One Of Sci-Fi’s Greatest Comedies Worked Because it Broke all the Rules

Paradoxes are bogus.

Written by Jeff Ewing
Orion Pictures
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Sci-fi is replete with lessons about the rules of time travel, protocols intended to prevent the messy consequences of jumping through time. Protagonist optimism notwithstanding, the Terminator franchise strongly implies the future can’t truly be changed, while Loki explores how chronological alterations can create infinite timelines. We’re warned in The Butterfly Effect that attempts to change fate may produce even worse futures, while Back to the Future sounds the alarm that a careless time traveler could erase themselves from history. But one of history’s most triumphant comedies, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, turns this whole tradition on its head by loudly ignoring established time travel rules, allowing hilarious solutions to the protagonists’ problems.

The classic sci-fi comedy begins in a utopian future brought about by the music of the Wyld Stallyns, the band of Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter). But if the pair don’t pass history class in their present-day San Dimas, California, Ted will be shipped off to a military academy, ending the Wyld Stallyns before they can shape the future. So the helpful Rufus (George Carlin) travels back to San Dimas in a decidedly non-TARDIS phone booth to prevent this fate. Bill and Ted use Rufus’ time machine to collect a series of historical figures, assemble an epic presentation that will fix their grades, and save the future.

Bill and Ted may not be book smart, but they clearly excel at side-stepping the classic Catch-22 paradox where Event A requires Event B to happen, but B needs A. The conundrum is at the very heart of Excellent Adventure: the future utopia can’t exist without the Wyld Stallyns, but the Wyld Stallyns can’t exist without the future utopia’s intervention on their behalf. Bill and Ted are saved by the future they aren’t currently on track to inspire, which solves the problem by ignoring it.

Or take the scene where the pair needs to free their time-heisted historical figures from police custody. Whenever they encounter an obstacle, they help their future selves “remember” a solution that gets them out of the jam. When Ted’s father catches them, Ted prompts himself to remember to bring a trash can, causing one to suddenly fall from the ceiling and trap the father. The pair meet their future selves early on, which implies there’s a nearly infinite series of Bills and Teds going back to help their prior selves. But at some point, there would have to be a First Bill and First Ted solving these crises on their own, right? Not if the movie just ignores that.

This particular phone booth doesn’t get any roomier.

Orion Pictures

This would all make your head hurt if it wasn’t so silly. Many classic time-travel films warn against meeting yourself; Back to the Future says it would be too shocking, and could even destroy the universe. But when Bill and Ted’s present selves meet their future selves, there are no negative consequences whatsoever. They get a friendly pep talk from themselves, and then everyone proceeds on their merry temporal way.

Another time-travel staple involves taking measures to avoid impacting the past, with the typical logic being that it could have increasingly large and unpredictable effects on the future. Anything could spiral out of one little change, from individuals getting erased to history being radically rewritten. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure mines considerable comedy by completely ignoring this possibility.

Some of the excellent historical figures Bill and Ted assemble.

Orion Pictures

When the pair collect some of history’s most influential people, they take no precautions to lessen the effects that would presumably ripple through the timeline. Beethoven rocking out on Casio keyboards at the mall while Joan of Arc leads an aerobics class makes for hilarious situational comedy, but let’s get real for a second. They pluck the founder of Western philosophy (Socrates), the Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan), and modern psychology (Freud) out of history and let them all hang out together, with nary a thought to the potentially catastrophic impact on global history and culture. What happens if Lincoln reads a book about his own assassination?

That, of course, is what makes Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure brilliant. It isn’t ignorant of time travel lore, but intentionally upends it to hilarious effect. Even the ridiculous conceit of using time travel to kidnap historical figures instead of just studying a bit more is played so straight it’s hard not to be charmed, and ignoring the butterfly effect is smart if it means we can watch Napoleon on a water slide. Bill and Ted never lets the logic of cause and effect get in the way of fun, and while that makes it very silly, there are far more serious time-travel movies that could learn from it.

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