Legend has it that during World War II, the Navy conducted a top-secret experiment to make their battleships invisible to enemy radars. Taking place in Philadelphia, the experiment worked, but the test ship reportedly vanished entirely for a temporary period of time. The ship did reappear, but the crew suffered serious side effects: Some disappeared completely, some went crazy, and some became physically fused to bulkheads, walls and floors. The consequences led to the project being swiftly disbanded, and to this day the Navy denies that any experiment actually took place. Whether or not you believe that the Philadelphia Experiment is real or not, it’s definitely a fascinating myth which has captured imaginations across the world. It’s an ideal premise for a feature film, which is why it’s disappointing to report that 1984’s The Philadelphia Experiment is so flat and underwhelming. Backed by a meagre budget and an ’80s sensibility, it’s a wasted opportunity, plain and simple.
The story picks up in 1943, with the titular experiment about to take place. David (Michael Paré) and Jim (Bobby Di Cicco) are two sailors on-board the U.S.S. Eldridge, the warship being used for the test. Things go awry during the experiment, prompting David and Jim to jump overboard in an attempt to escape. Alas, they get sucked into a wormhole which spits them out forty years into the future. Disorientated, the sailors set out to investigate what happened, ultimately getting caught up with sympathetic civilian Allison Hayes (Nancy Allen) who believes the boys’ story and wants to help them out. Before long, the government are pursuing the sailors, who go on the run as they search for the truth.
Although the ideas behind The Philadelphia Experiment are sublime, the execution is completely muddled. In short, the vision of the writers and of director Stewart Raffill were too audacious for the budget they were given, resulting in a hammy B-movie that should’ve been an intensely creepy A-grade chiller. The time travel concept is an interesting angle, yet it forbade the filmmakers from exploring all the nasty details of the experiment. Is time travel the best they could do with a fictionalised account of the experiment, which some say opened up a portal to another dimension? Everything feels too tame and constrained. Imagine if the film was more in the vein of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Interestingly, horror extraordinaire John Carpenter was initially supposed to write and direct the film, but other projects detained him, although he still executive produced. It’s a true missed opportunity. Worse, the film eventually sputters out with a ridiculous happy ending that’s hopelessly contrived.
Another big problem with The Philadelphia Experiment is that the special effects are corny and dated. Hell, they’re more than just dated; they look terrible even for the period. Movies like Back to the Future and The Terminator handled time travel around the same time, and look positively immaculate compared to the cheesy effects here. Some movies can work in spite of subpar special effects, but this isn’t the case here; the effects hinder the story instead of helping it. It’s astonishing that a studio would fund this rubbish and not provide the proper budget to make it work properly. On top of this, the sound mixing is poor as well, with audio effects that sound either muffled or cheap. As a result, this sci-fi fantasy never comes to life in a plausible way, which is a detriment to the storytelling. Furthermore, the acting is wooden across the board, with Paré about as exciting as watching paint dry. Is there any surprise that Paré went on to become Uwe Boll’s go-to actor?
Apparently, a lot of the problems with The Philadelphia Experiment stemmed from disagreements about the direction of the script, as well as the budget being cut and other snags throughout the production phase. In this sense, it’s appropriate for the film’s title to carry the word “experiment,” as the finished film seems like more of a test run than a fully-realised motion picture. Maybe fans of B-grade science fiction cinema will find something enjoyable here, and there are moments that work from time to time, but The Philadelphia Experiment could have – and should have – been far better.