70 Years After the Real Thing, The Cinematic Flipsides of The Philadelphia Experiment

Seven decades after the US Navy ran into some unforeseen glitches while trying to render a ship invisible, we take a look at the Hollywood versions of conspiracy history.

The Montauk Project remains one of the wackiest, most far-reaching, and hence most wildly entertaining of our technoparanoid conspiracy theories. In a nutshell (as far as such a thing is possible), back in the early days of WWII, a few years before Roswell, the US government cut a deal with an advanced race of subterranean reptilian aliens. With me so far? Well, a team of generals, scientists, mathematicians and engineers, together with a handful of these lizard people, set up shop in the caverns beneath Montauk, out on the eastern tip of Long Island. As part of the deal, the aliens shared some advanced technological secrets with the military scientists, and in return started interbreeding with humans to create a new race of beautiful blond hybrid sleeper agents. These Montauk Children, as they were known, were sent out into the world (but mostly settled in Denver for some reason) on a mysterious mission whose purpose would only be revealed much later. The Montauk group was involved in bizarre animal experimentation over on nearby Plum Island, and began toying around with both invisibility and time travel. Oh, they did many shadowy and sinister things out there beneath the gray and craggy shores of Montauk, the extent and details of which seem to change with whoever’s telling the story. Most exciting of all, to the best of anyone’s knowledge the Montauk Project continues to this day.

Back to 1943 and that invisibility business for a minute. One of the best-known of the side projects to come out of Montauk was The Philadelphia Experiment. Now, not everyone connects the Philadelphia Experiment with what was happening under Montauk (again it depends on who’s telling the story), but I always prefer it when they do. Makes the whole thing a little more cohesive.

With or without aliens providing the know-how, in the late summer of 1943, Navy scientists were looking for a way to make their ships invisible to enemy radar. It was wartime after all, and an invisible battleship, as anyone who’s played the game can tell you, would be a mighty boon. Amazingly enough, instead of simply using some sort of easy cloaking device, covering the ships in a newfangled space-age polymer, say, they came up with a way of combining electromagnetism and gravity. In short, a bunch of military scientists cracked the Unified Field Theory, which Einstein had proposed but struggled to solve until his death. Good for them, I say. Putting it to practical use via a mysterious generator of some kind, they were able to warp the space-time continuum itself, bending light around the ship in question, making it physically invisible at the molecular level. Or something. The science gets a little shaky here, which makes it easier to attribute to aliens than military scientists. Anyway, you go mucking around with the forces of nature like that, playing hob with the space-time continuum and the very fabric of the universe, you have to expect a little glitch here and there.

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When the scientists took a road trip down to Philadelphia and tried their new UFT generator out on the USS Eldridge, witnesses supposedly claimed the ship partially vanished for a few seconds. When it reappeared, some crew members had fused with the hull of the ship, others complained of nausea, and still others went mad, though probably not as mad as the ones who’d been fused with the ship.

Realizing they didn’t quite have it down yet, the scientists made a few minor recalibrations and in October when they attempted the disappearing act again, the ship and its crew did indeed vanish, only to appear miraculously out of nowhere down at a shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. Then before you can say holy David Copperfield, Batman! The damn ship blinked out again and reappeared back in Philly, missing a few crew members and, somehow, arriving ten seconds before it vanished in the first place.

Nobody could say exactly what happened at the Philly shipyard, whether the Eldridge blinked into another dimension or another time, or what the hell. It sure was a stickler though.

Of course there are some killbots out there, like the US military, who insist none of this ever happened, that the whole thing was cooked up in the ‘50s by a kook with a paranoid sci fi mindset named Carl Allen. The Carl Allen backstory in itself is even more complicated than the Montauk Project, and has generated a conspiracy subculture all its own. But that’s another story.

We all know the more the military denies anything, the more likely it is it really happened. So just ignore all those official denials. What matters is that in the late ‘70s, Charles Berlitz, a bestselling author who churned out books about the Bermuda Triangle, the Sargasso Sea, and other seemingly mysterious phenomena wrote a book about the Philadelphia Experiment. He mostly left the Lizard People out of it (maybe in a stab to be taken more or less seriously), and he apparently copped whole passages from a sci fi novel about the Experiment, passing it off as “documentation,” but we’ll forget about that. In his account the real culprits were mad Navy scientists working with technologies far beyond anything the boys over at the Manhattan Project, or Albert Einstein, for that matter, could have dreamed.

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That there was a good story to be found in Berlitz account, even if it was alien-free and backed by some shaky (at best) evidence, was not lost on Hollywood. To date there have been two films directly if loosely based on the experiment, and one sequel to the first of those two. Interestingly enough though (to me anyway), the first film that reflected the events of the Philadelphia Experiment made no mention of the Philadelphia Experiment, had no direct connection to it at all, but still went on to influence all the actual Philadelphia Experiment pictures that would follow. 

In 1980, Lloyd Kaufman set out to raise some much needed cash for the fledgling Troma Studios by producing a high-action all-star sci-fi bit of historical speculation called The Final Countdown. While not officially a Philadelphia Experiment movie (not a Lizard Person or wild-eyed military scientist in sight) the inspiration was clearly there. In fact by leaving the suddenly popular (thanks to the Berlitz book) conspiracy behind, he was able to not only gain the full cooperation of the US Navy (can you imagine Kaufman approaching the navy today?), he was even allowed to shoot the film aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz while it was in full operations mode.

Directed by Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the ‘77 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau), the story’s not all that tricky. Martin Sheen, fresh off the Apocalypse Now set, plays a defense department efficiency expert (?) who’s been sent aboard the Nimitz to see if they can do things, well, more efficiently. As Capt. Yelland, Kirk Douglas wanders through the film as his usual smirking self, bellowing dramatic things as need be. And as another ship’s officer and expert on WWII naval combat, James Farentino is pissy about most everything.

Instead of a crazy light-bending generator designed by insane military scientists (or Lizard People), about three minutes after leaving port in Hawaii, the Nimitz encounters a psychedelic sideways hurricane of some kind no one had predicted. After a couple minutes of whooshing wind and those early ‘80s electrical effects it dissipates, but now the only thing anyone can get on the ships radios are some kind of ‘40s nostalgia broadcasts.

It takes them an awfully long time to finally realize, and then fully accept the obvious truth that somehow that darned storm had sent them back in time. So now there they were, the most heavily-armed warship in the US fleet, bobbing around off Hawaii on, hey, what was that date again? Holy mackerel! You mean it’s December 6th, 1941?!

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Yes, well, so we get another half hour or so of moral dilemmas and talk about changing history, all the traditional time-travel movie claptrap, together with a whole bunch of fancy aerial shots of F-14s zipping about to a rousing brass-heavy score.

Although they were forced to dust off that same old Tora! Tora! Tora! footage for the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, The Final Countdown may well remain the only film to feature a dogfight between F-14s and Japanese Zeros, which is undeniably cool. Still, by film’s end you can’t quite shake the feeling (later confirmed by several Navy pilots who worked on the picture) that in exchange for getting to shoot on the Nimitz, the finished film was designed from the start to be a 90-minute recruiting commercial. But as dumb, obvious and manipulative as it is, as much a cheap piece of military propaganda aimed at wide-eyed muttonheads, the real pisser about The Final Countdown is that it’s so goddamned entertaining.

Funny thing is it wasn’t until four years later that I recognized the connection between the Final Countdown and the ill-fated cloaking experiment, when hackmeister Stewart Raffill released the first direct cinematic take on things. Man, I had my hopes up for that one.

Oh, it’s sad though. The first official Philadelphia Experiment movie, 1984’s appropriately named The Philadelphia Experiment, had such promise, but things started going downhill long before the cameras rolled.

Unlike Kaufman clutching the Final Countdown script, Director Raffill (who would later grace us with Ice Pirates) and executive producer John Carpenter couldn’t secure the cooperation of the US Navy. It seems the Navy brass just wished everyone would forget about the whole dumb conspiracy already. Then as promising as the source material was, it was churned through at least three credited screenwriters and a director with ideas of his own. You see four names in the writing credits, it’s time to buckle up for a bumpy ride.

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Still, though, the opening 20 minutes do give some reason for hope, as it sticks to the original story. In October of 1943, a scientist frets and sailors whoop it up on the eve of the experiment. The next morning they all head out to the Eldridge where, both on shore and deep in the ship, the tubes of steampunk computers and a fancy-looking new-fangled generator warm up. Before you know it the Eldridge has indeed vanished from the radar screens in the control room on shore. But wait a second, there, it’s not just been cloaked from radar, the whole damn ship’s vanished. Aww, Christ, now what?

Cut to the ship, and forget everything I said earlier about an invisible battleship being an advantage during wartime. With all the crazy flashing red lights and the stage smoke and the darkness and the negative processing (gotta love them early ‘80s Avco Embassy effects), it seems it’d be hard enough to find the mess hall let alone fire a gun at some kraut destroyer. As sailors run about in screaming confusion, people both on the ship and on shore try to shut down the generator. Before you know it, though, the damn ship starts spinning in space, and two sailors fly off into the void. Then they’re not in the void, but walking in a desert. But no, it’s not a desert, it’s the spot where, a few seconds earlier a small town used to be, and now a different group of military scientists is trying to figure out why it isn’t there anymore.

It seems, see, that these new scientists, working in 1984, were developing a defense system that would zap incoming missiles into hyperspace or something, but instead it created a small rip in the universe that sucked up the town and, apparently, spit out our two sailors, David (Michael Paré) and Jimmy (Bobby Di Cicco). It also seems that after the brouhaha on the ship and his unplanned excursion through curved space-time, Jimmy has developed a bit of a problem with intermittent electromagnetic spasmodics that tend to cause problems. The biggest problem is that he has a difficult time remaining stable in the dimensions at hand. (According to the original conspiracy theory, such things really were reported among the sailors who survived the experiment.)

At this point, right? At this point things still have me. Low rent effects aside this is still a story with real possibilities, a plot that might be headed someplace very interesting.

Then it stops being that. It was about that precise point in the film Raffill made a conscious decision to cut out most of the explanatory pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo (what the fuck did he think we came to see it for?), transforming the film into another tedious time travel fish out of water story with heavy (after the arrival of Nancy Allen) romantic comedy overtones. In other words, 20 minutes into the picture, he suddenly decides he wants to make Time After Time.

The film does have a few bright spots along the way, some interesting time travel paradoxes and such, and it seems it might actually come around with the introduction of Professor Longstreet (Eric Christmas), the scientist responsible for both the Eldridge and the missile defense system, and hence the open wormhole that’s now wreaking havoc over central Nevada (an effect quite similar to The Final Countdown’s time storm). Those moments, however, are far too few and random, making little more than guest appearances during the romantic shenanigans. In the end things are wrapped up so neat and tidy you almost want to wipe away a small tear of relief it’s all over.

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Nine years later, on the 50th anniversary of the Philadelphia Experiment, a completely new cast and crew came together on The Philadelphia Experiment 2. It seems a bit long to wait on a sequel to an Avco Embassy picture, but there you go. This time around David (free of that pest Jimmy) is once again sucked off the deck of the Eldridge and pooted through a wormhole, now if you can believe it, landing in 1993. But in the process, a Stealth bomber, see, is sucked back to 1943 where it ends up in Nazi Germany. So when David arrives in the future this time, he finds himself in a world where the Nazis have taken over. It has precious little to do with the original experiment and an awful lot to do with The Final Countdown, Star Trek, and Quantum Leap, all of which did a better job with the material. So we’ll ignore that one.

Finally after all that peripatetic time travelling, we at last get from 1943 to the present. Almost, anyway. In 2012, just in time to mark the 70th anniversary of the fubar the Navy won’t admit, the Sci Fi Channel produced a not exactly long-anticipated reboot, this time directed by Paul Ziller, a man known in some circles for his conspiracy sci-fi horror thriller quickies. Ziller has a certain taste for stories about Loch Ness, Stonehenge, and other such mysteries, so The Philadelphia Experiment seemed a natural for him. Not that he’s ever been a particularly good director when it came to tackling these subjects, but he’s still staked it out as his territory. He also managed to wrangle Michael Pare from the original film (though here playing a different role) and Malcolm McDowell in a brief but pivotal turn as a kindly mad scientist.

This time around, a hot shot young government scientist, working with the original 1943 research, has come up with a way of making a car invisible. This, he says, will revolutionize the 21st century battlefield where, apparently, soldiers will be driving Camrys. We never see the original experiment this time around, or even 1943, but people do mention both quite a bit.

Well, as you can likely guess, the car experiment opens up a wormhole and before you know it the whole damned Eldridge is sitting on a small airport runway in Pennsylvania. Moments after a local deputy sheriff steps aboard to investigate, the one surviving sailor who doesn’t know what the hell is going on blips off the ship into downtown Chicago I think, and the ship itself vanishes with the deputy still aboard. Then the ship reappears in Chicago, all sputtery and electromagnetically unstable and threatening to vanish and reappear in some other unlikely location.

I’ll leave most of the plot up to you to unravel, as it gets fairly complex (which is my polite way of saying “utterly incoherent”). Suffice it to say the sailor, Bill Gardner (Nicholas Lee) teams up with his granddaughter Molly (Emilie Ullerup) who, as it happens, was not only the deputy’s girlfriend, but also a computer hacker who’s been investigating the Eldridge story. So that all works out pretty conveniently.

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Thankfully, Ziller casts the whole romantic comedy business out the window (it would’ve been weird if Gardner started making moves on his own granddaughter). Even the fish out of water time traveler angle has been muted, possibly because as an actor Lee’s emotional range seems limited to “mild befuddlement.” In fact after suddenly finding himself cast into an unknowable future, it takes him about 34 seconds before he simply accepts the whole thing as perfectly normal.

The real focus here is square on the geeky, the pseudoscience and the conspiracy. While I did find that a relief and in many ways much preferred this to the original, it did occur to me come the closing credits that at no point did anyone in the film bother to explain, y’know, exactly what the original Philadelphia Experiment was all about. They referred to it quite a bit, but never talk about it in any detail. The terms “radar” and “cloaking device” never come up, nor does, um, the Second World War. It was as if it was a simple given, not just to every last character in the film, all of whom knew precisely what the Eldridge was, but to everyone in the viewing audience too. Of course given that they were watching Sci Fi, maybe that’s a justifiable assumption.

It also struck me that for all the “Government Agents” running around killing people and trying to blow up the ship. We are never given any indication as to why they’re doing any of these things, exactly, nor under the auspices of which department. Which federal agency would handle time travel experiments gone wrong, anyway? Whichever one it is, they sure do have a lot of hot evil blonds on staff. 

Still, those are things I can ignore. Ply me with enough cinematic mad scientist pseudoscience and I can forgive almost anything.

What I can’t forgive, however, is wanting to kill every last character in the film, an urge I’ve been feeling toward most anything made after 1986. What happened along the way? My god, but all these people are insufferable. Even good ol’ Bill and Molly could use a crack in the head. Admittedly some of this reaction might be due to those inescapable made for cable stylistics (you know what I mean) that tend to make any given movie just that much more hateful.

That being said, I’d still take this as a more interesting interpretation and re-imagining of the potential side effects of the Philadelphia Experiment than the tired time travel shtick. But it could have been so much better. All of them could have.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iURHeZ3Qv8E

We’ve seen great (or at least better than average) films about JFK, Watergate, Roswell, The Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness (though not Zimmer’s own so much), Area 51, the faked Moon landing, Bigfoot, even Stonehenge, but it seems we might have to wait a while longer for the definitive Philadelphia experiment movie. Maybe one with a few fucking Lizard People in it this time.

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