The Summer of '84: The Philadelphia Experiment -

The Summer of '84

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  • Starring: Michael Pare, Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Ciccio, Eric Christmas and Louise Latham
  • Written by: Michael Janover and William Gray
  • Directed by: Stewart Raffill
  • Studio: New World Pictures
  • Rating: PG
  • Run Time: 102 minutes
  • Series:

The Summer of '84: The Philadelphia Experiment

"Where the hell's the clutch?!"

By Rob Vaux     August 04, 2014

The Philadelphia Experiment
© New World Pictures/Robert Trate

Kids like to think of movies like The Philadelphia Experiment as “grown-up.” The kind of movie you want to see just because you’re certain the adults are flocking to it and gleaning some kind of secret grown-up knowledge that you too could share if only you bought a ticket yourself. In truth, the film actively caters to kids and kids’ sensibilities, complete with an over-the-top sci-fi plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if professing adult sensibilities gets a few more twelve-year-old butts on Saturday matinee seats, who are the producers to complain?

Time-travel movies are a high-risk, high-reward venture. They fail more often than not, but the successes rank among the best that movie science fiction has to offer. This one does not succeed, though it evinces some good intentions in the process. It starts with a rather obscure urban legend, concerning a military experiment conducted in Philadelphia’s harbor in late 1943. They were trying to develop a cloaking device for Allied vessels, and depending on which version of the tale you believe, they either created a visibly invisible battleship, or shot the ship forward or backward in time.  It’s a serviceable little myth which the producers use as the jumping off point for all kinds of fish-out-of-water silliness.  With the movie’s version of the experiment, something goes drastically wrong, and two seamen (Michael Pare and Bobby Di Ciccio) try to shut it off.  They get shot into the future as a reward: dumped in the Nevada desert thanks to some cheesy-fun visual effects and forced to grapple with the mind-bending reality of life in 1984.

There’s more to it, with vortexes and vanishing ships and mad scientists who somehow need these two guys to make everything right again. But the real purpose of the exercise is to engage into the expected fish-out-of-water scenes where the swabbies from WW II have to contend with arcade games, clock-radios and other modern appliances like anthropologists unearthing ancient tribal artifacts. A few ringers improve matters, like Nancy Allen as the nice modern girl who helps our boys out, and veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky as one of the mad scientists. (The rest of the cast, unfortunately, isn’t quite up for the task before them.)

The screenplay is peppered with portentous dialogue of the “we’ve never seen anything like this” variety. It’s cheerful and goofy without ever quite finding its rhythm. The scenario contains countless interesting places to go, but settles for a by-the-numbers science-run-amok plan that countless other films have covered before. It pokes awkwardly at an anti-authoritarian message, complete with grumbling sheriffs and sinister government types popping in and out. But The Philadelphia Experiment spends too much time going over information we already knew that we can’t get up to speed on why we should care. Excitement comes as one of more of our heroes seeks to escape misunderstanding government types, inserted crudely in between ponderous exposition and some obvious metaphors about man’s capacity for destruction. 

It’s all agreeable enough, and the retro quality can be charming in its way, but it can’t manage any more than that. John Carpenter is listed as one of the executive producers, and I imagine what wonders he could have accomplished with this material. But such was not to be (Carpenter released Starman a few months later), leaving The Philadelphia Experiment an anonymous also-ran in an era crowded with classics in the making. It’s not wretchedly bad, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything special or noteworthy. Small wonder it’s been largely forgotten, suitable only for throw-back parties and the occasional long-ago kid who wants to recall what we used to think a grown-up movie looks like.


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RobertTrate 8/4/2014 3:30:49 PM

 I have not seen it in a long time. But it is missing that certain something. Did you ever see the sequel Rob? Interesting premise, but again, poorly executed. 

blankczech 8/4/2014 6:34:06 PM

 Interesting...a review telling us not to waste our time on a movie from 30 years ago that no one wanted to see in the first place.  You know that movie you had no desire to see...I suggest that you don't see it.

spiderhero 8/4/2014 6:42:38 PM

blankczech: If you don't care, don't read the review. I enjoy these blast from the past reviews. They're fun. Also interesting. I've watched clips of some of the movies revied and have had a few good lughs. (Some intentional, others not.)

Anyhow, accept them for what they are or don't. But I don't see why you have to step in here with such negativity.Go yell at some kids to get off your lawn or something...

Dodgyb2001 8/5/2014 12:47:31 AM

I liked the counter film to this when I saw it as a kid, The Final Countdown. A modern aircraft carrier is slung back in time to the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and the navy men have to decide what they're going to do, use the superior firepower of modern weapons and supersonic jets to defeat the attack and hopefully save hundreds of thousands of lives, but possibly change the future for the worse, or let things play out knowing that the Axis will definitely be defeated if they change nothing.

Theicon 8/5/2014 1:46:07 PM

 Actually thats the sequel @Dodgyb2001 except it was a scientist who sent a stealth bomber to his father in the past and it changed the future. Only the main character of the philadelphia experiment was the only one not changed with time because he is outside of time technically. I enjoyed both movies and own them on dvd. I might go ahead and watch em again now.

RobertTrate 8/6/2014 2:34:30 PM

 I love the Final Countdown. Great concept and ending. One of Kirk Douglass' best. 

freestrike 8/9/2014 11:35:07 AM

I think the review is a little harsh.  The movie wasn't shakspear but it was entertaining.



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