The Philadelphia Experiment: Time Travel Romance…and Urban Legend

The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) starring Michael Paré and Nancy AllenThere are better time travel romances, such as Somewhere in Time, Time After Time, and I’ll Never Forget You. And yet, I know a surprising number of people who view The Philadelphia Experiment with affection. That’s all the more amazing considering that this modest 1984 film didn’t make a dent at the box office and was released to video less than three months after its theatrical release. Maybe there’s a Paré pattern here–Eddie and the Cruisers, another film starring Michael Paré, followed a similar trajectory after audiences discovered it on pay cable.

The Philadelphia Experiment opens in 1943 with the Navy testing a new device that will render the USS Eldridge invisible to radar. However, the experiment goes terribly wrong and the ship’s crew begins to glow in agony. Two sailors, Davy (Paré) and Jimmy (Bobby Di Cicco), jump ship and travel through a vortex to the Nevada desert in 1984–though they don’t realize they’ve traveled through time. After a misunderstanding at a diner, they try to steal a car. Unfortunately, Davy doesn’t know how to drive a car with automatic transmission, so he kidnaps its driver, Allison (Nancy Allen).

By the time Davy and Jimmy realize what has happened, they are captured by the police. Jimmy, whose hand has started glowing, is taken to a hospital–where he disappears. Davy escapes again and Allison, who has fallen for the time traveler, goes with him. Meanwhile, a huge electrical cloud begins to form over the area where Davy and Jimmy appeared. Two experiments, apparently conducted simultaneously in parallel times, have opened up a “hole” that could destroy the world.

 The plot of The Philadelphia Experiment doesn’t hold up well under close scrutiny. Davy goes to great lengths to elude the military authorities that he later wants to confront about his predicament. He could have saved a lot of time by turning himself in! Earlier, during a high-speed pursuit, a military vehicle flips over and bursts into flames. We don’t see anyone escaping from the wreckage, so we can only assume the jeep’s occupants died. Davy walks up to the burning vehicle and I assumed he was going to pull the bodies free from the fire. Instead, he recovers some secret documents–showing no remorse for the two dead men. A bit cold, I think.

Of course, the heart of The Philadelphia Experiment is its romance and, to their credit, Paré and Allen pull that part off nicely. His brooding good looks and her girl-next-door charm make for a winning combination and the leads have an easy-going chemistry. Parts of The Philadelphia Experiment remind me of the same year’s superior Starman. In both films, women trek cross-country with fish-out-of-water guys and elude government officials. Both films even feature incidents that take place at a country diner. Interestingly, John Carpenter directed Starman and executive produced The Philadelphia Experiment (after turning down a chance to direct it).

A prologue to The Philadelphia Experiment suggests there really were mysterious Naval experiments in Philadelphia in 1943. In some accounts, the USS Eldridge was rendered invisible and teleported to Norfolk, Virginia. There are a surprising number of variations to this urban legend, so many in fact that the U.S. Navy addresses the Philadelphia Experiment (aka Project Rainbow) on a naval history and heritage site. Click here to read the Navy’s response.

As for the movie version of The Philadelphia Experiment, its slow-building popularity was enough to warrant The Philadelphia Experiment II, a belated 1993 sequel. It featured none of the original cast, although Paré’s character returned. In 2012, the SyFy Channel televised a pseudo-sequel, The Philadelphia Experiment, which featured Paré in a supporting role as another character.

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Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!

  • mike j

    I have the phil exper on vhs and found the movie interesting, but in a way hard to follow. eddie and the crusiers is a good movie.