Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the 1991 sequel to a comedy about two time-traveling teenaged garage-band idiots from San Dimas, was notable in that it didn’t content itself to simply retread the time-travel story of the hit 1989 original, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. That would have been the kind of lazy cash-in that the sequels to most 80s teen comedies did. It was easy to be a Teen Wolf, Too or to get Zapped, Again.
Instead, Bogus Journey sent its heroes to Heaven, Hell, Vasquez Rocks, and everywhere in between with the Grim Reaper and a couple of midget aliens along for the ride. The comedy was weirder and more frenetic, and most fans of the series prefer the first film, but there’s no denying Bogus Journey’s commitment to going very left-field in its concept.
Bill and Ted Face the Music, the eternally-in-development third film in the series that stars Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter had been trying to put together for a quarter-century and that has finally (and almost unbelievably) landed on our screens today, goes the second film one expectation-subversion better by not being a comedy at all.
It isn’t that its attempts at humor aren’t successful (though many of them aren’t); rather Winter, Reeves, and creators Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson have decided to let Bill and Ted grow up with their audience. The high-school teenagers of 1989 who packed theaters to turn Excellent Adventure into a sleeper hit and the college-kid twentysomethings of 1991 who got their movie updates from MTV news breaks are now the middle-aged, mortgages-and-embiggening-prostates dads of 2020 who’ve been locking down, masking up, staying home and basically doing anything but going to theaters that have nothing to show but, ironically, 30-year-old teen comedies.
Face the Music, whose 50-year-old heroes travel through time in an ancient piece of technology no Generation Zoomer will recognize for a phone booth, is being released today for PVOD along with a limited theatrical run — an unlikely vanguard of the day-and-date streaming revolution that will change the way we watch movies.
And so Bill and Ted, like us, have grown up. That’s a very relative experience where these guys are concerned; they still speak and behave much the same way as they always did, still take bending the space-time continuum and returning from the dead for granted, and still are as ridiculous as ever, but it’s noticeably filtered through a prism of age and of the realizations and resignations that come with age — even for guys like this. Their lives haven’t worked out the way they’d expected (which for them means they haven’t yet become the saviors of the entire universe); instead of the rock gods they were told they’d be by their late mentor Rufus (the late and very missed George Carlin), they’re anonymous suburban losers who make a living playing wedding receptions — provided the weddings are family affairs in which ageing bubble-blonde slut Missy, having already gone through both their dads, is now marrying Ted’s little brother Deacon.
Bill and Ted have 24-year-old, still-living-at-home daughters named Billie and Thea. That they’ve been gender-swapped from the infant sons we saw at the end of Bogus Journey seems to be yet another case of 2020s entertainment asserting itself, and the explanation that each tried to name his daughter “Little Bill”/”Little Ted” after the other seems like a reach until you realize that’s exactly what these two pathologically-inseparable best buds WOULD do.
In fact, the gag of these two having no individual identities of their own is taken to a deeper (and a little more disturbing) place in Face the Music; now Bill and Ted go to couples counseling with their wives together and each is incapable of saying “I love you” without it coming out as “we”. (The daughters have inherited this problem, addressing their fathers as “Dads”.)
There’s a lot going on in Face the Music including trips to Hell, reunions with the Reaper (the wonderful Bill Sadler returns as Death), a cyborg assassin who’s the most inexplicable and unfunny character this series has ever seen, and a series of jaunts by Bill and Ted into their own futures to save both their marriages and the entire universe. Their sublime idea to steal a song from their future selves produces the best scenes in the movie, as they push further and further into the future to find increasingly failed and bizarre versions of themselves, all of whom naturally are expecting them, culminating in an encounter with their hundred-year-old “us’es” on their own deathbed.
It all starts to turn your mind inside out, but then the Bill and Ted movies always had some of the more clever time-travel concepts. What’s more surprising is how relatively serious a lot of it is — Bill and Ted are older men now, without all of the energy we remember but with a lot of the trepidation that comes with mid-life crises. It’s odd to see Bill and Ted as believable husbands and fathers, but at the heart, they are still very much the guys we remember.
Not so great is all the time spent with Billie and Thea, who themselves jump through time putting together a band of historical musicians to help their dads write the song that will save all of existence. None of this is interesting, not only because the daughters aren’t interesting (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine are trying to riff on Winter and Reeves, but don’t even begin to pull it off) but because the entire subplot is exactly the weak ripoff of the first film that the first sequel knew to avoid. A lot of time is wasted on this, that would have been better-spent delving further into their dads’ collective existential crisis.
The conclusion to all of this is predictable and will probably piss a lot of people off. I can’t say I didn’t expect it; the deconstruction of old heroes has been in vogue for a while now. But while it was enraging to watch a hero like Luke Skywalker give up on life to go spend the rest of his days milking a sea cow, the revelation of Bill and Ted’s true destinies is rather fascinating — these characters were absurd to begin with, and their epiphany reflects the maturity that age brings even to a couple of guys like this. I’m not sure how much I like it, I’m tempted to say “it ended at the Battle of the Bands”, but it’s still interesting to see the growth of these guys and their own unique ways of dealing with the passing of the years.
At the climax of the movie, right about at the point that Ted helpfully explains to his younger brother and mother/sister-in-law that he is a single component of an infinite expression of whateverthefuck, my TV screen went black and a buffering bar appeared at the bottom. I leapt up, checked my router, and reset it along with my modem, but saw only the mocking red light of an Internet outage. I stared at it for a few seconds, then decided to just grab my phone and use my carrier data to peer down into the remainder of Bill and Ted Face the Music on a tiny, tiny screen.
A ridiculous sequel about ridiculous characters has ushered in ridiculous new issues for the 21st-century moviegoer. I’m not the kid I was the first time Bill and Ted showed up, but then movies aren’t what they used to be either (to say nothing of everything else) and the “going” part of it is ending, for better or worse. Welcome to the future.