With Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure turning 30 years old this month—older than both Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter were when they starred in the title roles—I recently fired up that most righteous time-travel comedy to see how well it holds up. While it does remain a perfectly charming, surprisingly funny little 90-minute movie, I was mainly surprised at the ways it’s absolutely fascinating as just, like, a pop culture artifact that exists in this world. The first Bill & Ted is a perfect snapshot of a very specific moment in time, for better or worse. It truly could have only come out in 1989 during the waning days of hair metal, before Nirvana blew up, at the peak of a time when the main ingredient in making movies was cheese. (The scene set in the future, with a room full of silver-clad people dramatically air-guitaring to “In Time” by Robbie Robb, remains lethal to the lactose intolerant.) But even now, in 2019, the same year a razor ad made a certain subset of guys lose their goddamm minds for saying “don’t be an asshole, generally”, Excellent Adventure is oddly unique in that it’s primarily about a completely unironic, extremely genuine love between two dudes. For 99% of the movie, that love is never the joke. The best way to boil down what makes Bill & Ted’s Excellent such a weird thing to look back on is to talk about the 1% that it is, the one moment that unequivocally does not hold up.
It happens in 14th century England. Ted, donning a suit of armor, falls down a flight of stairs and is discovered by a castle guard, who stabs the suit. But surprise! Ted is fine, he slipped out of the suit on his way down the steps. The two friends joyously embrace, only to step back and exclaim, simultaneously, “fag.”
It’s already a collar-tugging ehhhhh moment to stumble across in a 2019 rewatch, but it’s especially egregious because it doesn’t even fit in with the rest of the movie. Up to that point and afterward, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is pretty much an ode to bro love. Remember, the plot of the film, the entire trip through time and space, takes place because these two characters are worried they’ll have to move away from each other. And they’re not presented with the same casually being-a-dick-is-cool flavor that a good amount of 80s comedy characters were. (Matthew Broderick is a charmer but Ferris Bueller is a little shit. This is simply the truth.) They’re lovably un-tough. When a pair of gunslingers approaches during a Wild West bar brawl, Bill non-jokingly says, “Look, we’re totally weak. We can’t possibly fight you.”
Which is why the casualness of that slur is such a specific periscope view into the past. It’s so strange to see how un-strange the script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon thinks it is that the dudes who will unite the galaxy under the adage “be excellent to each other” are also two guys who throw that word around. It’s one of those uniquely sign o’ the times moments that makes films—even an airhead comedy like Excellent Adventure—artifacts worth digging up time and again if only to learn from the way things were.
If Excellent Adventure has a takeaway lesson to be learned—other than let Keanu Reeves do comedies again, ya’ Hollywood cowards—it’s that the best way to move forward is to look to the past. It’s intriguing to see how much the best parts of Bill & Ted informed comedies that came after. Dumb & Dumber came along just five years later and took two doltish best friends on the road. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly‘s entire slate of films about blockheaded man-babies who love each other without question owe a most bodacious debt to the interplay between Bill and Ted, as do the more bro-ish productions from Judd Apatow. All significantly different films, but all spouting the core belief that it’s super okay to say “I love you, man” out loud and mean it. In 2019, that’s a lesson that more movies should be normalizing.
Again, 99% of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure believes this, which is why it remains on an 80s classic pedestal. (And why I’ll remain hopeful that everyone can get their shit together and finally get Bill & Ted Face the Music in the can.) Together with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, it’s a franchise with a good heart made during a time that—not unlike its main characters—still had a lot of lessons to learn. I mean, George Carlin‘s closing line, “They get better”, is a really sweet moment. It’s also immediately followed by end-credits soundtracked to Power Tool’s “Two Heads Are Better Than One”, a song about a guy who won’t have sex with a woman unless she also has sex with his brother. Looking to the past is vital, as long as we can recognize what absolutely needs to stay there.