The Philadelphia Experiment

The Philadelphia Experiment is a low-budget bit of nonsense that explores a well-trod sector of that vast region known as the Twilight Zone: time travel.

In fact, this film conjures up visions of long-gone supernatural TV shows: not just “Twilight Zone” but also “The Outer Limits,” and a particular favorite of mine during Cub Scout years, “The Time Tunnel.”

Like the “Time Tunnel” shows, the heroes of The Philadelphia Experiment are flipped around in the time warp thanks to a government experiment that goes wrong. In this case, a couple of sailors (Michael Paré and Bobby Di Cicco) are serving aboard a destroyer in Philadelphia Bay in 1943. Some hotshot scientists claim to have a device that will cloak U.S. ships from enemy radar, and they test it out on the ship with a full crew.

Levers are pushed, and soon everybody on board is shaking and rattling and turning different shades of orange. The ship disappears from radar contact, all right—it also disappears from view. Yipes! The next thing we know, Paré and Di Cicco are tumbling through a tear in the space-time continuum (I don’t really know what that means, but it always sounds good when they say it in these movies—and they always do).

They end up in the Nevada desert in 1984, where they are deposited because the government is once again trying the same test—won’t they ever learn?—and Paré and Di Cicco drop through a hole in the sky. They spend the next couple of days trying to go back, with the help of a woman (Nancy Allen) who doesn’t mind a little adventure.

That hole in the sky is, of course, not the only hole in this plot. But, while this film is ragged and adolescent, it also has a sense of humor about itself. When Paré and Di Cicco wander about the desert, they pick up a bottle of beer: Lowenbrau. Good heavens—could the Germans have won the war? There are also humorous, if predictable, jokes about first encounters with television, punk rockers, and video games.

The director, Stewart Raffill, bumps things along quite adroitly—and at times, with some delicacy. For instance, there’s a prologue in which we’re introduced to Di Cicco’s 1943 wife. Later, Paré shows up at her door—in 1984. He hasn’t changed—people who travel through time never do, as everyone knows—but she’s much older. Interesting situation, and poignantly handled.

Raffill isn’t quite as sure with his actors. Paré, the chef-turned-star who was in Streets of Fire, still communicates almost nothing but lunkheadedness, but this is his best outing yet. Everyone else is logging time. Sometimes they look slightly embarrassed at the silly dialogue they have to mouth, but the tone is mostly earnest.

John Carpenter, the director Halloween and other stylish suspense flicks, is executive producer. It’s always hard to know what that title means, but Carpenter is well-known as a lover of B-movies, those modest entertainments that used to fill out the bottom halves of double bills and sometimes upstage the nominal A-movie.

With the decline of first-run double-billing, the B-movie has all but disappeared. Its value as a cheap breeding ground for new talent is missed. I find it comforting that Carpenter, Raffill, and cohorts have not yet given up the ship.

First published in the Herald, August 27, 1984

This should have been a better, pulpier movie. That cast list is certainly of the Eighties, people who were on the way up and apparently destined to be stars, but yeah, never mind. Stewart Raffill had also done The Ice Pirates in ’84, a spoofy thing, and would turn to Mac and Me, which I do not forgive. Will find both reviews as soon as possible.

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