It’s safe to say there are few movies out there like The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, a film whose title alone announces its intention to diverge from the often prefabricated course of studio films (just as Banzai’s jetcar does in the film’s opening moments).
Based on the book by Earl Mac Rauch, and directed by WD Richter, it’s clear that the early-to-mid 1980s were a good time for science fiction films to get made in the wake of the wild success of Star Wars and its ilk, which meant that some pretty weird and idiosyncratic ones trickled through as well (like some of Joe Dante’s work of the era).
Still, it’s a wonder the people who count studio money gave this one a green light, and that what emerged from both the filmmakers and the powers that be is in a complete, exuberantly campy world of its own. Nearly 30 years on, Buckaroo Banzai emerges as a product of its time, with a New Wave pop look, funky energy, and still retaining its aura of cool.
To describe the plot is an exercise in exposition. Ostensibly, it chronicles the continuing adventures of celebrity neurosurgeon, rock star, experimental race car driver, science enthusiast Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) and his best buds, many of whom share in Banzai’s glut of post-doctoral papers, and who also moonlight as his backing band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. Oh, and there are aliens here, too – but instead of coming from outer space, warring factions of a species known as Lectroids (from Planet 10) have broken through a dimensional gap that Buckaroo has accessed.
This mash-up of themes and ideas (transdimensional aliens, doppelganger girlfriends, Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds, Cold War paranoia, racial relations, satire) is hurled against the wall with such force that most of the ideas splatter together in a mess that would do Jackson Pollock proud. For some films, an impenetrable plot such as this is a death sentence. With Banzai, this tangled web of half-baked plot threads is its raison d’être.
The real delight of Buckaroo Banzai is its incomprehensibility. Unlike the incomprehensibility of movies like John Boorman’s Zardoz, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, which tend to alienates audiences, the name of the game in Banzai is fun, particularly if you’re into comics, sci-fi, and rock n’ roll (read: ardent readers of this website). It’s always a step ahead of the audience, with another trick up its sleeve, or some dangling plot thread that promises more. There’s enough backstory here to provide the plot for several lesser films.
It’s like someone’s tossed a season’s worth of Fringe into a blender and somehow crammed it all into a movie, with random elements that include aliens that are all named John, a mysterious experimental watermelon, or even the lingering shadow of Buckaroo’s longstanding nemesis, Hanoi Xan. True appreciation of the film requires several viewings to sift through the plot strands and seemingly throwaway lines and gags. The only downside to the constant barrage of loopy hipness is that most of the story’s dramatic urgency is sacrificed in the name of being the grooviest sci-fi film of all time.
The film is near to bursting with character actors from the 80s: Jeff Goldblum, Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, and John Lithgow are the standouts, but lurking in the background are actors in miniscule roles that play off their eccentricities and physiques. Here you’ll find Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli as a trio of Lectroid heavies who bicker like a married couple, and Ronald “Toht” Lacey as no less than the President of the United States strapped into a gyroscope.
The ensemble performances are all over the place. Weller’s Banzai has a breezy, cool charm. He looks great dolled up with a bowtie and red rimmed glasses, and spouting mantra-like sayings whenever possible, but as a lead, he’s easily upstaged by just about everybody else, from a fairly definitive Jeff Goldblum performance to John Lithgow’s Lord Whorfin/Emilio Lizardo, who chews up the scenery like it’s going out of style, and speaks in the most ludicrous Italian accent in cinema.
The world of Banzai also feels thrown together from a number of different sources, but with a real sense of play and fun. The Lectroid spaceships have a funky coral motif. Even better are the interiors, with chairs and tables that stretch endlessly across the screen (how do they get down?) The organic controls recall the interior of the ship from Doctor Who episode, Terror Of The Zygons, if the zygons were into smoking potent herb.
One also has to give a big shout-out to the costume department, who outfit the cast with such wild zeal that the end credits are superimposed over a literal fashion show, with Banzai and the Cavaliers walking around a vacant aqueduct to Michael Boddicker’s catchy theme tune.
Is it to everybody’s taste? Probably not. The densely packed movie is sure to elicit a series of “Huh?”s and “What the–?”s from audiences expecting their movies to be wrapped up nice and neatly. It feels a little like watching an episode of Lost half-way through a season without any prior knowledge of the show: completely disorienting, but one hell of a ride. Don’t worry. No matter where you go, there you are.
10 great lines from Buckaroo Banzai
1. “I’ve been ionized, but I’m okay now.”
2. “Take her to the pit. Go, Bigboote. Use more honey. Find out what she knows.”
3. “Damn John Whorfin, and the horse he rode in on!”
4. “You’re like Jerry Lewis – you give me hope to carry on, then you leave me in the lurch while you strap on your six-guns…”
5. “The man’s been through solid matter, for crying out loud. Who knows what’s happened to his brain? Maybe it’s scrambled his molecules. All I’m saying is, Mr President, let’s not panic.”
6. “I don’t care if you drove through a mountain in Texas. This is New Jersey, and when you play my joint, you’re just another act.”
7. “Buckaroo, the White House wants to know is everything okay with the alien space craft from Planet 10 or should we just go ahead and destroy Russia?”
8. “Lithium is no longer available on credit.”
9. “Why is there a watermelon there?”
10. Come, let’s try this one together: “Laugh while you can, monkey boy.”