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The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
Director: Stewart Raffill
review by Steven Hampton
Executive produced by John Carpenter, this is a time travelling action adventure romance, starring Michael Paré and Nancy Allen. It begins in 1943 with a secret US Navy operation to test a radar-invisibility machine in the hope of creating a perfect stealth warship to win WWII. Naturally, it all goes insanely wrong and two sailors find themselves moved forward in time to 1984, where the scientist responsible for the original 'Philadelphia Experiment' is repeating the process.
Based on an allegedly true story, this is weird, far-fetched and somewhat bizarre yet, like all the best SF/fantasy movies, The Philadelphia Experiment does obey its own internal logic, and successfully plays on the experience of disorientation and uncertainty of a man out of his own time like no other film before it, or since. In the accumulation of minor details (German beer, aluminium cans, old photos, punk fashions, colour TV, talking clocks, automatic gears, modern horror, and rock music - not to mention the helicopter gunship appearing like a UFO out of the dark!), the lonely hero is stunned by 'the shock of the new'.
Suddenly faced with an entire 40 years of cultural, social and technological change (his disbelief at Reagan's presidency is amusing, while his confusion at casual profanity from a woman reveals, more than anything else, how the decline in codes of acceptable behaviour and today's attitudes of permissiveness have eroded 'language' itself), he stumbles first into doubt and the threat of madness, then into fear and danger, before it becomes clear that his traditional values (courage, integrity, optimism and manners) do serve a purpose in this 'new' world, and may even be required (he is, after all, the only one who can close this potentially apocalyptic breach in spacetime) in order to save us; the whole planet - but the US, in particular, from modern low standards (suspicion, vulgarity, weakness and fraud), signified by a huge inverted vortex in the sky.
All the above moral perspectives are represented in the drama, which overcomes the standard pursuit and escape modes common to thriller narratives such as this (Paré spends about half the movie being chased by authority figures), partly by the sheer cinematic vigour of their execution (film editor Neil Travis later won an Academy Award for Dances With Wolves, and cinematographer Dick Bush is no slouch, either), partly through the knowingness of a script (albeit one with four credited writers) that condenses and builds on decades of science fictional myths surrounding the military-industrial complex. As ever, of course, what drives a movie like this is its sense of humanity, and both Paré and Allen bring a keen sense of humour and a convincing range of emotions to their showcase roles.
The Philadelphia Experiment is not as pleasing as Carpenter's own Starman (made the same year), but it still has a lot going for it as cross-genre road movie. It hasn't dated too badly - and is well worth a second look whether you liked it at original release, or not.
previously published online, VideoVista #20
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