San Dimas, 1988. Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winters) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) don’t know it yet, but they’re destined for greatness.
Their band Wyld Stallyns may be awful now, but by 2688 their music will have become the foundation for a utopian society, helping to eradicate war and poverty, and enabling interstellar communication. The only problem? If they don’t get an A on their final History report, they’ll flunk the entire class – resulting in Ted’s dad sending him to an Alaskan military academy and the band breaking up for good. For a couple of boneheads who think Joan of Arc was “Noah’s wife”, things couldn’t look worse – until Rufus (an effortlessly cool George Carlin) arrives from the future tasked with helping the boys pass their class. Armed with a time-travelling phonebooth, Bill and Ted set out to assemble a history presentation flashy enough to save their grades, their band, and ultimately the universe.
Bill and Ted began life rather inauspiciously as a couple of improv comedy personas cultivated by screenwriters Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson at UCLA. When the duo turned their hand to scriptwriting, they initially planned to use Bill and Ted as a single skit in a wider sketch film, until Matheson’s father encouraged them to expand it into a whole movie. It should be noted that Matheson’s father was Richard Matheson, author of seminal sci-fi horror I Am Legend. That’s right, the man whose work inspired George Romero, Stephen King, and Anne Rice (and helped shape modern pop culture’s concept of zombies and apocalyptic fiction) was also the driving force behind a film in which Abe Lincoln ends a presentation by yelling, “PARTY ON, DUDES!”
Written by hand in four days, the film’s shaky first draft was a testament to the importance of rewrites. Originally a Forrest Gump-like caper, with Bill and Ted bumbling through history causing various calamities along the way (in a time-travelling van, no less), this first outline saw the duo bringing Adolf Hitler back to San Dimas. Thankfully the writers recognised the inherent poor taste and dropped Hitler, replaced the van with a phonebooth, and adopted the much simpler focus of Bill and Ted assembling a crew of historical figures to present to their class and answer the question, “Express to the class how an important historical figure from each of your time periods would view the world of San Dimas, 1988″.
It’s easy to pick out its sketch-based roots in the final product, especially thanks to the work of production designer Roy Forge Smith, whose previous work included Monty Python and the Holy Grail. At times it feels like the script was prompted less by the notion of propelling the story, and more by “What would be funny?” It is thanks to this mindset we get to enjoy scenes like Ted’s little brother Deacon reluctantly babysitting an obnoxious Napoleon by taking him bowling, or the boys enlisting their historical figures to help do their chores. Neither adds much to the plot, but both are so enjoyably silly to watch that complaints would seem pointlessly hardhearted.
The simplicity isn’t merely limited to the plotting. Like its heroes, the science of Bill and Ted is blissfully uncomplicated. Back to the Future mines conflict from the constant and inherent danger of time travel – getting stranded in the past with a broken time machine, for example, or the disastrous existence-threatening consequences of the dreaded Butterfly Effect. Bill and Ted is largely untroubled by these obstacles. Time machines can be repaired with a bit of chewing gum and some old pudding cans, and if there’s any drastic historical consequence to Napoleon running rampant in a waterslide park called Waterloo, we certainly never hear about it. There is not a blackboard in the world big enough for Doc Brown to calculate the fallout of Bill and Ted’s meddling, but the film doesn’t care about any of this. It rightfully recognises that sometimes, it is a lot more fun to watch Ghengis Khan skateboarding through the San Dimas mall while Socrates and Billy the Kid try to pick up chicks than it is to fret too deeply about the space-time continuum. And that’s okay, dude.
This easygoing atmosphere is one component of the film’s success; the goofily charming performances of Alex Winters and Keanu Reeves is the other. Characters who could become grating in the hands of lesser performers found their champions in Winters and Reeves, whose energetic and sweetly clueless enthusiasm was dubbed “the puppy factor” by director Stephen Herek. Reeves especially impresses – in a post-John Wick world it’s all too easy to forget just how good of a comedic actor he is (making the prospect of a third installment that much more appealing.)
So why is it that, 30 years after its release, Bill and Ted remains a beloved classic? Well, despite the dated Valley Guy vernacular and goofy Van Halen air guitar riffs, there is a sincere yearning for a better, kinder world that sadly still rings true. When the film was released, anxieties about pollution, prejudice, and war were at the forefront of public consciousness. Earth in 2688, however, is a paradise where “the air is clean, the water’s clean… even the dirt is clean”. A peaceful worldwide community boasting “more excellent waterslides than any other planet we communicate with”, society abides largely by Bill and Ted’s central tenet: “Be excellent to each other”. There’s such an earnest focus on a future built on empathy, peace, and fun, there is little wonder that it still resonates with a 2019 audience drowning in a miserable 24/7 news cycle.
Bill and Ted is a comfort movie, offering us both silly jokes, and the hope for a better tomorrow. The oft-teased third installment may or may not appear, but the original classic is always here to remind us that things can get better (and that Keanu once boasted the fluffiest hair in Hollywood). Until then, as the great Abraham Lincoln once said: Party on, dudes!