By Matt Fleming. This is RETROGRADING, where we commit to be excellent to each other.

Image: Orion Pictures

THE FILM: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

THE TIME: 1989, during the waning heights of the brainless teen comedy.

RECOLLECTIONS: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a classic bottle of lightning in almost every way. Creator/writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon created Bill and Ted during an improv class, fascinated by the hilarity of such blind stupidity. The duo finally got the movie financed and shot in 1987, but their production (famed B-movie house De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) went bankrupt before the movie could hit theaters. After a near brush with a television release, Orion Pictures said “screw it,” and tossed it at audiences in February ‘89. The midwinter months have long existed as a graveyard season for studios to dump questionable properties, but by some stroke of luck Bill and Ted managed to charm America out of $40 million. Not bad for a couple guys who think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

THE DIRECTOR: Here’s one of the biggest shockers about Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Stephen Herek actually had a career for a while afterward. Herek first showed up behind the camera on Critters, the cult-creature film that definitely wasn’t a retread of Gremlins, after which he landed this job. His performance as director of Bill and Ted is in no way memorable, and he followed this up with another teen-stoner jam, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. However, he landed a job in 1992 that would provide him with some steady work and accolades throughout the next decade: The Mighty Ducks, a Disney flick so popular that there is still a professional hockey team named for the movie. Disney knew they had a guy in Herek who could competently do what he was told and make them some easy money.

Stephen Herek went on to direct The Three Musketeers, the live-action 101 Dalmations, and (of all things) Mr. Holland’s Opus. He started hitting some rough spots with 1998’s Holy Man and 2001’s Rock Star, eventually  deciding to take his talents straight to the world of direct-to-TV/DVD sequeldom, where he made a fourth entry in the ice skating franchise, The Cutting Edge. Stephen Herek managed to eke out a better career than anyone could expect after Excellent Adventure, especially considering how many screen wipes he employed in this high-concept time travel flick.

Image: Orion Pictures

THE CAST: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure boasts a large cast. Nearly all of the historical figures are played by unknown actors who were hired for their uncanny ability to resemble what a high schooler in the ‘80s might think Socrates and a cowboy looked like. Notable exceptions in this lot are Jane Wiedlin (Joan of Arc), best known as second-fiddle to Belinda Carlisle in The Go-Go’s, and Al Leong (Genghis Khan), easily recognized from most ‘80s action movies that need a stereotypical Asian warrior type.

As far as the actors you just know you’ve seen somewhere else? There’s Bernie Casey who plays Mr. Ryan; some would remember him from Revenge Of The Nerds, although he spent some time in the ‘70s doing Blaxsploitation, and even wound up in Never Say Never Again as Felix Leiter. Maybe the most clever cameo comes from Clarence “Big Man” Clemons of E. Street Band fame as the man in the center of the council of the future (that seems like a real title, no?). In a movie about musicians who change the world, was this all we could get?

Of course, those folks are all window dressing compared to the three righteous dudes at the center of this goofy escapade. George Carlin sorta just fell into the role of Rufus (this is around the time he was a regular fixture on kids’ TV as a train conductor, so he was taking what he could get). However, if it weren’t for the spot-on casting of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, Bill and Ted would be rightfully lost to the annals of forgettable cinema. The two have such great chemistry here playing total idiots, that they were able to do double time for the sequel. They famously remain friends to this day. One anecdote says that the two actors ran into a parade in New York and were teased for their “Old Bill and Ted” costumes. Despite what the two ever do in Hollywood, they will always be the Wyld Stallyns.

Image: Orion Pictures

NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure rides the fence between pure nostalgia and memorable for nostalgia’s sake. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (with the help of a lot of other actors) save a D-Grade comedy and elevate it to cult classic (even if the sequel is probably better).

RETROGRADE: 4.5 out of 10