Reviewed Jun 15, 2012
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
Robert Cettl said:
The events on which this minor but popular science fiction thriller is based have entered the popular lexicon of conspiracy theorists in the same way (but not to the same degree) that Roswell has. A work of supposed non-fiction was written in 1979 by author Charles Berlitz claiming to expose a secret 1943 experiment aboard the USS Eldridge. This experiment involved Einstein’s “uncompleted” Unified Field Theory and reportedly transported the ship to another port and back again, with people returning severely burned and even fused to the deck. There have been official explanations for the incident but this has not stopped the preposterous (?) accounts from entering conspiracy lore. Director John Carpenter, then emerging as a major new genre director, had an interest in the subject matter but was unhappy with his own attempts to adapt it. Thus, although the film of The Philadelphia Experiment did emerge, Carpenter was present only as executive producer, even if it was his name that initially brought genre enthusiasts to the film. Strangely enough, this film continues to have a strong popular fan base amongst nostalgic viewers on the Internet, in part for the fact that almost despite itself it is a rather charming, if slight, movie entertainment. There was even a belated sequel a decade later.
The Philadelphia Experiment begins in 1943 as the crew of an aircraft carrier prepares it for an experiment in radar evasion. The experiment is designed to use electro-magnetic fields to somehow render the carrier invisible to enemy radar. Of course it goes awry, seemingly transported into a tunnel. As the ship itself heats up, two crewmembers (Michael Pare and Bobby DiCicco) jump overboard. They fall through space and find themselves in the middle of a desert / salt lake. Cold and confused, they walk away: at a fence they are pursued by strange aircraft but evade them by jumping the fence. They continue along a road and come to a diner, there discovering that they have somehow been transported through time some forty years. At gunpoint they force a young woman (Nancy Allen) to drive them away, hoping to get DiCicco to a hospital as strange electrical occurrences affect his body. On a bed he literally vanishes. The army is at the hospital and now the chase is on to find Pare, who must rely on Allen to help him evade capture. The search for answers leads to another scientific experiment, one which has made a whole town vanish and seemingly created a vacuum in the sky, threatening to consume all around it.
This is an innocuous entertainment, too silly to really be convincing but skilful enough to be pleasant and gripping: however it has no real ambitions beyond these simple aims. At the time, actor Michael Pare was poised to break through into leading man status thanks to his work in Streets of Fire but after Eddie and the Cruisers that was not to eventuate. The time travel device is primarily a means of developing the culture clash / fish-out-of-water scenario and there are amusing / endearing scenes of the two sailors reacting to the cultural differences that time has wrought in America. However the plot of an emotionally troubled woman forced to help a strange man would be used to better effect in the film that John Carpenter would actually direct around this same time, Starman. Indeed, scenes of the supposed kidnap victim bonding with the distant but vulnerable man chased by military forces offer a distinct parallel to that film. However, what is distinctive in The Philadelphia Experiment is Pare’s almost obsessive desire to visit the figures from his past: his need to know the secrets of time. One such reunion is the film’s dramatic highlight and although not exactly an unexpected plot twist, is the film’s only real evocation of the tragic repercussions of these events on individuals.
What is also intriguing about the film is its suggestion of the cyclic nature of scientific experiments as essentially intent to challenge the natural world rather than test its limits and in so doing creating destructive anomalies capable of restructuring temporal order. The arrogance of science is the backdrop to this chase scenario and the key to the film’s skepticism is its characterization of the scientist (played in age by Eric Christmas) who forty years after a failed first experiment is intent to recreate it, despite his knowledge of the uncertainties and dangers involved: science will not leave well enough alone. The horror of the situation is the scientist’s inability to restrain his curiosity, regardless of the consequences. This gives the film something of the aura of a cautionary tale; however director Stewart Raffill does not dwell on any theme, concentrating instead on the smooth flow of the story. Kept quick and eventful it develops its notion of a space vortex with narrative conviction. Although Allen’s character is rarely believable, her neediness never fully explained and the romance suffering accordingly, Pare’s fate is intriguing in that it offers him the chance to in a sense conquer time. The undercurrents of this premise sadly remain superficial.