The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for some violence and language
Running time: 102 min.
Cast: Michael Pare, Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Eric Christmas, Louise Latham, Kene Holliday, Joe Dorsey, Michael Currie, Stephen Tobolowsky, Gary Brockette
Director: Stewart Rafill
Screenplay: William Gray, Michael Janover (based on the book by Charles Berlitz)
Based on an urban legend, The Philadelphia Experiment tells a "Twilight Zone"-ish story of a bizarre occurrence during a Naval test in the middle of WWII. This test was an attempt to rig the US battleships with a device that would make them invisible to enemy radar. Although the test works, it has consequences, as things go awry, and it kills or injures nearly everyone on board. Two sailors, David (Pare, Hope Floats) and Jim (Di Cicco, Splash), manage to escape mostly unscathed, although they find themselves what seems to be another dimension altogether. They are, in fact, transported about 40 years into the future, where the man who concocted the experiment is still busy trying to perfect it. The wormhole between the two times is still open, though it carries grave consequences for both, as large storm systems gather around the time-holes. The military is out to get the sailors, leaving them on the run, although their bodies may not withstand the pain of the disintegration process due to instability caused by their transport.
The Philadelphia Experiment has only one thing going for it, and that's the initial idea of the story as generated from the book (supposedly nonfiction, but generally considered to be a hoax nowadays) by Charles Berlitz. The biggest thing that it lacks is an overall point, as having two men go from 1943 to the early 1980s is something that the screenplay by Gray (The Changeling, Prom Night) and Janover (Hardly Working, Mr. Boogedy) rarely finds novel enough to tie in to an overall theme. As such, Experiment is little more than a chase film with an occasional science fiction reference. It also dabbles in romance, as the men are assisted by a kindly modern woman named Allison (Allen, Dressed to Kill), but that whole angle is never developed very well, leaving the end largely unconvincing.
Also marring the production, the special effects are cheesy and dated. In fact, they are more than dated -- they actually are inferior, even for the era they were made in. Another "time travel" movie released the same year, The Terminator, did so much more with less, it's astonishing that someone would fund a film with this much need for effects without the budget to make it work from a visual standpoint. Even worse than the visual effects, the sound effects, which I normally never notice in a film, fare even worse. There are many instances when something will crash or things will hit each other with a corresponding sound effect that is either muffled or nonexistent. With poor audio and visuals, we are constantly taken out of the moment, which, in a science fiction fantasy that tries to assert its plausibility, is detrimental to the ability to tell its story convincingly.
Reportedly, most of the problems came from a lack of consensus on script direction and a variety of snags that occurred during the production phase. Perhaps the word "experiment" is appropriate, as this seems more like a test run than a fully realized film. In many ways, it's reminiscent of another semi-road romance flick from the same year, Starman, although not nearly as good. The characters are cardboard, with Michael Pare perhaps emoting in a more alien fashion than Jeff Bridges did in John Carpenter's flick. Supposedly, romance is brewing between his character and that of Nancy Allen, though you'd never guess it from the way they play so poorly off of each other. If I had to sum up the movie experience in one word, I'd choose "stiff".
-- Followed by The Philadelphia Experiment II (1993).
©2007 Vince Leo