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Older but no wiser in Bill and Ted’s Excellent return

Keanu Reeves recently returned to a decades-old franchise wherein he battles killer robots, thwarts death and, ultimately, saves the world.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in the film "Bill & Ted Face The Music."
Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in the film "Bill & Ted Face The Music." Photo credit: (Patti Perret/Orion Pictures/TNS)

The Bill and Ted franchise. The Matrix return is coming, but for now, this will have to do. And yes, I did pay money and risk going out in public to see this movie in theaters.

The original Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure begins with the titular characters Bill S. Preston, Esq., played by Alex Winters, and Theodore “Ted” Logan, played by Keanu Reeves, about to fail their history class. The boys are anything but smart, and if they don’t pass a final project with A grades, they get F’s in the class and Ted’s dad — Hal Landon Jr. — sends him to military school.

They’re approached by the time-traveling Rufus, whom George Carlin portrays. Rufus informs the two that in the future, their garage band Wyld Stallyns brings on a golden age of peace and prosperity to the entire world through the power of music — but only if they pass their history class.

Rufus lends Bill and Ted the use of his time-traveling phone booth, and the two adventure throughout time, collecting historical figures who can help them give a killer presentation for their history class and secure them the A’s. They succeed, all while rescuing some medieval princesses from marrying some old weirdos. Obviously, the princesses fall in love with the boys.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, released in 1991, is pretty bogus; a bad guy from the future sends robot versions of Bill and Ted back to the past to kill them because he hates the awesome world Wyld Stallyns creates. The robots actually kill the friends, and Bill and Ted have to fight Death, played by William Sadler, in order to come back to life. They win, and Wyld Stallyns is set to save the world. Not much else really happens in this movie.

Clearly, the franchise is a gold mine of content; filmmakers knew they could make more money by returning to the franchise and leaning into the same sense of humor. In Bill and Ted Face the Music, Reeves and Winters reprise their roles as middle-50s versions of their characters who never really grew up; they still say excellent, they still call everyone dude and they still play air guitar when something goes their way.

Unfortunately, Wyld Stallyns hasn’t taken off in 2020. They’ve perverted their original 80s rock and roll sound with throat singing and theremin playing, which somehow hasn’t united the world in a golden age. They’re washed up and thinking about quitting the band, whose biggest fans are their own daughters (named, unsurprisingly, Theodora “Thea” Preston and Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan, played by Samara Weaving and Brigitte Lundy-Paine, respectively).

To really pile the pressure on, Rufus’ daughter — Kristen Schaal, one of the most endearing and annoying voices in animated T.V. as Louise on Bob’s Burgers and Mabel on Gravity Falls — comes to Bill and Ted and tells them that if Wyld Stallyns doesn’t perform the greatest song in the world by 7:17 p.m. that day, an event called the Convergence destroys all of time and space.

The final nail in the proverbial coffin? Bill and Ted’s princess wives have grown sick of their boyish husbands and go on a time-traveling journey of their own to see if a timeline exists where they’re happy with their husbands — they don’t find one.

Unable to write the song of their own power, Bill and Ted decide to just time travel to future versions of themselves and steal the song.

Meanwhile, the movie calls back some of the most enjoyable parts of its predecessors; Billie and Thea travel through time collecting great musicians so they can put together an A-list band and help their dads perform the universe-saving song, recalling their dad’s original time-traveling in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The two mimic Winters’ and Reeves’ acting in the original film; Thea speaks eloquently and respectfully while still calling Mozart and Jimmie Hendricks dude, and Billie wanders around with her mouth agape in perpetual surprise for most of the movie.

Although the movie promised a return of Bill and Ted, Weaving and Lundy-Paine actually carry the movie. Their adventure drives most of the plot, and their interactions with the historical figures carry most of the humor; in one of the best scenes, Billie proves herself smarter than she looks when she discusses theoretical physics and time travel with Kid Cudi, who is in the movie and understands theoretical physics and time travel too.

The best part of the Bill and Ted franchise is its understanding of its own silliness. Blockbuster time travel movies — which we seem to be getting more of these days, from Avengers: Endgame to Tenet — are notoriously difficult to justify in real-world science. Tenet, for example, raises the grandfather paradox in the movie and then explains it away by Robert Pattinson throwing up his hands and essentially saying, “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway.”

But the Bill and Ted franchise throws all the rules of time travel out the window; they can interact with other versions of themselves without consequences and they can bring objects from the past and future back to the present without negative ramifications. Trying to justify how Bill and Ted can interact with future versions of themselves would undermine the comedy of the films and make them needlessly complicated. The films don’t concern themselves with struggling to justify time travel; it just works, which means more time for saying dude and playing air guitar.

Now, the first two films really don’t try to do more than say dude and play air guitar, but this third and probably-not-final movie does put together a meaningful message at the end; family matters. The princesses come back at the end of the movie with the realization that they’re happy in their own timeline, with their goofball husbands, and Bill and Ted pass the mantle of Wyld Stallyns on to their remarkably-competent-given-the-gene-pool-they-came-from daughters. Yes, every movie ever has the theme of family mattering, but, particularly given the current … everything … with the world, maybe we need a film with a simple, heartfelt message.

As Bill and Ted say, be excellent to each other, and party on dudes.

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