In February 1989, audiences saw, for the first time, a young Keanu Reeves lean close to a young Alex Winter and declare, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”
It was a critical moment, not only in the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but in pop culture. As the movie posters had it, history was about to be rewritten by two guys who couldn’t spell. It was a goofy movie, and most of the critics didn’t get it. Teenagers did, though. For those of us who were young in 1989, Bill and Ted gave us exactly the time travel movie we needed.
Now they might be able to do it again.
A new Bill and Ted movie is in pre-production. There are reasons to be circumspect; people have been talking about a new Bill and Ted movie for years. And the franchise that followed Excellent Adventure—a second movie, animated series, video games—was uneven, to put it charitably.
It’s worth remembering, too, that the original movie has serious problems. There’s a homophobic slur played for humor, most of the female characters exist solely to satisfy a really gross male gaze, and the historical figures whose perspectives on modern life form the film’s MacGuffin are nearly uniformly white and male. To rewatch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is to smile, to groan, and to cringe.
But the movie did one thing very right: it made a time-travel movie about how history can be shaped by joy and friendship. And it made it at precisely the right moment.
Time travel as a genre is about cause and consequence, about the constant of change. It’s about how we got here, as individuals and as a civilization, and where we want to go. “We have to ask these questions, don’t we?” James Gleick writes in Time Travel: A History. “Is the world we have the only world possible? Could everything have turned out differently?”
In the mid-1980s, time-travel movies tended to be informed by regret, fear and nostalgia. In the United States, this was a period bookended by a recession and a stock market crash. Scientists had just confirmed that acid rain was a serious threat. Christopher Hitchens railed in The Nation in 1985 about “the rulers of our world, who subject us to lectures about the need to oppose terrorism while they prepare, daily and hourly, for the annihilation of us all.”
Yeah, it was a cheerful age.
In 1984’s Terminator, we learned that the future was trying to kill us. The following year, the past tried to take a piece of us too.
Back to the Future was the first time-travel movie I saw, and as fun as it was, it was also terrifying. There’s a minor chord running through it, from the gun-toting terrorists in the van, to the family photograph from which Marty McFly slowly disappears. Back to the Future was literally about the existential horror of living in a world determined by Baby Boomers’ choices. It was, in other words, peak 1985.
Then in 1986, we got Peggy Sue Got Married, about a woman who is transported back to 1960 to come to terms with her life choices. Again.
“Regret is the time traveler’s energy bar,” writes Gleick. And in the mid-1980s, there seemed to be no shortage of things to regret.
But by the end of that decade, something had shifted. There were signs that apartheid’s days were numbered in South Africa, perestroika was underway in the Soviet Union, and the Berlin Wall was soon to come down. People were using the phrase “new world order” without irony.
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in 1989, “or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
The end of history.
Into that moment stepped Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Reeves), two high-school kids in San Dimas, California, who are about to fail their history presentation. If they do, Ted’s father will send him away to military school, which means the two will never learn to play their guitars.
This matters, it turns out. Bill and Ted are about to learn that we humans can dare to ask for more than survival. The future can be awesome, with a little help from the past.
Time Travel: A History is a book mainly composed of questions and narrative told at a distance, but on one point, Gleick takes a stand. He discusses Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity and declares: “Bradbury was right and Asimov was wrong. If history is a dynamical system, it’s surely non-linear, and the butterfly effect must obtain. At some places, some times, a slight divergence can transform history… Nodal points must exist, just not necessarily where we think.”
Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.
Bill and Ted are definitely not Great Men of history. But they matter. A man named Rufus (George Carlin) tells them that a future utopia is founded on the music of their band, Wyld Stallyns. If Ted goes to military school, none of that can happen. So they have to kick ass on their history presentation.
Which they do, of course, in charmingly earnest fashion.
The reviewers were confused. “The stars themselves are frisky and companionable, like unkempt ponies,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington Post. “If ignorance is bliss, these are the most blissed-out kids ever. But because the characters they’re playing and the lingo they spout are already out of date, the timing of the picture seems out of whack. It’s peddling last year’s hip.”
I was a 12-year-old living in rural Manitoba and I didn’t know last year’s hip from a flying phone booth. Like all my friends, I incorporated “whoa” and “dude” and “excellent” into my vocabulary. The movie taught kids how to navigate the 1990s.
And it helped audiences prepare for the comedy of the 1990s. The series of Wayne’s World sketches on Saturday Night Live, also featuring a couple of earnest and clueless dudes who say, “party on” a lot, began the day after Bill and Ted hit theaters (although the Wayne character had actually debuted on Canadian television in 1987).
It didn’t matter what the critics thought of these kinds of characters. We were young at the end of history. We wanted to believe we weren’t trapped. We wanted joy. And we wanted to be excellent to each other.
And now here we are, looking back at the putative end of history three decades later, looking into a future in which the consequences of climate change are and will be devastating, and that’s only the beginning of our worries. Could 50-something Bill and 50-something Ted bring us a movie with hope for the future and affection for past? A movie about time travel that celebrates friendship and goodwill—and that manages to do it without the toxic masculinity this time?
Or will it be an insipid nostalgia piece, a return to time travel as the genre of regret?
I’ll be first in line to find out.
Originally published in May 2018.
Kate Heartfield’s time-travel novella, Alice Payne Arrives is available from Tor.com Publishing, and its sequel Alice Payne Rides publishes March 5th. Her first novel, Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine) is out now, as is her first interactive novel, The Road to Canterbury (Choice of Games). She is a former newspaper journalist who lives in Ottawa, Canada, and tweets at @kateheartfield.