The Philadelphia Experiment

Director: Stewart Raffill
Michael Paré, Nancy Allen, Eric Christmas

A lot of time has passed since I last discussed it, so I think it's now time enough to talk about it again. The subject that I am talking about is time. To be specific, I am talking about time travel, the kind that you find in numerous motion pictures. In the past, I have reviewed several movies concerning time travel - just scroll down to the bottom of this page to get to links going to three such time travel movies I've reviewed. If you read those reviews, you will see that I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about any of those three movies. I must admit that my lack of enthusiasm of time travel movies isn't just limited to those movies. Most - not all, but most - time travel movies I find fail to satisfy me. This may sound a little surprising, because after all, doesn't the idea of time travel lead to a number of possibilities? For one thing, not only can you go back in time, you can also go forward in time. But there are problems with each direction, if you ask me. For one thing, various story tellers (not just filmmakers) who deal with going back in time can't seem to make up their minds as to what can be done by going to the past. Some of them say that the past can be changed by someone traveling in time to the past, which then can change the present day where the time traveler started from. And then there are others say that the past is the past, and cannot be changed. With the conflicting arguments, for me it's impossible to feel that a time travel movie is playing by the rules. I think it would take time travel to actually be invented in real life for me to start enjoying subsequent time travel movies, since then they would have to follow the subsequent rules scientists would find when experimenting with time travel.

The biggest objection I have with time travel movies that involve going back in the past is that, to me at least, there are far more time travel stories involving going back in the past than there are those that involve going into the future. To me, that's kind of boring. The future seems untapped, and has the potential to be many, many different kind of differences from how things are now. But in my heart, I know why so many more time travel movies involve going into the past rather than the future. For one thing, it seems easier to recreate the past rather than create a future world. In this world of ours, it's easy to find old buildings and various other old things, and parade them in front of the camera to recreate the world of the past. This is a lot easier and a heck of a lot cheaper than constructing from scratch futuristic building, props, etc. It's also easy for a writer to do research on the past in order to create characters in the past world of a time travel story that we can believe when we observe them on the screen - much easier than, say, coming up with a fictional future world that can seem plausible to us in this present day and age. But even if a movie producer does decide to bite the bullet and put in the time and expense needed to make a futuristic world acceptable to a present day audience, there is a possible problem that can come down the road. And that is when the movie is seen by audiences years later. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I accompanied some of my friends to a movie theater showing a special screening of a 1980s Star Trek movie. No, it wasn't one of the time traveling movies, but one scene made an impression on me that I can use to illustrate the potential problem I am talking about. In the opening scene, a Starfleet crew in the future was seen on the control deck of a Federation ship. In one shot, a crew member was flipping switches on a control panel. The switches may have looked high tech back in the 1980s, but more than twenty years later they looked hopelessly dated and nothing like present day computer control switches. And I, my friends, and the rest of the audience chuckled out loud at that sight.

In other words, futuristic visions often inevitably become old-fashioned to audiences who see these visions years after they were first made. So from that fact and the others that I brought up in the previous paragraph, you can see that there are legitimate reasons why so many filmmakers dealing with time travel have shied away from tales of traveling into the future. There are some The Philadelphia Experimentout there, definitely, like the 1960 and 2002 adaptations of the H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine.  But I would like to talk about one such movie that tackles traveling to the future in a unique way that avoids many of those aforementioned pitfalls. It uses the same basic idea that the 1979 major studio movie Time After Time used - characters from the past traveling to the future, the future being the time when the movie was made. That movie is The Philadelphia Experiment. It's a kind of clever way to go around it, especially when working with a low budget like these filmmakers had. The movie has an additional interest in that it's based on a long-standing rumor coming out of World War II, that being that during the war the American military tested an anti-radar experiment on a naval vessel in Philadephia, an experiment that turned deadly. The movie begins in 1943 with the American military just about to start their experiment on the naval vessel Eldridge, and we meet two of the sailors on the vessel, David (Paré, Streets Of Fire) and Jim (Bobby Di Cicco, National Lampoon Goes To The Movies). When the experiment is put into effect, it quickly creates deadly chaos all over the ship, and in the panic David and Jim jump overboard. They fall not into the water, but into some strange force that transports them not only to a far off southwestern desert location, but to the year 1984. They don't immediately know they are in the future, but as they hike to civilization they stumble upon clues that something is not quite right, not just with various modern gadgets they spot, but also with Jim showing strange symptoms. When Jim's growing symptoms panic the patrons of a diner they come across in their travels, the two are forced to kidnap and flee with one of the people at the diner, a woman named Allison (Allen, Sweet Revenge). Jim's symptoms soon after turn even worse, and David and Allison soon determine that the effects of the time travel experiment not only threatens to destroy Jim, but all of mankind as well.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, The Philadelphia Experiment was a low budget enterprise. I did know before watching it that it was deemed releasable to theaters (several hundred in number, in fact) at the time it was made... though seasoned B movie fans will know that in 1984, it was still possible for what would be instantly labelled direct to DVD quality today to get a fairly wide release to theaters. So was its theatrical release justified? Well, I'll start my critique by examining two of the movie's attributes, the production values and the special effects. When it comes to the general look of the movie, things are pretty sound. The movie is both acceptably photographed and lit in both indoor and outdoor locations. However, when it comes to bringing in various kinds of eye candy, the results are somewhat mixed. In the opening scenes set in 1943, there is some period detail (cars, uniforms, etc.) on display, and the movie managed to get a hold of a real American naval vessel to shoot on. But while the period detail we see often looks sound, at the same time it often looks a little tight. We get small rooms and scenes shot close-up, and you get the feeling that details that would be considered modern are just right out of camera range instead of a feeling that what's offscreen is also of the World War II era. When the movie shifts to 1984, the tight feeling no longer exists, but there are new problems. Now, some of the special effects and sets in this portion of the movie are acceptable, like the burning of real buildings at the climax of the movie, but there are some effects that come across as very dated in this day and age. The computer-generated visuals, namely, but the effects artists also use solarization effects, a technique that was old hat even in 1984. Several uses of superimposing two images together in the same frame look like cut and paste was done, and I mean literal cutting and pasting, not the cut and paste with your computer's paint program.

In the end, while The Philadelphia Experiment has some special effects and visuals that would hold up if released to a theater today, there are a number of times when most modern audiences would feel the seams are showing. But those moments did not bother me too much. I am more often than not willing to put up with shabby special effects and visuals in a movie as long as the most important aspects of the movie are sound - direction, story, and characters. When it comes to the direction of the movie, the movie is pretty disappointing. Director Stewart Raffill (who later made bombs like Mac And Me and Mannequin: On The Move) fails to put what really should be in a time travel movie like this: a sense of awe as well as adventure. For example, take the experiment that happens in the first part of the movie. There's no feeling that something big is about to happen by any of the characters; it comes off as simply routine by everyone involved. Instead, here and in other key moments of the movie, Raffill goes for a surprisingly low key approach. Time travel, car and foot chases, and other action moments you might expect even a novice director would be able to nail are pretty much completely botched. Because these key moments are not the least bit exciting, the problems with the movie's story become a lot more evident. There's a quite long section in the movie where the character of David along with Allison make a cross country trip in order to locate people David knew back in 1943. What difference does this trip make? Absolutely none at all - it could have all been completely cut out of the movie without making any holes in the thin story. It soon becomes clear that it's just padding. Smarter screenwriters would have written a story with the protagonists constantly in danger yet making progress towards reaching their goal with every new scene.

Since I have just mentioned the protagonists, it seems the right time to look at these characters in depth. I don't know about you, but one objection I often have with time travel movies where characters travel to a future time is that the time traveling characters come across as somewhat stupid. If you remember my review of World Without End, though I liked the movie I did object to how slow the time traveling characters were in realizing they were in the future. True, lots of things may have changed for the time traveling protagonist(s), but I think a reasonably intelligent person would quickly catch on, like H. G. Wells did in Time After Time. So how do the time travelers - or for that matter, the other characters - in The Philadelphia Experiment come across? Well, when it comes to David and Jim's first reactions to 1984, they do seem smarter than average. They don't freak out at the sight of things like television and video games, and they do figure out pretty quickly they are in the future. But as for other aspects of these characters, the screenplay pretty much botches things. (Mild spoilers ahead.) We learn almost nothing about David and Jim before they travel back in time. Once they travel back in time, it doesn't take long for Jim to make an exit for pretty much the rest of the running time. That leaves David with Allison, and a romance eventually brews between the two - a romance I was completely uninterested in. David makes some actions in the movie that make him come across as somewhat unlikable, made worse by the fact that actor Michael Paré seems to be channelling Sylvester Stallone at times. Allison comes across as quite dumb at times, like when she admits she does not know why she's helping David when bullets have already flown all around. I ask you: who would care if these two people manage to find love or reach their goals? For that matter, who would care about the rest of the movie itself? This is usually the time when I make a snappy last remark about the particular bad movie I am reviewing, but I have to admit that this time around I am stumped; the movie is bad, but not aggressive in its badness to have ripe material for what I want. However, if time travel does become a possibility in the future, and I get a good idea for a one-liner when that happens, I will travel to my past self when writing the last part of this review and I will instruct him to change the last two sentences of this review.

(Posted July 14, 2018)

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See also: Idaho Transfer, Retroactive, Time Trackers