Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the slacker comedy about two blissfully dumb teenagers who travel back in time through a phone booth in order to learn enough about the past to pass their high school history class, was one of the surprise hits of the late 1980s. At once a brilliant sendup of time travel movies and a Mel Brooksian satire of philosophy, psychology, and just about every memorable era of human history, it proved almost impossible not to like. It was a star turn for Alex Winter (Bill) and even more so for Keanu Reeves (Ted), as well as one of the more memorable film roles of George Carlin (Rufus). It led to a sequel two years later, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, which may not have been quite as lovable as the original but which was, with its use of surrealist cinematography and its absolutely bodacious parody of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, even more cinematically and artistically daring.
Why, after making two great films, they decided to stop and leave the completion of the trilogy for the distant future is a mystery to me. Be that as it may, 29 years, four presidents, and one global pandemic later, Bill and Ted are finally back. Bill & Ted Face the Music, still starring Reeves and Winter and still featuring screenwriting duo Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, picks up with a rock mockumentary-style intro catching us up on what Bill and Ted have been up to for the past three decades (mostly musical and time-traveling shenanigans). The film proper starts off at a wedding reception, where the middle-aged Bill and Ted play some mediocre music and are soundly rebuked by Ted’s father for not making anything of their lives. The band they invested so much effort into in the first two movies, Wyld Stallyns, apparently hasn’t made it big.
Not only has their band not been as successful as they had hoped it would be, but their marriages (to the two 15th-century English princesses they met in the first movie) are at a crossroads. They’re in couples therapy, and though their rock ‘n’ roll-loving daughters seem to admire them and take after them in many ways, Bill and Ted don’t seem to have much going for them as they head toward Medicare eligibility. Fortunately, they’re visited from the future by Rufus’s daughter, Kelly (Kristen Schaal), who shows up in a time machine (no longer a phone booth but an egg-shaped, purple-and-chrome pod) with an important mission for them.
Kelly takes Bill and Ted far into the future — A.D. 2720, a time when their hometown of San Dimas, California, looks more like a CGI’d version of the heaven they visited in the second movie than it does a real city. The future civilization’s leaders command them to produce the music they were supposed to have written but have thus far failed to produce — because if they do not, the very fate of the cosmos will be in jeopardy. “You were supposed to unite the world in song,” they tell Bill and Ted, and “save reality as we know it, uniting humanity across all time.” They supply them with a set of about a dozen guitars and tell them they have exactly 77 minutes and 25 seconds (presumably the rest of the film’s running time, conveniently enough) to produce this song. “OK,” they say, setting to work. “Now, all’s we gotta do is write the greatest song ever written.” How are they going to do this in only 77 minutes? Ted hatches an ingenious idea: They should travel to the future (in which they have presumably already written the song), steal it from themselves, and bring it back with them into the past. And with that, Bill and Ted are off through time and space on their third, somewhat bogus, somewhat nostalgic, not very excellent, and entirely derivative time travel adventure.
There are many reasons why the first two Bill & Ted films were most excellent whereas this one is most heinous. To name a few: The middle-aged versions of Bill and Ted are more ossified, lacking the easy charm and facial elasticity of their younger selves; the historical characters they collect in this adventure are not given the freedom to improvise and wreak character-driven mischief as they were in the previous two installments; the new film’s sleek CGI is actually inferior to, and far less imaginative than, the more inventive and inspired cinematography of the first two; and the robot character Dennis in this movie may be the most annoying movie character since Jar Jar Binks.
Even worse, the film’s plot devices pile on top of one another like a 30-vehicle car crash on Interstate Highway 45. Bill and Ted travel through time searching for the song that they are supposed to write, but then their daughters start traveling through time to help them, and then Bill and Ted encounter other versions of themselves (already done in Bill & Ted II), and then a robot is sent back in time from the future in order to kill Bill and Ted (already done in Bill & Ted II), and then they have to get out of hell again (already done in Bill & Ted II), and then and then and then. … This movie cannot decide what it wants to be. It’s like a person at a hotel buffet who comes back to the table with a tray of barbecue chicken, vegetable lasagna, blueberry pancakes, sushi, and a chocolate chip muffin. All of these things could be good individually, but together?
I wanted to like this movie. I really did. But it’s too much of a mess, even for an optimistic film viewer such as myself. It is always sad to see a terrific movie series tarnished by a terrible third part. One would have thought that Keanu Reeves would have learned this lesson years ago from The Matrix Revolutions (2003). It seems he has not.
If you’re looking for a good movie to see this weekend, for the love of Charlie Chaplin, please spare yourself from seeing the cinematic bungle that is Bill & Ted Face the Music. But please do go back and see Bill & Ted I and II. They are true treasures of 20th-century cinema.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer from western Massachusetts and a Ph.D. candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the author Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life.