VOD film review: The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
Time travel tropes5
1980s effects work6
Paré and Allen7
Matthew Turner | On 24, Jun 2021
Director: Stewart Raffill
Cast: Michael Paré, Nancy Allen, Eric Christmas, Bobby Di Cicco, Louise Latham, Stephen Tobolowsky,
Where to watch The Philadelphia Experiment online in the UK: TBC
Directed by Stewart Raffill and executive produced by John Carpenter, The Philadelphia Experiment is based on a popular urban legend surrounding the USS Eldridge, a real-life US Naval destroyer escort. In the 1984 film version, the titular experiment is essentially an excuse for a trapped-in-another-time love story, as the script is a lot more concerned with its two likeable leads than with the science-fiction side of things.
The film begins in Philadelphia, 1943, with US sailors David Herdeg (Michael Paré, looking a lot like a dreamier Matt Smith) and Jim Parker (Bobby Di Cicco) agreeing to be part of the USS Eldridge crew during a military experiment that is intended to render the ship invisible to enemy radar. However, something goes terribly wrong and, as the ship crackles with electricity, David and Jim leap over the side to escape and find themselves transported to the Nevada desert in the year 1984.
It transpires that a similar experiment conducted by the same scientist (Eric Christmas as Dr Longstreet) has taken place in 1984, intersecting with the 1943 experiment and opening a vortex that could destroy the planet, as well as making a small town disappear into the same void as the Eldridge. Meanwhile, after Jim mysteriously disappears, David hooks up with kind-hearted Allison (Nancy Allen) and the pair attempt to find Longstreet while eluding military authorities.
In terms of time travel tropes, The Philadelphia Experiment doesn’t have a time machine, per se, but it does have some gloriously over-the-top 80s time travel effects, involving crackling lightning and lots and lots of red colour filters – these are effectively disorienting in the initial experiment, as David and Jim’s shirts keep switching between red and blue in front of your eyes. Similarly, the time vortex uses digital effects that feel like a combination of the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and someone seeing Tron more times than can be considered healthy.
Plot-wise, the film has some fun with the fish-out-of-water elements, with David and Jim admiring Coke cans (“It’s so thin!”), looking ruefully at a German beer bottle and making amusing facial expressions when encountering punks and a topless lady in a monster movie on TV. They also get to make the Reagan is President joke (“Hey, I know this guy. Is this another movie?”) a full year before Back to the Future – although, it has to be said, Back to the Future did it better.
The script for the film apparently went through multiple drafts, with Raffill eventually downplaying both the sci-fi elements and the fish-out-of-water comedy elements in favour of concentrating on the central love story. Either way, the script is frustrating in that regard, because there’s a lot of scope in the idea of a relationship between a liberated 80s woman and a man from the 40s, but the film barely scratches the surface of that potential.
Similarly, the script isn’t remotely concerned with time paradoxes or free-will-versus-destiny debates, despite having a climax that practically demands discussion of those ideas. In fact, the film seems to unwittingly create its own time paradox, as two different characters appear to tell conflicting stories about what originally happened in 1943 after David disappeared.
Watching the film, it’s clear that Raffill was much more interested in romance and action than he was in any time travel nonsense. Accordingly, he gets likeable performances out of Paré and Allen (their onscreen chemistry spilled over into real life, as they were together for a year after shooting) and keeps things moving with a steady stream of action staples, such as explosions, fire, chase scenes, car crashes and dodging hails of bullets from people who don’t really need to be shooting in the first place.
From a 2021 perspective, there’s also some fun to be had in the casting, most notably with early roles for Stephen Tobolowsky (as Longstreet’s colleague) and Glenn Morshower (as a mechanic), who both have much more hair than usual. Great last line too.
The Philadelphia Experiment is currently unavailable on VOD in the UK.