The eponymous duo of Stephen Herek’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure are as idiotic as they are apathetic, likely to think Kubla Khan is a Star Trek character and “Dies Irae” was the closing track on Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break the Oath. As Herek’s film begins, these airheaded high schoolers have a marvelous pseudo-philosophical runaround concerning whether or not their band, Wyld Stallyns, can be “most triumphant” without recruiting Eddie Van Halen. This exchange unravels as a playful comic twist on circular reasoning, but it also perfectly sums up the irrefutable pleasures of this gloriously frivolous riff on directionless adolescence.
The conceit of Herek’s comedy, as explained by George Carlin’s Rufus, a chilled-out agent of guidance, is delivered with a satirical smack. Many years in the future, fulfilling the most preposterous claims of pompous rock stars worldwide, Wyld Stallyns’s music has allowed for worldwide peace and turned Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted’s (Keanu Reeves) hometown of San Dimas into a utopian society. In the present, however, the would-be prophets are hampered by their youthful carelessness in the face of being flunked, with Ted’s police-captain father (Hal Landon Jr.) already booking his son’s first semester at military school. Via a time-traveling phone booth, Rufus is sent back to remove this most heinous remora by sending Bill and Ted into the past to visit a drove of historical figures, beginning with a hilariously piggish Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) and continuing with Billy the Kid (Dan Shor).
Simple joys abound in various anachronisms: Napoleon cutting loose at water parks and bowling alleys, Joan of Arc (played by Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin) leading an aerobics class, Ted luring Genghis Khan (Al Jeong) into the phone booth with a Twinkie, and, in a bawdy gag, Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) hitting on a couple of teenaged gals, corndog firmly in hand. But despite the film’s fantastic elements of science and historical fiction, the film ultimately stresses a get-off-your-duff philosophy unimpeded by its protagonists’ essentially pre-ordained fate. Underneath its warped design, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure works similar ground as a pro-education afterschool special, but does so with a singular, quasi-absurdist tone and bountiful comic angst.
Reeves and Winter deserve a healthy portion of the credit for alleviating the film’s admittedly thin conception and enriching its delightful dumbness. Digging into Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon’s dialogue, the leads create an utterly unique and rhythmic repartee, filled with perfectly timed blank stares, vacant pauses, and awkward physicality. Herek and his editors keep the film moving, but don’t afford enough narrative or visual clarity to fully embrace the story’s inherent craziness; the film’s third act feels rushed to leave plenty of time for the underwhelming, climactic history-class presentation.
Herek’s film doesn’t totally subvert the teen comedy, but it’s smartly imbued with totems of a distinct adolescent culture. It has a unique tempo in form and narrative that rarely ever dips into familiarity, and the overall energy of the performers makes even the most preposterous moments of the film feel lively and fun. The thorough goofiness the film luxuriates in, as compared to the covert self-seriousness of nearly every teen comedy ever made, sets Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure apart and heads and tails above the glut of its ilk. Most triumphant, indeed.
Who would have guessed that MGM would pay such a patently silly movie such serious attention in the A/V department? The 1080p transfer is a huge step up from the previous DVD release, with stunning clarity that brings out a lot of unexpected detail and textures. The scenes in medieval England benefit greatly here, and the buoyant colors look great, from Ted’s orange-pink jacket to the dusty browns of the saloon where Bill and Ted find Billy the Kid. Black levels are strong, and there are little to no apparent digital modifications to report. The audio is just as good, with dialogue clear and crisp out front. Sound effects, choice soundtrack cuts, and David Newman’s score mix nicely in the back.
This is a rare instance where the fun of the extras is entirely preferable to any sense of insight or context that may have been given. The best thing here is a conversation between “real-life Bill & Ted” screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who discuss the impetus of the project and where the film’s distinct humor comes from. Both writers invoke the goofy energy that powers the film and are genuinely interesting people. The featurette about playing air guitar the right way, like the film itself, stresses personality over the actual technical know-how it is imparting. A disposable but watchable episode of the animated series based on the film is also included, along with radio spots and a theatrical trailer.
MGM’s A/V transfer of this blissfully silly cult teen comedy is most(ly) triumphant, packaged with a modest sampling of fun extras that speak to the film’s humble pleasures.