Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Philadelphia Experiment

Back in high school, I remember hearing from some buddies about a World War II era effort to cloak our battleships from enemy radar. The last phase of this involved an experiment in Philadelphia with a fully staffed battleship that was subjected to some type of energy field. The program was then terminated, and a set of urban legends arose regarding this event which came to be known as the Philadelphia Experiment (follow the link to Wikipedia for more info). Some of the post experiment claims my friends talked about were reports of sailors phasing in and out of existence and sometimes materializing within solid matter, even days after the event. Some of them reportedly went crazy. It turns out that the entire program is probably a myth as the Navy denies it ever existed, but it did capture my imagination at the time.

So I was glad when I heard a few years later that a film was out that was based on the incident, called simply The Philadelphia Experiment. I don't know what I had expected it to be, but I do remember that I enjoyed the film. It was a kind of a mix between a traditional sci-fi story and a heart-warming drama, and that is all I could remember of it. Thus, I looked it up on Netflix and found it available for instant viewing and watched it again. I found my opinion hadn't changed much, so here goes.

First, the science fiction backdrop of the story is actually not bad at all. You have the connection to the myth in 1943 as an anchor, and then a wormhole of sorts that connects to 1984 (the year the film was released). I remember thinking that was a rather arbitrary coincidence until you find out later on that it is the same scientist performing the same type of experiment in 1984 that causes the link, and that very neatly closes the loop. Two of the sailors from 1943 abandon the ship and end up falling into the future. One of them gets pulled back but the other has to find his way back home. It turns out that the wormhole in '84 won't close up and is threatening to suck the world into it. The hole, it is said, won't close due to an energy source from the other side. That energy source is the field generator in the battleship which never got shut down, and our hero must go back in to complete the job and save the world. Yes, it sounds crazy but it has a logic to it. If the wormhole was created by the second experiment in '84, then if the guy who actually shut down the generator in '43 now gets sucked into the future, history has now been changed by the precise event that would have caused the wormhole to close. Thus, the only way to fix the problem is to shut it down from the '84 side, which paradoxically fulfills the shutdown that orginally happened in '43. The best guy for that job is the one who was supposed to have done it in the first place. Make sense?

The first thing I like is that the story has such balance. Where most science fiction would focus on the scientist and his experiment, this one focuses on the two navy boys who get caught up in the fray. These are just simple guys with a bit of military training that comes in handy in a fix. The story arc that involves the two friends, both past and future, and their unwitting companion, gives it some heart. In fact, the hero falls for an 80's chick and their whole relationship is quite silly and poorly acted, but it gives him a reason to return back to the future after completing his mission. The characters are developed just enough to allow the film to move quickly and stay interesting throughout its short 1:40 run. The old "fish out of water" device is utilized just enough to be cute (and dated!), but not so much as to take away from the story flow. The special effects are surreal enough to still hold up pretty good, and the pyrotechnics, sound, and wind tunnel work is all done well too. The music sounds like a typical orchestral television drama of that era plus a few 80's style pop hits, enough to get by.

Finally, I just love a time travel film that makes an effort to stay consistent and tie up all the loose ends. You see, since the main character only goes back to the past briefly and then returns to the future, there is no real chance for a paradox to develop, even though you are kept guessing about that until the end. He stays only long enough to correct the one mistake and then goes back to 1984. His friend does not stay in the future long enough to be able to affect it when he returns to the past, and his story about what happened is never believed. You sit and watch all the little facts that are revealed and then neatly resolved by the end. I would not call it a high quality piece of film making, but it is nonetheless a really well executed piece of story telling. I've also discovered John Carpenter was, interestingly, on the executive production team so it makes me wonder if that could have been a factor.

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