Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (1984)
My transition from a year of Top Gun into a year of Back to the Future continues with another movie involving a time-traveling U.S. Navy vessel. Unlike last week’s movie, The Final Countdown, this story doesn’t focus on the entire crew, but instead follows two sailors who take a tumble off of the USS Eldridge after it’s shaken up during an experiment to make it undetectable by radar. Disoriented and abandoned in a strange new world, their goals are to learn where they are, what happened to the ship, and why the sky has a giant, angry hole in it.
I apologize in advance for all the comparisons I’m going to make to The Final Countdown, but since their subjects and release dates are so close, parallels are inevitable. Whereas that film’s science-y chronobabble pretty much amounts to “huh, neat,” The Philadelphia Experiment gets credit for using the time travel itself as a problem to be dealt with. When our two main characters, David and Jim (Michael Paré and Bobby Di Cicco), trip and fall off of 1943, they have just as many questions as the future scientists they encounter who’ve been trying to solve the mystery of the missing ship since it first occurred. This aspect of the film, hunting for a solution from both ends of time, is intriguing. As the puzzle pieces are revealed, you realize you kind of need to throw out a few and punch the rest into place, but they get a gold star for, at the very least, holding my attention.
Rare footage of an actual plot hole.
Aside from all the space-time computer displays and science lightning, we’re treated to a pretty standard fish-out-of-water plot, though it seems a little forced at times. In the span of a few minutes, David and Jim are introduced to blood-covered breasts in a horror film, punk rockers, a transvestite, and, most shockingly of all, a man of Asian descent. It should be noted that this is not life in the big city; they’ve traveled from a harbor in Philadelphia to a small desert town. And population density aside, I don’t think any diner would ever be showing Spawn of the Slithis in the middle of the day, even in 2013.
Realistically, they should be shocked by Sally Jessy Raphael’s glasses.
You know what else has changed? Fucking Coke cans!
There are two separate scenes dedicated to this fact. Changes in weight, material, the pop-top… crazy, right?
The fact that they think they’re in another country certainly adds to the realism (would your first thought be time travel?), but it just doesn’t hold a candle to the details of how they got there. There’s also a refreshing twist when the two are separated, but I don’t want to reveal too much. Unfortunately, most scenes unrelated to science didn’t keep me too hooked. John Carpenter produced this film, and while I love several of his movies, there are a few unnecessary action and romance scenes that I often find to be a trademark of even his best work. Basically, no movie should remind me of Starman. Carpenter himself doesn’t like to be reminded of Starman (except the paycheck attached to it).
Huge ouch. I know, not what you’d expect from a man who cast wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in a lead role.
I apologize, today is not Pick on John Carpenter Day. Especially with that axe.
At least The Final Countdown had the excuse of actual USS Nimitz personnel trying their best to deliver lines. In contrast, Michael Paré has acted in over 90 films and television shows, and his performance, while by no means awful, is pretty flat. I don’t know, maybe that’s a snap judgment. The only other things I’ve seen him in are BloodRayne, Ninja Cheerleaders, and the Canadian sci-fi series Starhunter. All three were Netflix dares.
I understand that plenty of good action movies don’t have to hinge on the lead’s performance, but I don’t think I’d have an issue with the acting if the film only focused on the science experiment and the race against (and/or inside?) time. Unfortunately, there are some emotional moments that I really had to struggle to care about. I will say that Paré and Di Cicco play lost strangers, from blank shock to full-on panic, fairly effectively.
Nancy Allen is Nancy Allen.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
- Every single movie trailer before the DVD menu (Transylvania 6-5000, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and 18 Again!) contained a gratuitous visual gag involving large breasts.
- This film beat Back to the Future to a “character from the past can’t believe Ronald Reagan the actor became Ronald Reagan the president” joke. David sees Reagan making a speech on television and assumes it’s a movie. He has no reaction whatsoever to seeing Reagan as an old man. Just how prevalent were “Reagan used to act” jokes in the ’80s? If you were alive then, let me know.
- One of the screenwriters is named William Gray. That’s my name! Clearly, at some point during the Cinema 52 experiment, I will successfully travel back in time and sell the screenplay.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
While hiding from the police at a Best Western, Allison (Nancy Allen) suggests that maybe David was drugged by the government and isn’t actually from 1943. David, in a fit of thespian rage, begins throwing nearby objects around the room and shouting at Allison:
“Yeah, maybe none of this real! Hey! Maybe this [phone] isn’t real, right? Maybe this [shirt] isn’t real or maybe this [overturned table full of delicious-looking Chinese food] isn’t real! Maybe none of this– Maybe I’m not real! Maybe you’re not real! How ’bout that?!”
Some parts are definitely worth watching. Some of the story is engaging. Some of the special effects are really creative (and wonderfully, nostalgically ’80s). Some of the action sequences are great. It just doesn’t add up to anything astounding. The Final Countdown is the more streamlined naval time travel film, but I recommend you watch both together. Maybe have a brownie at intermission.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.