged 21 and 22, respectively—got on very well and are still friends, despite the disparity of their later success in Hollywood. The actor’s camaraderie helped sell the easygoing repartee between Bill and Ted, making you care about them as affable fools. Both characters are quite similar thanks to their insouciant attitudes and dumb Valley speak (which spawned catchphrases like “be excellent to each other” and “party on, dudes!”), and the writers admit Bill and Ted were interchangeable on the page. Although it’s fair to say Bill’s the leader, as he’s more self-aware and takes charge of situations, while Ted’s more like a human puppy tagging along.

The popularity of Bill and Ted as a mellow duo inspired copycats over the next decade—from Wayne’s World (1992), Encino Man/California Man (1992), and Bio-Dome (1996), to Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). And although the popularity of the Californian airhead has waned over the last few decades in entertainment, it’s still an appealing vibe that’s ripe for a stoner comedy.

When I first saw Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on video back in 1990, I had no idea Rufus was being played by a famous US comedian. Originally written as a 28-year-old high school sophomore who inexplicably owned a time-travelling van, 50-year-old George Carlin was cast as Bill and Ted’s guide from the future after someone suggested him for the role on set. More bankable names like Sean Connery had been pursued, but starrier casting would’ve been a little distracting had it panned out. As it stands, Carlin brings sincerity and twinkle to the small supporting role, and I’m sure domestic audiences appreciated seeing a popular stand-up take on a role like this. He’s also the only character who breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and end, making it feel like the entire movie is a filmed journal.

The strange thing about Excellent Adventure is that, for a comedy, it’s not exactly hilarious from start to finish. But what it lacks in belly laughs it makes up for with charm and entertaining time-travel antics. This was the first time a “bootstrap paradox” was shown to me, in the scene where Bill and Ted have to break into a police station and, to achieve this, they simply remind themselves to steal the keys later on and leave them somewhere close to hand now, using time-travel. A clever trick they come to rely on, with the later use of a cassette player misdirect and trash can trap. Or who can forget the more famous moment outside the Circle K, when Bill and Ted meet their future selves and play a number guessing game to prove their identities? “69, dudes!”

It’s easy to pick apart the logic of the bonkers premise (aren’t Bill and Ted a menace to the timeline by smuggling people into the present?), or wish more had been done with the idea of dropping famous folk from history into the present day. It feels like ripe territory a remake would do even more with, but I still enjoy the sketchier antics of what does go down, particularly miserably Napoléon Bonaparte (Terry Camilleri) finding great joy in waterparks and a Neopolitan ice cream sundae. Incidentally, that’s a scene where the writers cameo as waiters. I also find it funny when Beethoven (Clifford David) gets to hang out inside a music store and is let loose on multiple electronic keyboards and draws a big crowd. Some of the other icons don’t get as much to say or do, sadly, but that’s partly because the focus is understandably on Bill and Ted careening around history and trying to juggle everything that’s happening.

The film works on two levels of humorous incongruity: the idea of sending unintelligent teenagers into the past and have them interacting with some of the most important people that ever lived, and the reverse with people from history hurled into the future and expected to keep themselves occupied. Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin, lead singer of the Go-Go’s) can’t help taking over an aerobics class, Genghis Khan (Al Leong) destroys a mannequin with a baseball bat, and Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) and Socrates (Tony Steedman) try to chat up girls.

bill & ted's excellent adventure

It’s also a loose critique of the education system and how it fails to engage the youth, as kids like Bill & Ted don’t like school and prefer to fantasise about touring the world in a famous rock band. History is terribly dull, but once the past is literally brought to life Bill and Ted develop an appreciation for the people they meet and their incredible lives, then use their talents for showmanship to share this information with their fellow students.

While in post-production on the movie, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt and the premiere was delayed by a few years until Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment picked the film up for distribution after seeing a promising rough cut. Finally released into cinemas on 17 February 1989, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure grossed $40.4M and was one of the year’s most unexpected hits. An animated series was produced in 1990 that lasted two seasons, but only the first used the voices of Winter, Reeves, and Carlin. Then a film sequel was made, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), which received less acclaim but is certainly funnier and more ambitious. There was even a short-lived live-action TV series in 1992 (starring Evan Richards and Christopher Kennedy as Bill & Ted, who voiced the characters in the animated show’s second year), a brief comic-book run, a Nintendo video game, and even a breakfast cereal. The city of San Dimas, where Bill and Ted are from, even celebrated its 50th year in 2010 with the slogan “An Excellent Adventure”.

A third movie has been stuck in development since 2007, with Matheson and Solomon crafting a story that sees Bill and Ted as struggling middle-aged musicians still trying to usher in the cultural enlightenment they’ve been told they’re responsible for. Now, finally, it seems that Bill and Ted Face the Music is definitely on the way (apparently inspired by A Christmas Carol), directed by Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest), having secured financing after studio concerns about the value of Winter and Reeves reprising these roles in their mid-fifties versus remaking the original with teenagers. They’re even bringing back William Sadler (fan-favourite the Grim Reaper in Bogus Journey), although George Carlin’s own death in 2008 means Rufus may need to be recast or replaced with an analogous character.

The party goes on, dudes.

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Stephen Herek.
writers: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon.
starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin, Terry Camilleri, Dan Shor, Tondy Steedman, Rod Loomis, Al Leong, Jane Wiedlin, Robert V. Barron, Clifford David, Hal Landon Jr., Bernie Casey & Amy Stovk-Poynton.