In 2688, humanity lives in a utopian society because of the inspiration of Bill Preston (Keanu Reeves) and Ted Logan (Alex Winter). Rufus (George Carlin) is asked to travel back in time to San Dimas, California, 1988, in a phone-booth time machine to make sure Bill and Ted pass their history class. If they fail, Ted’s father, Police Captain Logan (Hal Ladon Jr.) will send him to military school in Alaska, breaking up his band, The Wyld Stalyns, and changing history.
He finds them struggling to finish their history report—to describe how three figures from History would see the present San Dimas. Rufus offers his help as another phone booth time machine arrives and a second Bill and Ted step out, tell the boys to trust Rufus, and depart. Rufus takes the original pair back to 1805, where Napoleon Bonaparte (Terry Camillieri) is invading Austria. As they return to 1988, Napoleon is thrown by a cannonball explosion into their wake and is dragged with them. After Rufus departs in his machine, the boys find Napoleon falling out of a tree. They decide to kidnap historical figures and bring them back to help with their report. They drop off Napoleon with Ted’s brother Deacon (Frazier Bain) and leave.
They start with Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) and Socrates (Tony Steedman) and then visit 15th Century England, where they are smitten by Princess Joanna (Diane Franklin) and Princess Elizabeth (Kimberley LaBelle). They get into trouble with their father, the Evil Duke (John Karlsen), and Billy the Kid and Socrates rescue them, though the time machine is damaged. They end up in the far future and find out that the society there is based on their influence.
For extra credit, they kidnap Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis), Ludwig van Beethoven (Clifford Davis), Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin), Genghis Khan (Al Leong), and Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron). They stop to repair the phone booth in prehistoric times and return on the night before they left. They convince their other selves to trust Rufus, then find that Deacon has left Napoleon in a bowling alley. They leave the other kidnappees to study San Dimas and find Napoleon in a water park. The historic figures are arrested by Captain Logan. They figure out an escape plan and use the time machine to set it up. They give their presentation in school, which is a roaring success and everyone is impressed, even Ted’s Dad. Later, Rufus returns and gives them the princesses. He explains how their music will change the world.
The film was directed by Stephen Herek, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, based on their college stand-up routine. The director knew it would be a huge hit or a huge flop. Luckily it was the former, produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Earlier drafts had them bring back Hitler, but they decided to use Napoleon instead. The time machine in the beginning was in a 1969 Chevrolet, but that was too similar to the DeLorean in Back to the Future, so they used a phone booth instead. Nobody involved had ever seen Doctor Who.
Keanu as Ted was cast first and the search began for Bill. Alex Winter turned out to like the same music and motorcycles as Keanu and they became instant friends. Sometimes they forgot which part they were playing. Roy Forge Smith, the production designer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, was hired. The film distributer went bankrupt while the film was in post-production and they had to scramble to get a new distributor. Most of the suits they talked to were confused by the movie and by Reeves and Winter. Does anybody really talk that way? But they brought in a test audience of kids from the mall, who loved it. Buy and large, the critics hated it, which was another point in its favor. It spawned two sequels—Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and Bill and Ted Face the Music—not to mention the video games and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book.
Keanu Reeves once said, “My epitaph will read, Here lies Keanu Reeves, who played Ted.” Alex Winter said he got two kinds of letters from teachers: History teachers thanking him for getting kids interested in History, and English teachers deploring what he had done to the language. Eddie Van Halen said he would have been happy to play with Bill and Ted’s band if they had asked. Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen’s sax player, played a future dude, one of The Three Most Important People in the World, though we are not told why they were so important. Writer Chris Matheson was talked into writing the script by his father Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, The Thing, and dozens of other SF classics.