Back to the Future vs. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

with respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus have started Vs. to bring you a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.

The Match-Up: The 1980s were a strange, twisted and Frankie Goes to Hollywood-loving decade, one particularly unkind to the worlds of music, fashion, and art. The one bright spot? Comedy films. From Caddyshack to Fletch, from Ghostbusters to Weird Science, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Teen Wolf, Hollywood embraced high-concept escapist comedy and did it well. Two time-travel movies stood out from the pack, though. Filled with implausible realities, interesting scenarios, and endlessly debatable plot points (especially by stoners in college dorm rooms at 3:00 AM), Back to the Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure may have been the pick of the bunch.

Why They Deserve to Be Compared: As far as I can tell, they’re the only two movies featuring suburban Californian teenagers traveling back in time made during the 1980s that also succeed in being phenomenally entertaining.

The Battle

Better Protagonist

Despite Hill Valley High vice-principal Mr. Strickland’s frequent “slacker” comments, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly was a highly intelligent and capable character. Except for a strong aversion to being called a chicken, a 17-year old McFly had a girlfriend and a band that could deliver bone-crushing renditions of Huey Lewis and the News songs.

Bill and Ted were a different story. Perpetually stoned and clueless, the pair thought nothing of asking convenience store clerks to help them identify obscure historical dates from ancient Asian history. If strange things had not been afoot at the Circle K, the two would’ve inevitably flunked out of high school.

Intelligence isn’t the only measure of a protagonist, though. One must also take into account savvy and cunning. McFly, Bill (Alex Winter), and Ted (Keanu Reeves) were all blessed with an ability to get out of sticky situations (e.g. Marty causing a full truck of manure to fall on Biff; B&T;’s success in kidnapping great historical figures).

But the best gauge of a comedy protagonist is probably likeability. And while you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t like Bill S. Preston or Ted “Theodore” Logan, Fox’s Marty McFly is one of the ten most likeable characters in movie history. Unless you’re asking Rush Limbaugh.

Winner: Back to the Future

Better Villain

Bill and Ted’s chief villain is Ted’s police officer father, Captain Logan (Hal Landon). A hard-core disciplinarian, Logan wants nothing more than for his son to get rid of his “loser friend” Bill and head to Col. Oates’ Military Academy in Alaska. Of course, Capt. Logan doesn’t realize that by doing so he will break-up Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns, thereby depriving the world of the greatest band of all-time, one that will cause the planets to align perfectly and world peace to break out. Rather than being pure evil, Capt. Logan comes off as a well-intentioned father wrongly trying to give his son some discipline.

By contrast, Back to the Future’s Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) is one of the best antagonists in movie history. The character is effectively summed up in the first scene of the movie: Biff crashes George McFly’s car, but somehow manages to blame the car crash on McFly, who he then castigates for only offering him light beer. If that’s not evil I don’t know what is. As Back to the Future unwinds we see the full scope of Biff’s douchebaggery, as he tries to forcibly rape Lorraine Baines McFly, beat up Marty and George at every opportunity, and even throw little kids’ basketballs on the roof. Butthead.

Winner: Back to the Future

Better Historical Time-Travel Interaction

Finally, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure catches a break. Whereas, the closest thing that Back to the Future has is an encounter with Marvin Berry, Chuck Berry’s cousin, Bill and Ted’s is crammed full of historical cameos. From Billy the Kid, to Napoleon (the short, fat dead dude) to So-Crates, Bill and Ted manage to give most of history’s greatest figures a taste of late 80s San Dimas. Socrates liked baseball. Beethoven liked Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. That’s good enough for me.

Winner: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Better Time-Traveling Helper

This is a tough one, pitting the great Christopher Lloyd against the possibly greater George Carlin. In Back to the Future, Lloyd plays the inimitable mad scientist, Doc Brown. Taking plutonium from a gang of Libyan terrorists, Brown turns the nuclear material into a time machine, rather than the atomic bomb that he’d promised.

Then, when Marty gets stuck in 1955, a younger Doc cleverly realizes that the only way to send Marty back to the future is by harnessing the energy of the lightning bolt about to strike the clock tower. By the way, he manages to do all this while managing to cultivate the greatest scientific head of hair since Albert Einstein. Not bad.

On the other hand, George Carlin’s Rufus character is a formidable time-travel aide. Without him, there is no way that Bill and Ted could’ve even figured out how to work the time-traveling machine, let alone kidnap Joan of Arc. However, while Rufus is ultimately a good dude, the role restrains Carlin’s trademark antics. Gone is the fury and rage of his early stand-up comedy and, in its place, is a rather neutered hirsute fellow who knows his way around the electric guitar. A good time-travel helper, yes. Better than Doctor Emmett L. Brown? I think not.

Winner: Back to the Future

Better Time-Traveling Vehicle

While Bill and Ted’s time-traveling telephone booth seems quaint in a “wow, people didn’t always have cell phones” kind of a way, nothing can match the sheer awesomeness of Back to the Future’s De Lorean. If not for Back to the Future, everyone would remember John De Lorean as the guy who decided to hide cocaine in the door panels of his cars. Instead, they remember him as the namesake of perhaps the greatest time-traveling vehicle ever conceived.

Winner: Back to the Future

Better Token Females

Neither movie has particularly strong female characters. Back to the Future has two: Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, and Marty’s mother, Lorraine Baines McFly. Neither are particularly cool. Jennifer seems like a nice girl and all, but doesn’t seem to have much to say, save for the fact that she really wants to go to the lake.

Lorraine Baines McFly isn’t that nice. She smokes. She drinks. She parks. But most of all, she wants to sleep with her son. Granted, she doesn’t know that “Calvin Klein” is actually her offspring, but still, it’s creepy. Plus, she only decides to go for George McFly after he knocks out Biff. Seems shallow. One punch and suddenly she’s madly in love? C’mon Lorraine, you didn’t even read his Science Fiction short stories.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure showcases three female characters. The first two, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Joanna, are saved by Bill and Ted from marrying some “royal ugly dudes.” For this, they are eternally grateful and more than willing to move from Medieval England to San Dimas. Dedication. Plus, both play musical instruments and want to join Wyld Stallyns. Jadakiss would call kill these two ride or die chicks.

Also, one can’t forget Bill’s step-mom, Missy, who was so hot that Ted asked her to the prom. Additionally, her name was Missy. Nothing hits the zeitgeist of 1989 Southern California culture than a girl named Missy. Well played, Bill and Ted. Well played.

Winner: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Better Musicians

Both Bill and Ted and Marty McFly are huge music fans and guitar players. Marty fancies himself the lead guitarist of a rather lackluster band that seems content to play Huey Lewis songs. “The Power of Love??” “Back in time?” However, at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance, Marty steps up to the plate and plays a thrashing cover of “Johnny B. Goode.”

While McFly’s tastes are more white-bread and vanilla, Bill and Ted’s taste run harder, specifically towards Van Halen. At the beginning of the film, the dynamic duo express their disenchantment with the paradox that to make a “triumphant video” they need Eddie Van Halen to teach them to play the guitar and to get Eddie Van Halen to join the band, they need to make a “triumphant video.”

The film is rife with musical references. When Bill and Ted travel to the future they meet the “Three Most Important People in the World,” played by Clarence Clemons (the sax player for the E-Street Band), Martha Davis (lead singer of the Los Angeles new wave band, The Motels) and Fee Waybill (lead singer of the Tubes). What’s more, Joan of Arc was played by Jane Wiedlin, the rhythm guitarist for the Go-Go’s.

In the end, it all comes down to talent: according to the plot of the film, Bill and Ted’s music is so good that the future of mankind depends on it. Just like The Arcade Fire.

Winner: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Better Sequel(s)

Alas, this one isn’t much competition. Like the Star Wars Trilogy, one can argue all day long about their favorite Back to the Future film (I’ll go with II on the strength of the Hover Board and the fact that the filmmakers created the phrase “bojo.”)

Sadly, no one would ever argue that Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is close to its predecessor. The film is gloomy, centering around a dead Bill and Ted traveling to Heaven and Hell trying to enact revenge on the robot Bill and Ted’s that killed them. Not exactly your average family-friendly fare. Back to the Future III has a scene with ZZ Top playing “Doubleback” in 1885. Enough said.

Winner: Back to the Future

Back to the Future 5 - Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure 3

By: Jeff Weiss
Published on: 2006-11-30
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