Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

It’s totally tubular time travel with some bodacious boys from Southern California, dude!

While many might dismiss Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as teen fluff, there’s actually quite a bit of heart in this film about two SoCal slackers. It also makes some important advancements to the idea of how time travel can be presented in a comedic film.

First Impressions

The trailer for this time traveling adventure has two Southern California surfer dudes romping through various historical eras and meeting important people, like Socrates, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. They gather these notables and bring them back to the end of the 20th Century to bowl, and run around a shopping mall. It’s chocked full of Bill and Ted’s expletives like “bogus,” “no way,” and of course “excellent.” Several characters remind the audience to party on! So grab your air guitars and hang on to your hats and glasses! It’s time for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In San Dimas, California, in the year 2688, Rufus (George Carlin), lets the audience know that everything is great in the future. But, it almost wasn’t. So, he needs to go back in time to help the two people responsible for this utopian society get on the right path. Back in 1988 San Dimas, two teenagers named Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) practice their musical acts (called Wyld Stallyns), poorly. They are in the process of flunking their history class, and if they don’t ace their final report the next day, Ted will be sent off to an Alaskan military academy, and their band will be forced to break up.

They need to prepare a report, to be read in front of the class, about how an historic person from the past would view the world of San Dimas in 1988. Their studying is interrupted by Bill’s dad (J. Patrick McNamara) and his incredibly young wife, Missy (Amy Stoch), who ask them to take a break and send them out of the house. At the local convenience store, Circle K, the boys are surprised to see a phone booth appear from nowhere and Rufus steps out. They are slightly concerned until another phone both shows up and two doppelgangers of Ted and Bill step out and tell them they can trust Rufus.

After a quick tutorial of how to use the time machine’s controls, and a warning that they must be back by their presentation time tomorrow (for all their time traveling, the clock in San Dimas 1988 keeps running), they set off into the Circuits of History. Their first stop takes them to Austria, 1805 where they stop for mere moments to say hello to Napoleon (Terry Camilleri). As they leave Napoleon falls into the time machine’s wake and follows them back to 1988. They ask Deacon (Frazier Bain), Ted’s younger brother to watch Napoleon while they continue to explore history. They pick up Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) from New Mexico 1879 and Socrates (Tony Steedman), who they call So-Crates, from Athens 410 BC.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Ted and Bill let Bill and Ted know that Rufus is cool, and everything is OK with the time traveling phone booth.

Landing in the middle ages they meet two bodacious princesses (Diane Franklin & Kimberley Kates) whose father, the Royal Ugly Dude, orders them executed for witchcraft and heresy. They manage to escape with the help of Billy and Socrates, who have disguised themselves as the executioners. Bill & Ted then leap to San Dimas of 2688 and meet the council of elders (Clarence Clemens, Martha Davies, & Fee Waybill). Unsure why everyone seems to revere them, they tell the people to “Be excellent to each other,” and to “Party on dudes!” Back in 1988, Deacon and some friends take Napoleon for ice cream and to a bowling alley butch ditch him when he tries to cheat on the game.

Bill & Ted proceed to hop around through time picking up notable historical figures including Sigmund Frued (Rod Loomis), Beethoven (Clifford David), Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin), Attila the Hun (Al Leong), and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron). Stopping for a few moments in San Dimas 1,000,000 BC to fix a broken time antenna, they return to Bill’s house and ask Missy for a ride to the Mall (who tells them to finish their chores first). The boys leave the visitors at the Mall while they go find Napoleon at the Waterloo water slide park. The visitors are all arrested for various Mall infractions and Bill and Ted must break them out of the local jail, which is run by Ted’s father (Hal Landon Jr.).

Ted agrees that the best way to break them out of jail is to steal his father’s keys after the presentation and hide them behind the sign, which is where they find them. Missy drives the historic figures to San Dimas High School, where Bill and Ted put on a rock-style show with the eight famous dead-dudes, to a standing ovation. They receive an A+ from their teacher (Bernie Casey). Rufus stops by that evening, with the two princesses, a pair of new electric guitars, asking all four of them for autographs (since the girls join Wyld Stallyns) as well as a chance to jam with them. The five of them play rock music, but Rufus is the only one that seems any good. He promises the audience that the band does get better.

Party on dudes!” – Abraham Lincoln

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Bill & Ted encounter several royal ugly dudes, that attempt to kill them for heresy.

History in the Making

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure captures a very specific moment in American pop culture. The film pairs up a science-fiction film with a teen comedy, two things that were both at the pinnacle in the late 1980s. What Bill & Ted did create was a prototypical depiction of the Southern California slacker character, which here is made up by combining stereotypes of “valley dudes,” with the skate/surf culture, and metalheads [insert air guitar riff here]. The slacker character had not been overly used by 1989. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) may be the epitome of a slacker, but the character is much more smart and savvy compared to Bill and Ted. The next most apt comparison would be Marty McFly from Back to the Future (1985) due to his time travel antics. He’s labeled as a slacker (specifically by the dean of students, Mr. Strickland) and both skateboards and is into rock music, but he too doesn’t come off as dingy or out-of-touch as the boys in this film. Bill and Ted have a special level of airheadedness about them that makes them both comical, and to many, representative of everything wrong with the youth of the time. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure also set a tone for a multitude of similar films about slackers (though not with a sci-fi twist). The 1990s was replete with titles like Slacker, Wayne’s World, Encino Man, Airheads, Clerks and many more.

The science-fiction elements are really what set Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure apart from all the other similarly themed teen films. Screenwriters Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon with director Stephen Herek took the best elements of time travel stories, the most popular and fastest growing of all the sci-fi subgenres in the 80s, and gave them a comedic twist. Like Back To The Future, which featured a new way to look at the ideas surrounding time travel, Bill & Ted expanded on these advancements, but also used comedic elements to keep from taking any of the excellent adventures too seriously. Here the characters have no idea about how anything they’re doing works, and the film makes no attempt to try and create any logical conditions about the nature of time travel. It’s purely a plot device, used for comedic effect as well, that moves the story along and gets the characters both into, and out of, trouble.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Napoleon monopolizes the waterslides at the Waterloo Water Park.


By 1989, film audiences were familiar with time travel after at least a dozen major film titles dealing with the subject were released, three-quarters of which had been in the 1980s. TV shows about time travel or with time travel stories, like Star Trek, Dr. Who, Voyagers and the debuting Quantum Leap series had set a lot of the groundwork for the average audience member to understand what time travel was about. Bill & Ted makes no pretense about explaining the in’s and out’s of the Circuits of Time. Just that the characters are able to travel to specific years and locations, and then interact with the historical figures. There’s no worry that anything that pair does will impact the unfolding of history, whether that’s stealing Beethoven from the middle of a concert, or accidentally pulling Napoleon from a battlefield and filling his belly with ice cream. The film only provides one simple rule: the clock in San Dimas, 1987, always keeps running. Thus, the boys’ adventures happen on the evening of their last class and the next day before their presentation.

For those in the know, the film also makes flexible use of the common perils of time travel. As the duo travels the rudimentary-looking CGI tubes through time/space in their American phone booth (not blue, not British, and definitely not bigger on the inside), they demonstrate to the audience some basic elements of time travel. They can go forward or backwards in time, moving from San Dimas, CA to various other locations around the globe. They can ride in or outside of the booth, which is powered by an antenna that looks like the insides to an umbrella. Once it’s established the way that normal time travel works, the pair uses just the “idea” of time travel to save themselves in the third act. They are their own deus ex machina as the promise to “remember” to do things after their presentation, like steal Ted’s dad’s keys and set up a tape recorder to lure the police officer away from the boys. No time travel actually takes place. The causal loops and plot devices that are normally looked at as “dangerous,” such as meeting your future/past selves, are used here for comedic purposes to get the kids out of a tight spot, rather than as any meaningful dramatic tension.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Socrates, Sigmund Freud, and Billy the Kid attempt to pick up two girls at the San Dimas Mall.

Societal Commentary

To some people who may not have watched the film (or care), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a story about two lazy, dumb teens that get in over their head with wacky time travel shenanigans. And while a lot of that is true, the opening moments of the film also lets audiences know that Bill and Ted are also the two most important people in the world, at least from the perspective of the year 2688. These two slacker, wanna-be’s influenced a global society based on their two key phrases: “be excellent to one another,” and “party on dudes.” For as much as the two come off as being “the problem with kids today” they are both thoughtful and well-intentioned characters. Bill and Ted, for their odd appearances and strange vernacular speech patterns, treat others with kindness and respect, except perhaps the “evil ugly dudes.” They find common ground amongst all the historical figures they encounter, whether it’s a common teenage angst with Mr. The Kid, or the philosophy of the band Kansas which they share with Socrates, or the love of music that they show Beethoven. The message that Bill and Ted have for audiences is a strongly positive one. Be nice to each other and have a fun time doing so, is what their mantra boils down to. And while people like their teacher, Mr. Ryan and Ted’s dad, write them off for their shortcomings, the characters prove that they actually do have a perspective on things and are actually listening to what people are saying.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, and party on dudes!” – Abraham Lincoln

The Science in The Fiction

While no one can accuse Bill & Ted of providing a meaningful dialogue on historical moments, it does serve as a Cliff’s Notes in regard to several aspects of history. The film shows that Napoleon was more than a “short, dead dude” and Joan of Arc was not “Noah’s wife.” If watched by the target audience (which is arguably teens that might identify with the members of Wyld Stallyns), then they might learn that Socrates was the father of modern thought, and a “bodacious philosophizer,” or that Genghis Khan, 700 years ago, “totally ravaged China.” It presents Joan of Arc, a character not often portrayed in film, let alone comedic films, as a 17 year old that rousted the English from France. But it also takes several iconic things that people may know about these characters and uses those for comedic effect. Who can forget Freud, complete with phallic corn dog, trying to pick up women in the San Dimas Mall with Socrates and Billy the Kid? Or Abraham Lincoln paraphrasing his Gettysburg Address for the students, and reminding everyone to Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes!

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

After passing their history report, Rufus returns with the Princesses and asks to jam along with Wyld Stallyns.

The Final Frontier

The musical score of the film is also uncommon for the time. No pop hits or orchestrated music here. This score is 100% pure rock, keeping in line with the tastes of the characters, including “I Can’t Break Away” by Big Pig, “Play With Me” by Extreme and “Two Heads are Better Than One” by Power Tool. Bill and Ted also want to try to sway Eddie van Halen into joining Wyld Stallyns, but can’t do so until they make a kick-ass video (which of course requires guitars and learning how to play them). Director Herek also recruited four famous musicians of the time for various roles in the film. The most evident is probably Jane Wiedlin, the rhythm guitarist for the all-girl rock band, the Go-Go’s as Joan of Arc. But maybe fans missed the brief appearances of three other rockers as The Three Most Important People in the World (the council of three that Rufus speaks to, and that Bill and Ted visit in 2688). These are played by Clarence Clemons (famous as Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist from The E Street Band), Martha Davis (the lead singer of the 80s new wave band The Motels), and Fee Waybill (the lead singer of the band The Tubes).

Bill and Ted returned in two years for Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, a sequel that put the fate of the world in the duo’s hands, and the film where fans were introduced to Death, the evil robot us’s and Chuck DeNomolos. The pair then reunited 28 years later (just before the COVID-19 pandemic) to film Bill and Ted Face The Music, where the slackers–now grown with daughters of their own, must struggle with writing that one song that will make them famous. The film also spawned comic books, video games, a 13 episode animated series (with Reeves and Winters lending their voices, at least to the first season) in 1990, and an 8 episode live action series in 1992. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has made many fans over the years and enjoys a strong cult following. And while it may seem like a goofy comedy on the outside, attempting to capitalize on popular sci-fi tropes, the film actually has a great message and much heart. Plus, how cool is it to watch a young John Wick, aka Neo, play air guitar while philosophizing with So-Crates?

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