If you had to bet whether the third installment of the Bill & Ted franchise, released more than thirty years after the goofy time-travel franchise launched in 1989, would be a good movie, you could be forgiven for placing your chips on “no.” Long-belated sequels rarely turn out well. But Bill & Ted Face the Music, released theatrically and on VOD last weekend, was a critical success. Writing in the Atlantic, film critic Devin Gordon summarized its charm: “Bill & Ted Face the Music is very funny, and very sweet, and yes, I may have even cried a little at the end,” Gordon writes. “It strikes a deeper chord than the first two movies, though, because it’s about something real.”
What Bill & Ted Face the Music is about, ultimately—and fittingly, for a franchise built around a phone booth that lets its operators flit from year to year—is time, and it uses temporality as a storytelling device. Specifically, it utilizes time in the way Richard Linklater pioneered in Boyhood, the 2014 feature that the Texas filmmaker shot over twelve years: it shows us the same faces we had seen in the early part of the characters’ journey, now grown older, to create a poignant effect.
Bill & Ted isn’t the only post-Boyhood project to use decades as a narrative tool. Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid sequel that moved to Netflix last week (after a brief run as an original scripted series from the short-lived YouTube Red service), is built around seeing the 1984 karate franchise’s hero (Ralph Macchio) and villain (Billy Zabka) as middle-aged men, their lives defined by the pivotal moment in their youth that functioned as the first film’s climax. Like Bill & Ted, the Karate Kid franchise had long been dormant—the last film in the series featuring Macchio and Zabka was released in 1989, though a 2010 remake with no original cast members was a box office success—when Cobra Kai revisited the characters. Cobra Kai is also a hit: in addition to critical praise, the series’s rerelease on Netflix has led it, as of this week, to be the platform’s most-watched show in the U.S.
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The idea of revisiting old franchises decades later isn’t new. The Godfather, Star Wars, Rocky, and Indiana Jones all did that long before Linklater made Boyhood. But the pre-Boyhood installations of those franchises all dealt with time differently. The Godfather Part III, released in 1990, artificially aged Al Pacino with makeup. Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace, from 1999, is a prequel that puts none of the faces from the original trilogy on camera. The scripts for both 2006’s Rocky Balboa and 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull struggled to justify the ages of their stars—Rocky Balboa spends much of its first hour explaining how and why a sixty-year-old Sylvester Stallone could get back in the ring, while Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a torch-passing franchise cap in which Harrison Ford bestows his iconic hat on a successor, played by Shia LaBeouf.
Post–Boyhood, though, we’ve seen projects such as Bill & Ted Face the Music and Cobra Kai not only work well, but also deliberately tell a story that’s possible only because of how much time has passed since its leading actors first played those roles. Bill & Ted Face the Music takes seriously the original film’s absurd premise—that these two goofballs are going to write a song that ushers in a golden age for humanity—and then asks: what does it mean to have been told that you’d do something spectacular with your life, and then to look back in middle age and wonder where the time went? Cobra Kai explores a similar theme: if the sort of climactic moment that occurs at the end of The Karate Kid is as definitive a moment for its characters as Hollywood makes it out to be, then how does it shape the lives of the people it happened to decades later? The fact that these questions can be explored through big-ticket franchises such as Bill & Ted and The Karate Kid speaks to how potent time, the way Linklater used it, is as a cinematic force.
Boyhood was praised for its innovation upon its release, and even critics who disliked it were often stunned by the effect of watching actors grow and age in front of them. We connect to the otherwise-mundane journey of the lead character, played by Ellar Coltrane, because we saw him grow from little boy to young man over the course of the film. There’s no way to replicate that effect except by putting in the years.
Boyhood wasn’t exactly the first film to recognize that time had a unique power in filmmaking, but it took the idea further than any story that preceded it. The “Up” series, a documentary project that revisited the same group of subjects every seven years starting in 1964, began exploring time as a storytelling device—but the context of a documentary is very different from a narrative film, and the post-Boyhood films were specifically interested in time’s narrative power. French filmmaker Francois Truffaut’s five-film “Adventures of Antoine Doinel” set, released from 1959 to 1979, is more along those lines—as is Linklater’s own Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy, which revisits the same couple every nine years from 1995 to 2013.
But Boyhood looms larger than similar projects. It was nominated for six Oscars and five Golden Globes—earning “Best Motion Picture—Drama,” “Best Director,” and “Best Supporting Actress” at the latter ceremony—before an Oscar backlash that questioned whether Linklater’s film utilized all of those years as effectively as possible. “Among some industry filmmakers, the sense was ‘give me 12 years, and I’d show you what I could do with a feature film,'” the New York Times reported in the days before the 2015 Academy Awards, at which Boyhood was nearly shut out. (Patricia Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.)
The film is so interested in the impact that the years can have on the audience’s relationship to the characters that it eschews a traditional plot in favor of something more impressionistic; Linklater himself seemed to nod to the idea that you could tell a different kind of story using the same technique. Last year, when he announced that he’d cast Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein in an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which he’d be filming over twenty years for a release in 2039. (Time is a subject that Linklater is constantly fascinated by; last year, at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, the arts complex devoted an exhibit to exploring the director’s relationship with its passage.) And the filmmakers behind Bill & Ted Face the Music and Cobra Kai seem to recognize that the temporal power that Linklater harnessed in Boyhood could be focused in ways that yielded new storytelling possibilities.
Rather than struggle to explain away the years that had passed, in other words, Bill & Ted Face the Music and Cobra Kai seek to explore their potential, telling stories that couldn’t be told without them. Before Linklater made Boyhood, few filmmakers seemed to even consider that it was possible.