Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Films of 1991: Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey

The difference between the two Bill and Ted movies is a profound and noteworthy one. 

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) is a low-brow comedy about two dumb dudes from San Dimas.  

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) by contrast is a high-brow comedy about the same dumb dudes.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is not only more intricately plotted than its predecessor was -- featuring an authentically Orphean journey to the Underworld -- but its comedy is much more layered and sophisticated too.

Before it finishes up, this film jabs science fiction tropes, and Star Trek (1966-1969), specifically, but also patiently (and humorously) develops a satire based on Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal (1967).

The result is a film that never has a dull moment, and is never less than searingly funny. The big problem with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is that, outside the Napoleon character -- who was given substantial screen time -- none of the historical figures the duo encountered came across as real characters, only one-note jokes.

In Bogus Journey, Bill and Ted meet Death -- the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) -- and he is a great character: vain, insecure, over-confident and silly as hell.  The two (alien?) scientists from Heaven (!), Station also grab the spotlight for a while, and are genuinely amusing. 

Finally, the creative decision to add a real villain in the person of De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) -- someone dead set against Bill and Ted’s inevitable success -- grants the film a sense of urgency and import that the original lacked.

It is relatively rare for a genre sequel to thoroughly out-strip the source material, but in the case of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, that’s the real story.  The film’s cerebral approach to comedy elevates this 1991 film, and expands the reach of the franchise in dramatic fashion.

In fact, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is so good it’s a genuine shame a second sequel has never been produced.

“Get down and give me infinity!”

Bill Preston (Alex Winter) and Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) approach “the second crucial point in their destiny,” the San Dimas Battle of the Bands…which is televised.

But in the far future world that worships them, the evil De Nomolos (Ackland) sends homicidal Bill and Ted lookalike robots back in time to sabotage the duo’s chances at the show, and -- preferably -- kill them. 

Rufus (George Carlin) manages to enter the time vortex after the robots, but is soon determined to be missing.

Back in the 20th century, the two robots do their dirty work. They drive Bill and Ted out to Vasquez Rocks and murder them.  

Now restless spirits, Bill and Ted attempt to possess the living, and communicate at a séance, and then end up relegated to  the pits of Hell.

They escape from Hell by challenging the Grim Reaper (Sadler) to a game, or several games, to be more accurate.  

They beat him at Twister (following games of Battleship and Clue), and force Death to bring them back to life.  The Grim Reaper complies, and then takes them to Heaven, where Bill and Ted petition God to help defeat the evil robots.

God provides a great scientist/creature called “Station” to help out, but the Battle of the Bands is nearing, and the evil robots have captured the princesses!

“I think we’re in our own personal Hell.”

Like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey gets a lot of mileage out of the boys’ manner of expression. 

It was odd and amusing hearing them use surfer speak in various historical contexts in the first film, but even funnier to witness them address beings of Heaven and Hell in this one. 

How’s it going, Beelzabub?” for instance, or “How’s it hanging, Death?”  

Also, it’s impossible not to laugh at the moment here in which Bill and Ted pull a Uranus joke on the Almighty Lord. And,-- ridiculously -- this moment comes after they have mugged peaceful souls arriving in Heaven and stolen their clothes.

But Bill and Ted’s manner of speech isn’t the only joke worth noting here, and that’s what makes Bogus Journey so much fun.  

This films throws up the sci-fi cliché or trope of evil android duplicates, and then puts them in a plot that directly reflects a Star Trek episode.  

Specifically, Bill and Ted watch “Arena” on TV...the episode with Kirk fighting the Gorn at Vasquez Rocks.  We view footage of William Shatner at that famous natural landmark on their TV set.  Then, in the very next scene, we get identical shots of Bill and Ted at the same locale, fighting their own enemy.

Later, the target for satire is Ingmar Bergman’s lugubrious The Seventh Seal. 

In that film, Max Von Sydow’s character, Antonius Block, plays a chess game with Death -- a monk-like, bald-figure in a black cowl -- for his survival. The chess game is a symbol in the Swedish film, and it is believed, by the movie's characters, that no force can beat death. For humans, it is always check and mate, sooner or later.

In Bill and Ted, however, Death plays the dudes in a variety of board games, and loses every match.  

The film features a very funny scene involving several different popular games as Death is beaten -- a terrible player, apparently -- again and again.  The final interlude of this montage involves Twister.

Other scenes also hit just the right notes. There’s a short scene near the beginning of the film when Bill and Ted -- now dead -- possess the bodies of two police officers in their fifties (played by Hal Linden Jr., and Roy Brocksmith). 

Suddenly these aging, balding men in their fifties begin gesticulating and talking like surfers, and the scene earns some big laughs.

The scenes in Hell don’t last that long, but manage to be both amusing and disturbing. Bill, for example, must attend to his ancient, hairy-lipped, lip-smacking grandmother…who wants a sloppy wet kiss.  And Ted contends with a demonic, animatronic Easter Bunny.

They also go to the hellish equivalent of Military School, where they are ordered to drop and do "infinity" push ups.

The difference in approach between the films is telling. There’s no real comedy in the time travel scenes of the original, wherein Bill and Ted meet Socrates, or Billy the Kid for example. These moments are devoid of any pacing or real humor. They just kind of land with a thud.

But in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the screenwriters move effortlessly from joke to joke, from Star Trek gag to Grim Reaper gag, from, possession gag to Hell gag, to Heaven gag, and so on. The film veritably speeds by on its humorous high points, and ends before you can think twice about any gaps in logic.

Alas, there are a few. 

Rufus established in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure that time runs on always-moving tracks. In other words, the clock continues for time travelers even when they are traveling.  

But in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the duo violates this rule, able to leave the Battle of the Bands to learn how to play guitar, and then come back to that very moment in time, as if no duration elapsed. Given the rules established in the first film, how'd they manage this?

A little more thought about how time travel works in this universe would have made the film all the stronger.

On the other hand, this sequel does expand the franchise universe in other memorable ways.  We see the depths of Hell, the architecture of Heaven, and even Bill and Ted University in the future. The original film had all of human history to explore, and yet felt like a cheap TV show.  

By comparison, Bogus Journey is as big and weird as existence itself.

One key reason that Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey succeeds goes by the name of William Sadler.  

He’s been baddies (Die Harder [1990]) and a supporting, fatherly figure (Roswell) before, but the actor demonstrates real comedy chops as the Grim Reaper in this film. He comes off as pathetic, desperate, and a hanger-on, but ultimately, a worthy ally for the non-judgmental Bill and Ted. He's a great sidekick and foil for the duo, a would-be regal figure brought to a point far below his ostensible dignity.

Finally, this sequel conforms to one of my favorite rock movie cliches of all time: A great rock show can change the world (to quote Jack Black in 2004's School of Rock).  

That's very much what happens here, as Bill and Ted's music changes the fabric of reality itself. The film's end credits amusingly feature magazine covers charting the rise of Wyld Stallyns and Bill and Ted to ever greater heights (including a mission to Mars).

Bill and Ted may go through Hell, literally, during their bogus journey, but for this reviewer, the 1991 sequel is actually a lot closer to Heaven, with nearly every crazy, inventive gag hitting its mark, and hitting it hard.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:03 AM

    I've never heard about about these movies. Thanks for reviewing them!