Time Travel stories are fun for a lot of obvious reasons. Going to the future allows our imaginations to run wild and going to the past allows us to think of all the choice we had a a younger age. As the characters in a Time travel story face their predicament, we imagine ourselves confronted by some of the same obstacles and we wonder, “what would we do?” “The Philadelphia Experiment” is a Time travel story that exists within our history so it does not have new fangled do dads for us to marvel at (like the instant nail polish in “Total Recall”). This is a fish out of water story with a scientific crisis to make it more complicated.
In the early 1980s, New World Pictures was the home of Roger Corman and his philosophy of do it cheap, but be creative. This film claims to have John Carpenter as the Executive Producer and in later publicity material, his association was exploited as a selling point, but this is not a Carpenter film. It does however feel like a Corman inspired project, even though his name is nowhere to be seen. The premise takes an urban legend of a physics experiment gone bad and turns it into a Science Fiction action film with fuzzy science, unnecessary action, but some creative plot points that make it intriguing.
Michael Pare returns to this project just a couple of months after his first 1984 film, “Streets of Fire“. In this story he is David Herdeg, a sailor who was part of the alleged experiment in October of 1943. Scientists are trying to create a radar cloak that will render American ships invisible on the high seas. At first it seems as if the experiment has succeeded, as the ship disappears from the radar of a neighboring vessel. Of course in a movie like this, something has to go wrong, and it turns out that the ship really does vanish altogether. As the ship fades in and out of a time space continuum, David and his buddy Jimmy leap off of the ship and into a time vortex.
All of the Special Effects in this film are photographic effects that render objects into different shading or reproduce the climax of 2001. None of them are expensive and the actors are asked to give it their all in making the effects seem more realistic. The viewer at least knows something is supposed to be happening because the colors shift and there is screaming. Frankly, I’m OK with this most of the time. A Science Fiction story can be about ideas, it does not always need big budget effects. It looked a little chintzy but my problems with this movie have nothing to do with the visuals.
The Twilight Zone has always been a favorite of mine. This movie has several elements to it that make it feel very “Zone” like. The two time travelers are military personnel, their realization that they are in a different time comes from the way they encounter technology, and sometimes they cope with it well and other times react in super intense frustration. If you dig through enough of the original Twilight Zone series, you will certainly see these traits. If the film had stuck to those premises I think it could have been more interesting. Instead, there is a Earth altering rift in time that forms the backdrop of the drama. We don’t stick to simple guys trying to cope with a barely imaginable scenario, the writer has to layer in a crisis, and then manufacture some conflict, and then stick in some chases and gunfights to make it an action piece. That is where the “Philadelphia Experiment” goes off the rails.
Forty one tears out of place, David and Jimmy are chased by both human characters and the time space continuum itself. When they arrive in the present day, 1984, the town they land in disappears. They are chased by lighting strikes from the vortex and run from the area. Later in the story, Jimmy is plagued by his hand and the glowing effects of traveling through time. When he is hospitalized at one point, we know how dramatic the physical impact is because the actor nearly levitates off the bed in paroxysms of pain. Ultimately his character leaves this dimension but David now has a foreshadowing glow in his hand. Before that happens, they become fugitives from the law because they kidnap a woman to escape from a crazy man who wants to shoot them for shocking his video arcade games. The guys are just starting to realize how the world has changed when they must go on the lam to justify a car chase. David is given several chances to connect with the military authorities but he runs when they show up and inexplicably, the military guys who are so anxious to get him because he is needed for the modern version of the experiment start shooting at him when he runs. None of this made any sense. If David had connected with the scientist responsible for both events, and they had tracked some of the time travel elements together, the story would have been more coherent.
I will say, that the idea of running away with Nancy Allen, as their kidnap victim Allison, would be appealing. For the decade between “Carrie” and “Robocop” she was a staple in movies like this and she was a lovely presence. Between her and Michael Pare, the purpose of the movie seems to be to give dating couples something to each care about during the course of the movie. The romance here is underdone. In “The Terminator” later this year, the couple on the run have a more realistic romantic arc, but it does lose it’s PG rating.
There are several nice touches in the movie that spark a sense of the time displacement. David finds a radio station that plays music from his time. In 1984, there were still stations that played nostalgia music, before KFI became a conservative talk radio station, it was an AM home for Benny Goodman, The Lennon Sisters and Glen Miller. The modern sequences are set in 1984, so a year before we get the same reference in “Back to the Future”, there is a quick reference to the fact that David recognizes the guy who is President forty years after his time. I also enjoyed David’s confusion in the jail cell with his transvestite cellmate. It’s not hard to imagine how differently we might interact with the world with a change in time like this. It is only thirty years since this movie was made, but the cigarette smoking, seat-belt non-use and the car styles all make that time seem so far away.
When David does finally connect with the military and the scientist, after an action sequence that would have been eliminated by his simply knocking on the door and saying, “You wanted to see me?”, he then becomes a pivotal figure in repairing the time rift. Decked out in a space suit that will hopefully prevent him from melting into the surface of the ship he has to return to, David is now a man of action out of time. He may never see the girl he has fallen in love with again, and the whole world and ultimately Universe could collapse into this black hole vortex event that is the focus of the story in the last part of the film.
There are some striking images that do not last long, when the Experiment is finally shut down. The image of the ship returning to it’s spot in the Philadelphia port is simple enough. Just add glowing halo effect and the time shifting takes place in front of astonished onlookers on a nearby vessel. The more dramatic image would be the stuff that would build an urban legend around this event. Sailors eviscerated or sunk into the surfaces of the ship are the kinds of things that UFO crackpots would latch on to. If the time travel material had focused on both ends of the event and cut out the phony action chase scenes, this would have been a more haunting and memorable film. As it is, it ends up being mediocre. It wastes the Time Travel premise and underdeveloped the love story so that very little of the film stood out. I know I saw this film at least three times in 1984, and a couple of times in the decade after that. I remembered virtually nothing about the story as I was re-watching the movie for this post, and I suspect that in a couple of months, I’ll need to read back my own comments here to be able to recall it in any depth.