One of Keanu Reeves’ best known movie franchises is also an unacknowledged visionary tale. Its heroes are thoroughly ordinary individuals who learn they are destined to change the future of humanity. The story touches on human potential, defeating a materialist and meaningless existence (as symbolised in a battle against artificial intelligence), and overcoming death.
But I’m not talking about The Matrix.
The first time I saw the science fiction comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) as a kid, something about it captured my imagination. At the time I couldn’t explain what that something was, but today I know I was drawn to its visionary elements.
The Matrix trilogy (1999 onwards) shares some of these elements, but not to the same degree. I admit that Bill & Ted is not exactly an obvious candidate for visionary fiction. While most would be more likely to think of the Matrix trilogy, I personally think the Bill & Ted franchise is a better fit.
The Good Ending
Most visionary fiction writers and readers take this genre very seriously. After all, it’s about the growth of human consciousness. It brings in teachings from spiritual faiths and/or enlightened masters. It contains a higher message, and more often than not, suggestions on what we need to do to ensure we reach our potential, while avoiding self-destruction. Of course, this is no laughing matter. But is all visionary fiction so serious? Once upon a time in ancient Greece and Rome, a comedy was not a story that makes us laugh, but a story with a good ending. Most of us also expect visionary fiction to have some sort of good ending, or more specifically, one that promotes faith in humanity and its inner potential. Personally, I’m not convinced that the ambiguous ending of The Matrix Reloaded, the final movie of the trilogy, can be classified as truly visionary, and in any case the Matrix storyline is almost exclusively focused on humanity’s physical survival, rather than its potential. By comparison, the Bill & Ted franchise has a clearly defined good ending.
A Brief History of the Plot
Best friends Bill and Ted are decent and kind, but not book smart. They are on the verge of failing high school, with no prospects for their future. Ted’s father has threatened to send his son to military school. But all the boys want to do is to pursue a musical career as the band ‘The Wyld Stallyns’ (the problem here being that they can’t actually play a musical instrument).
In order to pass, they need to score nothing short of an A+ in their oral history presentation. A time traveller from 700 years in the future called Rufus arrives in a phone booth, and he tells them they are destined to bring peace to the world through their music. To fulfil their destiny, they must get that history grade, and he is here to help make it happen.
Rufus takes Bill and Ted through time to pick up various famous historical personalities including Socrates, Beethoven, and Freud, and also two beautiful English princesses who are destined to form part of the band and become their wives. After a few mishaps, they return to their high school in the nick of time. With an unusual and impressive presentation featuring these personalities from the past, Bill and Ted earn that much-needed A+ grade. At the end, we leave Bill and Ted still unable to play, but we assume that all is well for the future.
The Incomplete Trilogy
The first film was missing one or two visionary elements, namely the paranormal and/or supernatural. These were addressed in the second film (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, 1991), with the introduction of Death, God, Heaven and Hell. After a villain from the future sends look-a-like robots into the past to kill and replace Bill and Ted, we see our heroes conquer Death – literally to save their souls, and rhetorically by earning his friendship (Death eventually joins their band). At the end, Bill and Ted return to life. They are due to perform at a ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition, a key event on the path to their destiny, but they still cannot play. To get round this they use Rufus’ time machine to simply pop out of the present, learn guitar elsewhere, and then pop back into the present.
After they win the competition, we only get a short-cut summary of their musical career, part of which is shown only in the end credits, and even here, technically Bill and Ted have not quite fulfilled their destiny, beyond having learned to play. We the audience feel cheated, as we don’t experience the ‘good ending’ in full, and this perhaps is one of the reasons that the movie received mixed reviews.
A Recurring Nightmare
The most interesting quirk of both the Bill & Ted movies to date is their failure to convince the audience that Bill and Ted successfully played their part in taking humanity to a new phase in its evolution. It is my belief that every story ever told, no matter how mundane, reflects a facet of humanity’s collective dream – and sometimes, nightmare. At the surface level, good intent combined with a lack of follow-through from Bill and Ted in both movies portrays the typical teen ‘slacker’ characteristics of Generation X. From a visionary perspective, it also reveals the dangerous consequences of apathy, the kind that in the past led to the near-apocalypse that was World War II, and now seems to be taking the entire planet to the verge of extinction.
What? Bill & Ted says all that?
The first movie was a comment on the world as it was then: Brimming with optimism (though in real life this was quickly fading), and confident that everything would work out fine. The second movie, as a comment on that fading optimism, asked what will happen if we fail to take control of our lives, and have to face death. The ending again takes the optimistic but naive view that we can overcome our problems by sheer force of our hidden potential, even if we have done absolutely nothing to actually unlock it.
The Unanswered Question
In 2010, twenty odd years after the second Bill & Ted
movie, the press reported that its writers were working
on a script for a third, and by March 2019 the aptly
titled Bill & Ted Face the Music was officially announced. The new film is already in postproduction,
and is set to be released in August 2020.
(Incidentally, a fourth instalment of The Matrix was also announced in August 2019, to be released in August 2022).
And so, on to the present in the Bill & Ted universe, where the question apparently comes back to: Will they really learn to play on time? Will they write the song that will save the world, no, the universe? The plot, as Keanu Reeves describes it, is that a voice from the future will come to warn a now middle-aged Bill and Ted (now professional but average musicians with strained family relationships) that they have just 80 minutes to write a song to save the universe – including the fabric of space and time itself. Harking back to the plot of the first movie, they will again travel through time. And once again, true to visionary form, they will seek the help of everyone around them – including more historical figures and even their grown-up daughters – to finally write the epoch-changing song. We hope!
I for one look forward to seeing what hints this movie might make about our collective dream, and our near future. After all, according to many scientists across the world, we are rapidly running out of time. And not only our evolution but our very survival depends on our individual and collective responsibility. We need to move and act together. Apathy is not an option. Will we learn to play in harmony, and moreover, will we learn on time?
This is an ominous question, but the Bill & Ted franchise at least still strives to find that good ending – and so should we.
On that note, we might recall the advice of our erstwhile friends, Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted (Theodore) Logan:
#billandted #billandtedfacethemusic #keanureeves