Tick, tick tick…it’s the only sound that I hear when trying to type this article out. “There’s never enough time” when I have a lot of thoughts on this subject. I wish I had a machine that could turn back time, or at least pause it.
Let’s go back to the 80s where two influential movies were about traveling through time: Back to the Future (1985) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Both are great movies in their own rights, but if I had to choose which one is superior? My pick is Bill and Ted, hands down. I know what you’re thinking, “How can you not choose the bigger franchise?” Let me point out a few comparisons between the films, and then you can hear me out on why I appreciate Bill and Ted more.
Caution:There are spoilers in this article, so if you have not watched either of these films, I totally recommend watching both before reading on.
Let’s start with the costs and risks in each production. From what I can gather, the two films’ budgets had a $9 million difference: Back to the Future at $19 million vs. Bill and Ted at $10 million. We also know that the majority of Back to the Future’s budget went towards the special effects. Plus, Steven Spielberg was riding the success of films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Gremlins (1984) when he came in to help as an Executive Producer, and the film cast both established and up-and-coming actors such as Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover. Universal Studios knew they had a hit on their hands.
Bill and Ted, on the other hand, had the challenge of finding leads. The crew knew that they couldn’t break the bank for the leads or else the project would have stalled or risk getting canceled. Keanu Reeves (Ted) was unknown at the time with a resume consisting of a few Coca-Cola commercials and a hockey movie with Patrick Swayze called Youngblood (1986). Alex Winter (Bill) was previously cast as one of David’s vampires in The Lost Boys (1987). So De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) wasn’t too sure if this Bill and Ted project would be a hit or not. It would be neat to have watched this back when it came out, wondering whether the actors would actually make it big long before Keanu Reeves became synonymous with John Wick or Alex Winter directed the Ben 10 movies.
So far, that makes Bill and Ted the dark horse in this comparison, taking the bigger risk and having the most challenges. And I love those kinds of films. A similar favorite is Sam Raimi’s first movie The Evil Dead, which had a budget of around $375K but went on to make $2.7 million and become a popular franchise. Likewise, George Miller‘s lower-budget Mad Max spawned the iconic Australian franchise and launched a career for Mel Gibson.
Next, let’s look at the plots between the movies. Back to the Future’s Marty McFly gets stuck in 1955 using a time machine built from a modified DeLorean while escaping from terrorists that killed his friend who made the machine. Not only does Marty have to get back to his time, he also has to fix the goof-up he made that prevented his dad from meeting his mom in the timeline.
Bill and Ted are lifelong best friends that have to figure out a way to pass their history exam. If they don’t pass, their band Wyld Stallyns will break up cause Ted’s dad will send him to military school. The band’s breakup will ruin the future where they brought peace to the universe. To prevent that, Rufus, played by the late great George Carlin, goes back in on a modified telephone booth that he lends them to use to gather history’s key figures.
Both films had rocky productions at different points of filming. During Back to the Future, The original Marty McFly was Eric Stoltz, who was coming off a high-profile role at the time starring with Cher and Sam Elliott in the award-winning Mask (1985). I recall reading that it was within a month or two that they decided to go in a different direction and cast Michael J. Fox, believing that he would be able to pull off the goofball comedy moments. If the production of Bill and Ted felt like they made the wrong decision after a month in, they would have been shit out of luck since they wouldn’t even have the funds to reshoot key scenes like Back to the Future did.
Bill and Ted also made an unorthodox production decision by completely changing the ending during the last few days of filming. Instead of the iconic ending where they had the historical figures coming in one at a time with kickass music playing and Billy the Kid shooting one of the light fixtures, we almost got the stereotypical high school version of getting in front of the class and just talking. The director and the crew knew that they needed to make an adjustment and spend extra money for the extra set pieces and actors to do their presentations.
Being able to change on the fly like that during the end of a production shoot makes me appreciate the film more. I can relate as I remember the time I was competing in the 48-hour Film Festival. We had a scene in which the main character passed out and was dreaming about his “guardian angel.” After a few takes, we felt that we couldn’t make our guardian angel look ridiculous enough. After half an hour of brainstorming, we decided to film a guinea pig owned by one of our crew and draw an Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hat in post-production. During the premier, the guinea pig got a big pop from the crowd which was reassuring for my team.
Besides its humor, another thing that pops up in my head when I think about Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is how awesome the soundtrack is. It doesn’t have a complete orchestral score like Back to the Future. Instead, it has different bands that most people had never heard of getting their shot to have their songs play in a motion picture. If you play any of those songs for 3-5 seconds, I can automatically tell you what scene it is from. The song that gets me most hyped was at the end of the movie where Bill and Ted give their presentation: “Walk Away” by Bricklin. A close second is “Two Heads Better Than One” by Power Tool just because that was catchy when the crew was recruiting the historical figures for their history report.
By comparison, Back to the Future had three memorable pieces of music: the “Main Theme” by Alan Silvestri, “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News, and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. The rest of the soundtrack was forgettable for me. Thus, I think Bill and Ted has the edge when it comes to music.
In spite of my bias toward Bill and Ted, I admit that I’m impressed by how both films made their set-pieces. With Back to the Future, recreating the 1950s look was a challenge getting the right clothes, car, paint style, gas pumps, and buildings, such as the diner. Bill and Ted had an equally difficult challenge setting up multiple locations throughout the film, such as the wild west, Athens (Greece), and “somewhere in Medieval Europe.” Bill and Ted got to balance that challenge with some fun depicting what the future might look like.
Remember how earlier in the article that Bill and Ted had the biggest risks and challenges? That went beyond the end of production. As post-production was starting in 1988, the same year the film was set to be released, DEG went bankrupt. The film was finally released in 1989, though the filmmakers had trouble trying to sell the film to different studios and have it released in theaters. Most studios didn’t understand the use of vocabulary in the film, asking, “Is this how kids talk these days?”
Don’t get me wrong, both of these movies are great in their own ways. Both made more money than what each studio expected, and both became pop culture icons that are still well-known today. Growing up as a kid, though, I leaned towards Bill and Ted because it was a straight-up comedy with some history, in which I have to note that 80% of the historical figures Bill and Ted picked up died in the worst way. Back to the Future has a more serious tone with funny bits, drama, and action scenes, which is fine. But if I had to choose a movie to watch on a rainy day, it would be Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Let me know how you feel about these films in the comments below, and whether you agree or disagree about which film is better… SAN DIMAS FOOTBALL RULES!