A number of directors in the mid-80s set out quite consciously and deliberately to make the next big cult hit. There was money and status in that midnight movie circuit. Hit it right, make the next PINK FLAMINGOES and not only would the film live forever, but it could lead to much bigger things.
The formula was an easy one: take some off-beat characters, put them in a whacky plot (often with a science fiction or conspiratorial angle), give them a few immediately quotable lines and lots of unique, colorfully detailed set designs, film the whole thing in a fresh and energetic style, add a really cool soundtrack and bingo: you got yourself the next ROCKY HORROR or EL TOPO. But tapping into the zeitgeist ain’t always that simple. Sometimes it worked (REPO MAN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD), sometimes it didn’t (TAPEHEADS), sometimes it did for a bit but then sputtered away (LIQUID SKY, CAFÉ FLESH). And sometimes you had to wait for home video before that word of mouth really started to spread.
In the case of THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION, screenwriter Mac Rauch (who’d previously written Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK) and novice director W.D. Richter (who’d written the screenplay for the 1978 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) left nothing to chance. Their tale of the neurosurgeon/two-fisted physicist/adventurer/rock ‘n’ roll star had all the above elements and much, much more. It was inspired in no small part by the old Doc Savage comics of the ‘30s. It was loaded with toys and props unique to its own universe (most notably the famed Oscillation Overthruster). BUCKAROO BANZAI featured interdimensional aliens and spaceships like no other, plenty of jokes, a convoluted plot that cannot be easily summarized, a flurry of obscure references to NASA, Orson Welles and, most predominantly, Thomas Pynchon. Most important of all, it came with a ready-made mythology involving not only what appeared on the screen, but also what didn’t appear, together with what went on behind the scenes. It even had a conceit (which became part of the mythology), namely that the film was really a docudrama based on actual characters and actual events.
BUCKAROO BANZAI was, in short, a pre-packaged geekfest just waiting to be unpacked, analyzed, picked apart, debated and endlessly quoted. Richter and Mac Rauch (and Sherwood Studios, who produced the film) were so confident about the film’s success on the cult circuit they announced the sequel even before the closing credits rolled: BUCKAROO BANZAI VS. THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE, in which we would be introduced to Buckaroo’s arch-nemesis Hanoi Xan (another Doc Savage reference). This was very big news perhaps only to those few hardcore fans who were aware that all references to Hanoi Xan had been edited out of the original film.
Maybe they were too sure of themselves or maybe they overplayed their hand. In any case the film didn’t last in theaters long enough for the geeks to find it. Ironic thing is it was catering so hard and so pointedly to the geek crowd that it merely confused mainstream audiences who had no idea what to do with any of this, so avoided the theaters in droves. Only after the film came out on videotape did it start to find its true audience; people who would not only watch the film over and over again, but inflict it on their friends and family and spread the word as well.
Unfortunately by then Sherwood Studios had gone bankrupt (thanks in no small part to the grand failure of BUCKAROO BANZAI) and the rights to the characters were lost in a swamp of red tape, effectively killing any hope of that promised sequel.
But even as a stand alone, interest in BUCKAROO BANZAI continued to grow with a little help from W. D. Richter, who added several layers to the mythology with the DVD release. The disc’s extras push the idea of the “true story” to an extreme and everyone plays it straight, thus providing more fodder for the obsessive fan base.
For instance, we’re told that few people have ever met the “real” Buckaroo, that he could walk the streets and never be recognized. He’s not interested in fame, wants nothing to do with celebrity culture, simply wants to be known through his work. Now, that sounds a lot like novelist Thomas Pynchon, who is referenced throughout the film: Yoyodyne is lifted directly from his novels and the names of the Lectroids in BUCKAROO BANZAI are clear nods to Pynchonian nomenclature. Then when you notice that a veiled nod back to BUCKAROO BANZAI can be found in his novel Vineland, are we to conclude that maybe Pynchon really IS Buckaroo Banzai? That America’s greatest novelist is out there performing brain surgery and battling Lectroids from the 8th dimension in his spare time?
(I honestly don’t know if anyone’s actually made that argument, but they could.)
There’s also the novel (well, “novel”) and a series of graphic novels that expand and develop the mythology of Buckaroo, the Hong Kong Cavaliers and the Banzai Institute. It’s almost reached the point where the mythology surrounding BUCKAROO BANZAI has become more interesting and more powerful than the film itself. And maybe it’s for the best.
It’s not that there isn’t a lot of wonderful stuff going on in the film. It plays by no standard rules, it creates it’s own unique universe and there are some undeniably quotable lines (many I’ve quoted myself). The film looks great, and it’s brought to life by a wonderful cast. Peter Weller embodies Buckaroo’s low-key cool; Jeff Goldblum is always a delight just being Jeff Goldblum; you can’t beat a trio of Lectroids like Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya; but the film is stolen by John Lithgow’s over the top scene chewing performance as Lord John Whorfin / Dr. Emilio Lizardo. It has the tempo, the energy and the visual style of a literate comic book brought to life and it’s always fun to catch the cultural references as they go whizzing by.
But. Yes, but. The plot is an undeniable and unholy shambles, the film is more a collection of (very) loosely connected vignettes with only the flimsiest of through stories. Although he’s the most watchable character onscreen, Lizardo is nowhere to be seen for most of the film. And Buckaroo himself, together with his inner circle, is pretty dull. The main problem is the Buckaroo of BUCKAROO BANZAI is too perfect, there’s nary a chink in his armor. He makes no mistakes, he has no human frailties. There’s very little to associate with in a character like that. And there’s that painful credits sequence with Buckaroo and the Cavaliers marching in a line to that godawful theme music. I’ll let the clothes and the hair slide, they were a product of the time, even if it does leave Buckaroo looking too much like Adam Ant. But that credits business is simply embarrassing. Richter insists the producer put him up to that, but still. Jesus.
And finally, I hate to point this out, but the film’s most quoted line: ”Remember, no matter where you go, there you are;” was lifted from comedian Professor Irwin Corey (you can look it up), who was using it several decades before the film was made.
I love BUCKAROO BANZAI, but every time I see it (which I admit is frequently) I get the sense that Richter and Rauch were simply trying too hard. They were so focused on cramming everything in in an effort to force the film down the throats of the geek crowd that they forgot about little things like story and character development. But I guess it worked anyway.
Come to think of it now, Irwin Corey, known as a master of doubletalk and psychobabble, was called upon to give the acceptance speech for the notoriously camera-shy Thomas Pynchon when he won the National Book Award for GRAVITY’S RAINBOW.
Hey, wait a second . . .