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.