Worse things have happened in Philadelphia Harbor!
The Philadelphia Experiment results in a time travel film that, while not necessarily cutting edge, creates a competent time travel story allowing the genre to grow and reach new audiences but combining it with a martial and romantic subplot.
The overly long trailer may just give too much away. The film appears to open in 1943 when a military experiment to make a naval ship invisible to radar instead launches it and some of its crew forward in time to 1984. These two men are hunted by what is presumably the government, and sheltered by a woman who obviously can’t help but fall in love with Michael Paré. There’s lots of action, explosions, and chases in a film that looks to be an antithesis to The Final Countdown.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In October of 1943, the naval destroyer USS Eldridge is in Philadelphia harbor to undergo an experiment to render it invisible to radar waves. Two sailors, David Herdeg (Michael Paré) and Jim Parker (Bobby Di Cicco) celebrate at the local USO club with Jim’s wife Pamela (Debra Troyer), who is pregnant, before heading off to the boat, knowing that they’ll have to be quarantined for a month afterwards. The experiment is being overseen by Dr. James Longstreet (Miles McNamara) who is concerned that he has missed something.
The ship’s generators are brought online and a strange coronal energy overtakes the vessel. The radarman reports that the ship has disappeared, but then reports begin coming in that the destroyer has actually physically vanished. Jim burns his hand trying to shut down the generator and then he and David both leap over the side of the boat into a strange tunnel of light. They appear in the desert where a helicopter comes after them. It explodes in a fireball when Jim gets hung up in an electrified fence, which causes strange lightning to discharge all around.
Injured, they walk into a local town and diner outside Dry Wells, Nevada where they notice strange things: such as video games, and a horror movie on television. Jim’s injured hand begins to glow, discharging lightning and destroying the electronics in the diner. They are chased away by the owner and kidnap Allison Hayes (Nancy Allen) at gunpoint to make their escape. Another electrical discharge causes her to lose control of the car and they crash, being apprehended by the local sheriff. She declines to press charges on David after they witness Jim disintegrate in a hospital bed in a strange orange glow.
David realizes that he’s in 1984 and asks Allison to take him to Santa Paula, CA which is the last place he knew the Parker’s settled down. They visit a gas station that used to belong to David’s dad, who has since passed away, before stopping by the Parker Ranch and meeting 1984 Pamela (Louise Latham). She tells them that no one would believe Jim about what had happened when he had reappeared on the Eldridge in 1943. David tries to talk to the older Jim Parker (Ralph Manza) but he refuses to re-open those old wounds.
David realizes, after seeing a news report, that Dr. Longstreet (Eric Christmas) is still working on experiments, and they need to see him. Breaking into the Marine base at Dry Wells, David gets an explanation, or sorts, from Longstreet, that their current experiments in 1984 opened some sort of time bridge to the similar experiment in 1943 and David fell through. Longstreet believes that David is the only one who can stop the phenomenon, since from his perspective in 1943, the hole closed. David is put into a protective suit and launched into the vortex with instructions to smash the generator on the Eldridge.
He uses a fire axe to destroy the radio tubes powering the generator, and makes sure that Jim is safe before leaping back off the ship into the portal. The Eldridge reappears in 1943, with many sailors burned, and some actually fused into the metal of the deck, yet somehow alive. Back in 1984 the town used for the recent experiment is returned and Allison drives into it, looking for something. David appears to her through the fog and the two of them embrace, happy to have stopped the danger.
“Somehow the electromagnetic fields created in two experiments, one in 1943 and the other now cross-connected, they created a vortex, a hole in the space-time continuum, and you fell through it.” – Dr. James Longstreet
History in the Making
The Philadelphia Experiment fits into a strange place in the history of sci-fi films as maybe the one film that is supposedly based on an actual event, however outlandish that may seem. The story goes that a man named Carlos Allende (or Carl Allen) contacted published author Morris Jessup in 1955 (who was famous for having just published the book The Case for the UFO, about aliens and alien technology) claiming to have been a naval sailor on the USS Eldridge during secret experiments in Philadelphia Harbor. Sound familiar? Allende’s story follows the larger plot of the film, claiming that the ship was made invisible, but also traveled through time, and into other dimensions where aliens were met. He also claimed that several sailors died and some were fused into the body of the ship. The Navy denies that these events ever happened. Years later in 1979, Charles Berlitz (yes, the guy from the language learning courses) and ufologist William L. Moore released a book called The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility which purported to be a real account of events based on Allende’s stories as well as expansions of other “alien mysteries.”
Jump forward five years to the release of The Philadelphia Experiment by director Stewart Raffill. This is the second sci-fi film from Raffill that Sci-Fi Saturdays has reviewed after The Ice Pirates, and arguably a film that holds up better in a modern context. They of course are entirely different types of films, space-opera comedy vs time-traveling love story, but there’s much more characterization in The Philadelphia Experiment than in The Ice Pirates. The film actually seems quite similar to the 1980 film The Final Countdown, which has a modern day aircraft carrier traveling back in time to 1941, and one of its crewmembers falling in love–and staying in that time. But while nothing really happens in The Final Countdown, The Philadelphia Experiment enjoys moments of the time traveling character trying to get accustomed to modern existence, which is a staple for many other films where characters travel into the future (or the modern day), such as Time After Time. Raffill would go on to direct the E.T. sci-fi rip-off Mac and Me, the fantasy sequel Mannequin: On The Move, and the questionable Tammy and the T-Rex.
The Philadelphia Experiment was also the second most popular time travel film of 1984, which seems like a weird claim to fame. While it was one of over two-dozen sci-fi films from that year, which include some of the most classic and genre defining films of all time, it in fact was only one of two time travel films from that year. The other of course being The Terminator, which will be featured in a future article. The Philadelphia Experiment was a slightly lower budget film, which didn’t have to make lots of fancy sci-fi props. It utilized some modest special effects to show the time vortices, and coronal discharges on the sailors, but was able to film in normal locations with modern vehicles (except for the first couple scenes in 1943), modern props, and the like. It is also probably memorable to many from that era, as it was an early film that got replayed on HBO and Showtime ad nauseam.
The Philadelphia Experiment moves the sub-genre of time travel films ahead by introducing yet another type of way in which the characters move through time. So far in the genre, there have been time machines (The Time Machine, Time After Time), self hypnosis or mental travel (La Jetée, Somewhere In Time), and the time storm from The Final Countdown. This film’s method of travel is most similar to the time storm, but provides a little more explanation to how and why it occurs, as opposed to the unknown nature of the one in The Final Countdown. The Philadelphia Experiment depicts time, as many films do, as a constant. That is, what happens has always happened, and even though it may not have occurred to the characters yet, it will. Much like a book that you are reading, it remains unchanged in your hands, even though you have not experienced parts of it.
Two points in time, Philadelphia in 1943 and Dry Wells in 1984 become inexorably linked due to the energy experiments of Dr. Longstreet. From the perspective of the characters in 1943, as related to the audience by Dr. Longstreet, the ship vanished, but soon reappeared with injured sailors and men fused into the hull. There was no action taken on their part. This is how he knows that David, in 1984, is responsible for safely getting the ship back. It seems like this type of setup creates a paradox, since the ship can’t return unless David is in the future and smashes the reactor, but how can that happen in 1943 when that future is still 40 years away? As with the idea of holding a book, the future is already written, and he was fated to complete the task and close the wormhole between the two times. The film also never actually calls the phenomenon a wormhole, even though by modern standards that’s what it appears to be. It’s referred to as hyperspace, or a vortex, and utilizes some of the same visual components of the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an interesting presentation since the reason why David never returned is a big mystery for the film (although fans of the genre can probably easily figure out what happened to him).
The film also continues the trope of the time traveler being flummoxed by the modern era of machines and social norms. Both Time After Time and Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann use this idea in different ways, and The Philadelphia Experiment has its own take on the process. While it’s often used for comedic effect, it’s also a narrative tool used to help explain to the audience just how unsettling or jarring the proposal of time travel might be. In this case, David and Jim are shocked by color television and the kinds of films being shown on it (in this case scenes from the horror films Spawn of the Slithis and Humanoids From the Deep). They also fail to understand the automatic transmission of Allison’s car (which David eventually picks up), and David’s confusion at seeing the actor (from his perspective) Ronald Regan giving a press conference on television (since in 1984 he was actually President, a joke that would be used to better comical effect in Back to the Future).
For the strong time travel component of The Philadelphia Experiment it unfortunately has very little commentary on social issues or thematic elements. As mentioned above there are moments in the film with David reacting to the oddities of the 80s as a man from the 40s, and how strange that all may seem. Otherwise the film is very much plot driven with David trying to find out what happened to Jim and himself, and why he’s been told that he never returned to 1943. Does he die or does something else happen? At this point the love story between David and Allison seems like the next best subject.
David is shown as a ladies man during the 1940s sequence, while Jim is committed to his wife, who is pregnant. Thus Jim returning home to the people that he loves makes some sense. Maybe the film wants to say that the power of love is a stronger power in the universe that can’t be destroyed by separation, even through time. This also seems to be the case with David who falls in love with Allison, a woman that could be his daughter given the time disparity. He chooses to stay “out of time” in the future to be with this woman that he has fallen for.
The film could also be a warning about men who continually meddle in things they don’t understand. Dr. Longstreet causes a relatively horrific accident in 1943 and then continues to work with bizarre experiments that attempt to affect the natural order of the world. Of course, he wasn’t trying to make the town invisible to radar in 1984, but instead creating a missile defense force field of some kind. You might think that he would have stopped, but given the chronal effects of the future on the past, he may have not realized that it was his future self that caused both problems. Overall it’s not necessary to have any overt thematic elements to films like this, but some of the best sci-fi films about time travel choose to make their stories about fate versus free will, or learning from past mistakes.
The Science in The Fiction
The driving force for the plot is the naval experiment to bombard a destroyer with electrical energy to render it invisible to radar. Radar works by sending out radio waves which bounce off objects which then show up as blips when the wave gets reflected back to the receiver. The idea of Longstreet’s experiment is to disrupt those waves and prevent them from returning, or potentially creating a large amount of “static” thus rendering the radar image inconclusive. However, if that were the case, it would seem like a “static” object would be just as clear as a normal object getting caught in the radar wave. While no such experiment was conducted by the Navy, at least that has been admitted to, during the early 40s experiments were conducted on naval vessels to degauss them, ie. make them less magnetic to prevent sea mines from being attracted to the hulls. These experiments may be some of the basis for the stories that Carlos Allende told about his “experiences” on the Eldridge.
The Final Frontier
While The Philadelphia Experiment seems relatively predictable and simplistic from our perspective in 2021, it genuinely did normalize a number of time travel elements, helping to grow the genre into what we know of today. One great choice the film made was the casting of separate actors to portray the young and older versions of themselves. Depending on the time jump in films, many films will choose to use the same actor in old age makeup to portray all versions of themselves (today they can obviously use CGI technology to enhance that process). But with the larger time span here, over 40 years, casting different actors seems to make sense. The only drawback is that it’s not instantly obvious that certain characters are the ones the audience had seen earlier, such as Dr. Longstreet. He was only named once in the 40s and remained a mysterious character until the 80s portion of the film.
In a weird connection that doesn’t seem to provide any influence, John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape From New York) was an Executive Producer for the film, but reportedly never met the director, or had much (or any) influence in the film. At least none that has ever been reported. For the cast, Michael Paré was a hot commodity at the time, having starred in the cult hits Eddie and the Cruisers and Streets of Fire. He would return to the sci-fi genre in the 1990 film Moon 44. Nancy Allen, who was in the recently reviewed Strange Invaders, returns to the genre in Robocop (and its sequels). And Stephen Tobolowsky, who has a small role as a 1980s scientist working for Dr. Longstreet, returns in a more prominent role in another time travel film Groundhog Day.
The film would spawn a sequel, with the lackluster title The Philadelphia Experiment II, in which the character of David (played this time by Brad Johnson) must deal with teleportation experiments in the military resulting in 1993 weapons being transported back to 1940s Nazi Germany. It also spawned a 2012 TV-remake with the X-Files Nicholas Lea as the sailor transported through time. Michael Paré holds a minor role in the film and receives top billing for his effort. Military science-fiction holds an important place in the genre as a way to reimagine a world in which things played out differently. The Philadelphia Experiment doesn’t really try to change the landscape of the world however, but does create an enjoyable, but benign, film of a man out of time–with all the stress and confusion that might cause.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.