And so it is now time to rectify that terrible mistake by watching the film and recording my observations.
What I Know About It
Very little. I’m vaguely aware that one of the cast members went on to more prominent, and occasionally more dignified, roles. I know that it’s about two time-traveling surfers. I have a suspicion that it is basically Dude Where’s My Car for the late 80s.
Why it Matters
The cultural impact of this film is difficult to calculate but there’s no arguing that it was, for some reason, significant: There was a sequel, two different TV show spinoffs, a comic series, a video game, and a live show held occasionally around Halloween. How could a dumb stoner movie possibly have so much cultural import? That’s what I need to find out.
What I’ve Learned
The movie starts with the credit “George Carlin as Rufus.” I don’t know why, but I just assumed he would be a cartoon dog. I have learned that he is not. My mistake.
Another lesson: Belly shirts were a thing. SUCH A THING. Like, bellies everywhere.
But maybe that was just a momentary fashion blip — Bill & Ted is very much a product of its time. It’s an intensely late-80s film. It pulls one of those retro-future tricks that I love: Painting a portrait of the future based on an exaggeration of the styles of time in which it was made. (Angular sunglasses abound in the film.)
It also has a climactic battle in a mall, another hallmark of its time. And it utterly fails to establish a “Prime Directive” about not messing with the timeline, or setting up logic about how actions in the past affect the future.
And I think that indicates why it was such a breakout hit: it’s a relentlessly fun movie. There is absolutely zero consideration for logic and reality, and instead just wacky zany glee.
For example, Bill and Ted’s plan for passing their history class involves what is essentially kidnapping. They decide to travel into the past, abduct historical figures, and transport them to their high school. I can see a dark, gritty version of this story in which they are psychopathic kidnappers. But no — this movie suggests that everything is fun, adventure is cool, and historical figures are more than happy to embark on a wild ride.
That’s how you wind up with a cute scene in which it’s impossible to pay attention to the dialogue because Billy the Kid is teaching Socrates to play football in the background. Or why geniuses throughout history are lured into a phone booth with a promise of twinkies and candygrams. It makes no sense, but it doesn’t have to.
At the end of the movie, the mean dad character is staring at Bill & Ted’s triumphant history presentation with a look of bafflement on his face. You can either chose to identify with him, trying to puzzle out how any of this could possibly make sense; or you can simply go along with it, like the rest of the audience at their presentation, and have an awesome time.
It’s not a hard choice to make.
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