Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989)

I have seen the future, and it will look and sound like the 1980s.

This is Bill and Ted's classic first cinema outing, in which a man from the future lends them a time machine so that they can interview historical figures for their history report, so that they won't fail senior year, Ted won't be sent to military school, and the society of the future, built on their rock music and their philosophy of 'Be excellent to each other and party on dudes!', will be secure.

Bill and Ted pick up a number of historical characters and drag them back to San Dimas, California, to do their oral history report (on what people from the past would think of San Dimas) for them. Luckily, with the possible exception of Napoleon, all the historical characters are so impressed by the time machine that they seem perfectly happy to do this. So, in preparation, for two hours Billy the Kid, Socrates (referred to by everyone as So-crates), Freud, Genghis Khan, Beethoven, Joan of Arc and Abraham Lincoln run amok in the shopping mall at San Dimas, several of them ending up getting arrested in the process.

The most awesome thing about this generally awesome movie is the languages - everyone speaks the correct language! People who would also speak English also speak English, those who would not speak English (pretty much just Socrates and Genghis Khan really, though Joan of Arc is pretty silent in general and Napoleon and Beethoven don't seem terribly strong in this regard) don't. I have to confess, unlike Latin, Ancient Greek is not a language I've heard spoken at all outside of class and I don't speak Modern Greek, so I can't actually tell whether Socrates is correctly speaking ancient Greek or speaking modern Greek - but it's some kind of Greek anyway! I love that such a fun, silly movie took the time to give everyone the right language, rather than the usual sort of excuse along the lines of 'the time machine translates for everyone/here's a machine that translates everything/here's a magic fish that translates everything etc. Even at the final report, this reality is maintained, and Socrates mimes his report on what he thinks of San Dimas while Ted 'translates', which is pretty funny.

Other awesome things about this movie include: the clever use of the time travel set-up, with a structure worthy of Steven Moffat, Bill and Ted's bizarre but somehow appealing vocabulary, the suggestion from Ted before he did his homework that Joan of Arc was 'Noah's wife' and Caesar was something to do with salad dressing, Billy the Kid picking up Bill and Ted's interesting use of language, Napoleon at 'Waterloo', Freud in general (especially his analysis of Ted's father), the scene where all the important historical figures help to do Bill's chores, the running joke about Bill's stepmother who was in school with the boys not long ago which eventually pays off as Bill tells Freud he has a 'minor Oedipal complex', Beethoven's updated music, the 80s soft rock in general (I'm a child of the 80s, I can't help it!).

I also love the phone box. I can never work out whether the writer/director knows Doctor Who and is deliberately making fun of the TARDIS, or if it's just a crazy coincidence, but the tiny phone box with all the historical figures crammed into it just doesn't stop being funny.

Socrates himself comes out of this movie very well. The more appealing parts of his philosophy are brought to the forefront and he likes Bill and Ted because they tell him that 'all we are is dust in the wind, dude'. Ancient Greece, according to Bill and Ted is 'most tranquil' and looked like a Led Zeppelin cover. Socrates, however, livens up considerably and throws himself into the adventure with gusto, helping to rescue Bill and Ted from a medieval executioner, making friends with Billy the Kid and declaring that he loves San Dimas at the end. It's great to see an ancient philosopher represented as a real, fun-loving human being rather than a dry old man who sits around doing nothing all day, and to see Socrates as a hero rather than an obscure background character. I like the way he and Billy the Kid make friends too.

It's interesting to see Greece representing the ancient world rather than Rome as well. A lot of the time, as you can tell from the relative use of my post labels, pop culture interests itself in Roman history, and Greek mythology. Greek history, with a few exceptions mostly involving Alexander, gets left out. Much as it would have been fun to see Caesar, it's actually rather nice that ancient history is represented, not by a Roman soldier, but by a Greek philosopher. As well as offering a change from the frequent appearances of centurions and reminding everyone that Greeks did do other things as well as tell good stories, this avoids an excess of military figures in the group. In fact, the selection of figures in general shows a lovely cultural spread, including plenty of artists and thinkers, not just military leaders and fighters, which offers a really nice slice of life in the past, rather than the old succession of kings, dates and battles.

One less awesome thing about this movie - Socrates must have felt right at home in Bill nad Ted's group, since there are almost no women in it. In all of history, the only woman they thought interesting was Joan of Arc? Don't get me wrong, Joan of Arc is very cool, but even she falls down a bit when, in the mall, she throws herself into a workout seesion populated entirely by women. I guess it could have been worse - she could have gone clothes shopping - but she's clearly pigeonholed into an activity mostly engaged in by women, which doesn't seem right for Joan of Arc. Meanwhile, the only other female characters are the medieval 'babes' rescued by Rufus at the end and Missy the Oedipal stepmother - nothing wrong with them, they're funny, but this means women are chiefly relegated to sex objects. It was 1989 - they couldn't have been a bit more enlightened than that and picked up Elizabeth 1st, Queen Victoria, Cleopatra, Pochohontas or Marie Antoinette (who does get a mention in another, very boring, report)?

That's a minor gripe though - this film is totally silly, but absolutely hilarious and actually a pretty good way of drumming some history into kids without them even realising that that's what you're doing. It also provided a great early role for Keanu Reeves - I don't care what anyone says about his acting, I think he's great and will not be gainsaid on this matter. They just don't make them like this any more, more's the pity...

The last line of this movie is also the best last line since 'Nobody's Perfect!' - as Bill and Ted make such awful noise on their guitars that my cat freaked out and thought we were under attack, their benefactor Rufus looks straight at the camera and reassures the audience, looking somewhat embarrassed, 'They get better!'


  1. Rufus was played by the very awesome George Carlin!

    My favourite line was about how wisdom begins when you know that you know nothing.

    And Bill and Ted happily go "THAT'S US!"

  2. I love this film so much I opened my book with it. :-)

    Greek, French, whatever - they're all united by the universal language of hanging out at the mall and eating ice cream.

    Rufus is the best, yes.

    Juliette, do you fancy bunging me your current email address? There's a cool link I'd like to send you.

  3. Have sent it to your uni e-mail!

  4. I had this on VHS as a kid.. I loved it. But it forever meant I couldn't take The Matrix seriously! Good old So-Crates.

  5. "...rather than the old succession of kings, dates and battles."
    I totally agree.
    But really, why can't we learn at school about the history of science and arts, instead of this long lineup of crowned perverts and their continuous struggle for more power, land or whatever they wanted?


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