Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: The Poor Man’s Back to the Future

Being the runner-up for an 80s time travel movie is nothing to sneeze at.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a time-travel comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, playing lovable losers Bill and Ted. It came out in February 1989, was a box office success, and made a big impression on youth culture at the time. 

I like it, I just don’t love it.

That’s just always the way I felt about Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It no doubt seemed awesome – it just didn’t seem able to take up the valuable real estate in my mind devoted to other movies and shows I loved.

I want every time travel movie to be like Back to the Future, but I know that’s not the case. But I still recognized Bill and Ted as a culturally significant movie. It really launched more of this “surfer dude,” skater punk – but not directly stoner – culture into the mainstream.

It was like a predecessor for Wayne and Garth as the catchphrases would catch on like wildfire.

So don’t get me wrong; I like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but to me – it’s more like a silver medal-winning recipient. 

The Plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

We start out in the year 2688. The future is a blissful utopian society because of the Two Great Ones. This, of course, is Bill S. Preston Esq. And Ted “Theodore” Logan, who have inspired the world with their wisdom and their epic music.

We meet Rufus who must travel back to the year 1988 to make sure Bill and Ted pass a history test. Turns out, they were two dimwitted teens back in 1988, and he travels back in time using a phone booth which seems like a nod to Dr. Who. If they don’t pass this test, Ted will get shipped off to military school and he’ll never form the Wyld Stallyns band altering history forever.

Rufus goes back in time and finds Bill and Ted struggling to study for their test. Their paper involves understanding the specifics of three historical figures – which helps to set our movie in place. Rufus helps them by unveiling the time machine, which allows future versions of Bill and Ted to step out to tell their past selves that Rufus can indeed help them.

The first thing they do is travel back to the year 1805 to see Napoleon Bonaparte in action. A cannonball blast manages to send Napoleon, um, back to the future with them. Rufus has to leave but leaves the time machine behind for the two of them.

Bill and Ted stumble upon Napoleon and then realize they can travel back in time to kidnap other historical figures. This way, they will be able to expertly complete the paper they have to work on to pass their class. 

The first people they go after are Billy the Kid, and Socrates. They then travel to 15th century England where they become smitten with Princess Elizabeth. They are almost killed, but Socrates and Billy the kid come to their rescue, getting them back in the time machine which gets damaged in all the kerfuffle.

This sends them way into the future and they find out that they have become the true inspiration of the world in a Caesar from the Planet of the Apes way.

They realize that to continue this timeline, they need some “extra credit” work on their report and end up going back to kidnap:

  • Beethoven
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Genghis Khan
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Joan of Arc

They go even further back in time to repair the phone booth, transport themselves back to the current age, and end up in that first encounter with Rufus and their past/present/future selves. 

The historical figures are now getting in trouble in the current age, but they round them all up and ultimately can complete their report. Rufus returns with the princesses from the 15th century who end up joining the Wyld Stallyns.


The Origin of Bill and Ted

So let’s look at the foundation of this movie, and the two principal characters (that almost were a trio) that started as a sketch. This goes all the way back to 1983 were movie creators Ed Solomon, and Chris Matheson were students at UCLA.

Matheson’s father may have been a big influence on the concept of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as he wrote episodes of the Twilight Zone, some other time-based movies, and is also the author of “I Am Legend,” and “What Dreams May Come.”

The two came up with this comedic act of two morons for their improv class. The promise involves these two dullards pretending to know everything about history when they in fact knew nothing. But this wasn’t just two dullards — there were three.

A third character named Bob rounded out the original trio. Solomon and Matheson played Bill and Ted, but the guy that played Bob just wasn’t into it as much as they were and ended up leaving the act. 

Putting This Movie Together

The script was put together in 1987, but it was really focused on the specifics of their improv sketch. They realized this would either have a large appeal or die an agonizing death with audiences. This made it hard to shop around, but they eventually found a backer in the DEG group.

One of the first big acquisitions for this movie – and that would change the tone of it – was the casting of Keanu Reeves. Matheson and Solomon had based Bill and Ted around wimpier 14-year-old dirtbags, but Keanu Reeves brought a coolness to the character that changed the direction to more of the Venice Beach, California surfer dude-style. 

With Reeves cast as Ted, they now had a different approach for the duo and it changed what they were looking for in the character of Bill. A bunch of top actors had come through, including:

  • Pauly Shore (it was thought that Biodome was originally going to be the third installment of Bill and Ted, but was abandoned and adopted as a Pauly Shore project)
  • Brandon Frazier
  • Sean Penn
  • River Phoenix

I can definitely see all of them being able to have played either of the roles of Bill and Ted.

They went with Alex Winter. It turns out he and Reeves had a lot in common and were able to build a strong connection pretty quickly. 

The other key casting of the movie was including the great George Carlin to play Rufus. They had also considered many outstanding actors for the role, including:

  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Charlie Sheen
  • Sean Connery
  • Ringo Starr for some reason
  • Roger Daltrey

These were a great combination of rock royalty and brilliant actors, but they needed someone with a better comedic approach, and the producers of the film had just worked with Carlin and were able to secure him for the role. 

Early Iterations of the Movie

Since this was a time travel movie, there was a lot of focus on what the time travel machine would look like. This was the same issue that faced Back to the Future. They had gone through some various ideas of the time machine with BTTF, including a refrigerator to transport Doc and Marty through time. But it was thought that kids would start locking themselves in fridges.

And if you remember that infamous fridge episode from Punky Brewster, this was no way to go.

With Back to the Future, they decided that if you want back in time, you would need to be mobile and went with the idea of a car. An early version of the movie also included a vehicle – specifically a 1969 Chevrolet Van, but this looked too much like a Delorean so they didn’t want any comparisons to Back to the Future.

They ended up going with the phone booth with the thinking that phone booths were everywhere so they would make for easily accessible portals. If you’re under 30, you’ll probably have to ask your parents what a phone booth is.

One of the earlier versions of the movie would also include Nazi, Germany. This version also existed with them driving the van as the time machine and involved them bringing Hitler back to the future. They swapped this out for Napoleon and it was probably a good idea. 

Getting This Movie out There for the Public

It would take two years to finally get Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure into your local cineplex. That DEG group was ready to get the movie out there, but just before it was released, the group went bankrupt and was shut down.

Like my relationship status, the movie was put into indefinite hiatus. They were so desperate that they considered releasing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a cable tv movie. That may seem a bit more common today, but that was absolutely throwing in the towel in the 1980s. Today, we of course have most of our entertainment made for tv – specifically with streaming services. Back then, this would have been the kiss of death. 

This wasn’t made for TV, and even despite its low budget – was a genuine cinematic film. In 1989, Orion Pictures would jump in at the last minute to save the day and bought the movie. They had just released Robocop – which was also a bit of gamble – so they thought what the hell, and released the movie.

One issue is that since it had been two years since they filmed the movie, Keanu Reeves didn’t look exactly like his character – especially the long surfer hair. He would have to wear a very unconvincing wig while putting out new promotional materials to try to replicate the look from when they filmed. 

The Reception For Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Again, I’m just saying I’m not totally enamored with this movie, but I recognized the significance of it. The response was, of course, really great. Critics didn’t necessarily love it either, but that was not the intention of this movie. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was more about capturing the classic tropes of Monty Python, more than being a science-fiction film with comedy elements the way Back to the Future was.

They were never trying to replicate anything similar to Back to the Future, but if you were putting out a time travel movie in the late 80s, it was impossible not to be compared.

What made this film so significant were the iconic catchphrases and the great chemistry and creation of the characters by Reeves and Winter. Phrases of “excellent,” “bogus,” “triumphant,” “bodacious,” and “dude,” became staples of youth culture. 

The infectious energy and charm of the characters easily rubbed off on impressionable youth, and it took that surfer/valley culture to a broader audience. Again, this happens every so often with other movies where the style of speech, and the catchphrases, really resonate with younger audiences like with Clueless or Wayne’s World.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure came out on February 17, 1989, opening alongside some other classics like:

  • The Fly II (starring original Marty McFly, Eric Stoltz, and Princes Vespa from Spaceballs: Daphne Zuniga)
  • Major League
  • The ‘Burbs

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure would make around $40.5 million, which converted for today is around $85 million. Not a monster hit, but really good when you consider what a narrow audience it appealed to. It was also made for only $6.5 million so it ended up being a really great moneymaker for Orion

The Future of Bill & Ted

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey would come out a few years later, as did a few seasons of an animated series. You might not remember this, but there was also a live-action series in the 90s. I vaguely remember this series, but when you don’t have the original actors reprising their roles, it will always fall short. 

Then there had always been talks of a third film, which we can now confirm. A third Bill and Ted movie has had a script in place since 2011, but Bill and Ted Face the Music is now a real thing. The third installment brings back Reeves and Winter to the iconic roles. 

It’s hard to tell how this movie will go over. There’s a real demand for nostalgia in pop culture right now, so it will at least be a treat to see them on screen again. But will this go the way of Dumb & Dumber To, or be able to capture the essence of the original, but take it in a new direction?

Wrapping it Up

So to me, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is good but not great. It’s great in that it created a lot of pop culture significance and was able to infiltrate the speech of a generation of kids. The characters are still great, and the performances are awesome, but it’s just not a go-to movie in my books. 

Either way, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure can only be seen as a success and an influential part of the late 1980s. And don’t forget:

Party on dudes!”
-Abraham Lincoln