Released on July 19, 1991, BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY is a lively and self-reflective experience for cinema fans to this day
If there’s one thing I can’t stand about film elitists, it’s that they continually insist on paying no mind to fun. The idea that a film’s worth is based on its seriousness, or that its seriousness somehow makes it more profound, is detrimental to the study of film. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to place an emphasis on the distinction between film lover and film elitist, with the former expressing an interest in pulling out the finest moments in all kinds of cinema, and the latter being, simply, a dismissive old stick-in-the-mud. Now, I expect you’ve gathered what type of film critic I aspire to be (which I suppose possesses an element of elitism in itself – oh, well), and, in that, I’d like to pull out the finest moments in a film that perhaps a lot of people have rejected based solely on preconception. Let’s take a deeper look at Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and I’ll show you how the film’s subtext of horror and existential philosophy gives the work an emotional depth reminiscent of something out of the catalogs of Ingmar Bergman or Wim Wenders.
I’ll admit the two Bill and Ted movies are somewhat easy targets for dismissal if you’ve never paid close attention to them. But something so deliberately nuanced as the Bill and Ted franchise deserves consideration, and Bogus Journey offers a tenable insight into human minds and behavior. Although the sequel lacks the same kind of widespread appeal of Excellent Adventure, it’s arguable that the esoteric nature of Bogus Journey is the source of its staying power. By expanding the Bill and Ted universe in such a dark way, we are allowed to fully consider the characters as real human beings who have worries and anxieties, and certainly, Bill and Ted have never been more relatable.
Authoritarian tyrant De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) builds evil robot versions of Bill and Ted in attempt to send them into the past and thwart the serene utopia created by Wyld Stallyns music. Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are killed by the robots and are sent to Hell, where they challenge the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) in order to win back their lives and return to Earth so that they can save their girlfriends, win the Battle of the Bands, and ensure a peaceful future for everyone.
Existentialism says we are the products of our own creation, and existential dread comes in when we realize the brunt of that responsibility. Questions like “How do we decide what we become?” and “How do we determine what makes our lives meaningful?” are common in this school of thought, and aren’t necessarily uncommon for most people. In the case of Bill and Ted, at the beginning of their story in Bogus Journey, they’re at a place in their lives where they have to start making hard decisions. We wonder: what exactly are their motivations? To marry the princesses? To be successful musicians? We know their future is determined to some degree (Wyld Stallyns do, of course, create world harmony), but the pressure of living up to those expectations takes a toll on the boys. They know they must write the greatest song the world’s ever heard, but at the same time, they fully realize their chops aren’t anywhere close to that yet. As Battle of the Bands organizer Ms. Wardroe (Pam Grier) tells them, “Guys, you keep telling me you’re gonna be the greatest band in the world, but you stink! Now, if you were me, would you put you guys on?” They answer in unison, “No way!” Although their drive to succeed is ample, that looming existential doubt takes hold of them. They have to win the Battle of the Bands not only to prove their songwriting skills, but also to be able to propose to their girlfriends. After all, as Bill says, “There’s no way we can raise a family on the money we make at Pretzels & Cheese, dude.”
After De Nomolos’ time-traveling robots (aka the “evil robot us’es”) murder the boys by throwing them off a cliff near Star Trek’s “Gorn Rock,” their monochromatic spirits emerge and are greeted by the Grim Reaper (the appearance of Death himself is an allusion to Bergman’s depiction of him in the highly existential The Seventh Seal – a reference that will come back around later in the film). Death anxiety comes from the fact that we’re all driven to live our lives in a way in which we actively avoid death. What’s so scary about it is that death is the absolute end to not just our worlds, but the end of our possibilities; we can no longer achieve goals or seize opportunities, so when thinking of death, we immediately fall victim to the prospect of regret. Death as a character represents the inescapable reality of knowing death happens to all of us, and that powers beyond our control are major contributors to that (in this way, Bogus Journey is an elaborate exercise in terror management theory). Bill and Ted are striving to live meaningful existences, and when their lives are unexpectedly taken from them, it’s an almost paradoxical catalyst for the two to focus on what’s important. They’re not only fighting to get their lives back, but to defeat De Nomolos’ totalitarian vision of a future where Wyld Stallyns are not peaceful unifiers. Since Bill and Ted have the most urgent of unfinished business (not to mention princesses to save!), they attempt to flee from Death by tricking him into thinking his shoes are untied, and giving him one hell of a melvin. They run away and attempt different methods of communicating with the living – including some silly police precinct possessions, and crashing stepmom Missy (Amy Stock-Poynton)’s seance. It’s during this seance that they’re mistaken for evil spirits and condemned to Hell.
Which brings me to this: in a film whose working title was “Bill and Ted Go to Hell,” one might expect some horror elements – and one wouldn’t be wrong. The scenes that follow are darkly surreal, employing a visual tonality that combines German expressionism with The Twilight Zone. The sets are spooky and off-putting in the same way as The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari, deliberately utilizing deranged and distorted forms in order to give the audience the jitters. We’re subjected to elaborate sets full of jagged, sharp angles and ominous staircases – not to mention the monsters who reside in these places. But before we’re fully introduced to these nightmares, Bill and Ted land in what seems to be an otherworldly waiting room – a strange bottomless pit with eerie red clay-colored light and craggy floating rocks – and quickly realize where they are (Bill says, “We got totally lied to by our album covers,” which seems like a strange, contradictory comment, but I digress). They’re then faced with the Devil himself – referred to as Beelzebub in the script – and things go even more sour from there.
Beelzebub drops Bill and Ted through a trapdoor, and they find themselves in what seem to be cramped industrial tunnels or claustrophobic submarine corridors, and they try a door to see if they can find a way out. The boys go through, and end up in a kind of expressionistic barracks room. We’re reminded of the boys’ anxiety of their perceived worst possible future, the one in which they’re involuntarily shipped off to the Alaskan military academy. Ted’s father’s old buddy Colonel Oats (Chelcie Ross) is there to torment them: he barks insults at the boys as he’s forcing them into an eternity of push-ups. The depiction is an obvious send-up of R. Lee Ermey’s dreadful drill sergeant character from Full Metal Jacket, except the insults are a bit, well, cutesy (“You petty, base, bully-bullocked bugger billies! You’re not strong! You’re silky boys!”). Nonetheless, the horrifying notion of doing “infinity push-ups” is enough to spur the boys into doing their best to quickly vacate that room, and I would argue that this incident is directly related to Bill and Ted’s existential struggle. The scene shows us the importance of free will – that we all bear the responsibility of figuring out who we are and making our lives meaningful. Of course Bill and Ted don’t want to go to military school, so it’s up to them to succeed at winning the Battle of the Bands to avoid such a (in their minds) dire fate. Escaping Colonel Oats is just the first step in taking charge of their destinies and determining their own existence.
As the boys’ flight takes them back into Hell’s corridors, they each end up entering new rooms separately, a device used to force them to face their own distinctly personal Hells. First, we see Ted transform into a younger version of himself where he is caught eating some of the chocolate out of his baby brother’s Easter basket. His antagonizer here is an overly-exaggerated, misshapen stuffed Easter bunny come to life. This bunny is modeled after the kind of old stuffed toys from the ‘50s that are plush animals with surreal plastic faces that come across as more monstrous than cute. The hellish pink creature taunts Ted, telling him he made his brother cry, and he must now be punished. The horror element here is two-fold: not only is the animatronic face of the evil bunny truly frightening, the surrealness of a childhood memory coming to life in such a horrific way is indicative of how the human mind works. We tend to remember things that make a high emotional impact, and no doubt some of those things are scary. Ted’s anxiety towards getting in trouble for eating his brother’s candy manifests itself in the form of that awful-looking bunny, the same way our childhood memories take their own ghastly forms sometimes. Our memories shape who we really are as people, and, further, how we interpret our memories helps us determine what our lives’ goals may be. Ted rejects this nightmare, and in doing so, relieves his shame and takes control of his future.
In Bill’s Hell, he is also transported back to his childhood: it’s a nightmarish birthday party where he is faced with something so icky as letting his grandmother give him a kiss. That in itself seems harmless enough, until we’re shown Granny S. Preston, Esq.’s face. The grotesquely wrinkled and hairy old woman is none other than Alex Winter in prosthetics, and he plays out the nightmare to a horrifying degree. We’re right there wincing in horror along with young Bill, trying to squirm ourselves away from the inevitability of that disgusting, rotten-toothed kiss. The sequence is a very Kafka-esque view of ageism in that it’s not really the age itself that determines our reaction, but more so how we perceive age. We dread aging not only because of impending death, but also because in the process, we metamorphose into another, almost foreign state of being. And so, we end up being scared of old people because they represent the demise of not just ourselves, but of our youth – which is something that perhaps the young Bill isn’t exactly thinking about, but he’s definitely reacting to. He doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings beyond “this woman is ugly, eww,” but gerontophobia is for sure playing a major part.
To get out of their eternal predicaments, the boys summon the Reaper and challenge him to a contest. This is the biggest reference to the aforementioned The Seventh Seal, except instead of just postponing the inevitable, the boys are trying to win back their lives. And, instead of the noble game of chess, Bill and Ted make Death play them in a series of silly board games (which proves to be one of the most absurdly funny sequences in the film). After the games are finished and the boys have won Death’s servitude, they’re right back on track. They know that as the “evil robot us’es” are standing in for them, they’re wreaking havoc on their lives and the lives of those close to them – including the women they love. Their dilemma does become a bit more personal here, as their focus shifts from making sure they’re around to write the perfect song to saving the princesses from the evil robots. In this sense, their motivations have broken away from the traditional ego-driven existentialist view of the self, and the boys are acting altruistically. Once they’ve defeated the robots, they must take on De Nomolos in the final boss battle as the entire world is watching live via satellite. “I want the whole universe to behold this transfer of power,” the authoritarian De Nomolos commands. “No longer will our future society be based on the ideas and music of these two fools. They will be based on my ideas, and my ideas alone!” In this final confrontation, Bill and Ted use time travel to outsmart the villain, proving that Good does triumph over Evil, and securing that the boys have finally discerned their lives’ meaning. In short, the whole ordeal cements the simple philosophy they’ve always known: be excellent to each other.
I’ll conclude by saying this: don’t think I’m not fully aware that the Bill and Ted movies aren’t silly. And don’t think I’m trying to convince anyone that they are the pinnacle of filmmaking. But Bogus Journey in particular possesses a degree of subtext that deserves to be taken seriously. Whether it be through horror elements or deeply-rooted philosophies, this film has something to say that puts it well above the stereotypical slacker comedy. Bill and Ted represent something in all of us: we all have worries and anxieties, but we also all have hopes and dreams. And it’s up to us to figure out not only where the importance lies, but also how to lead our lives in the most prosperous and meaningful way we can.