This review first appeared over on Tyson Carter’s highly enjoyable blog Head In A Vice as part of his ‘Recommended By’ blogathon, in which bloggers review films recommended to them by other bloggers. Got that Champ? OK …
For the ‘Recommended By’ blogathon I’ve plumped for (deep breath) The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, which was recommended to me a few months ago by Todd over at the Cinema Monolith, who – and I may be paraphrasing slightly here – assured me that it made Citizen Kane look like Battlefield Earth. Or was it the other way around? Anyway. if I remember rightly Todd wrote that he first saw Buckaroo Banzai on Betamax in the early 1980s, and though it tanked on its release at the cinema, he has long been part of the sizeable group of people that has subsequently elevated the movie’s status to that of stone cold quotable cult classic. It has been sitting in my Netflix watchlist for a while now, so this seemed like a good opportunity to finally give it a whirl.
First, though, a quick word about Todd’s site. If you don’t follow it already I highly recommend a visit, as you’re guaranteed to learn about all sorts of films you never knew existed (in fact I have my suspicions as to whether some of them actually do exist, and that the screenshots and posters are just elaborately-staged constructions, but that’s irrelevant right now). Among the occasional reviews of recent films or celebrated classics there are great write-ups of a variety of works from the margins of cinematic history: low budget 1950s and 1960s sci-fi and horror, film noir, terrible 1980s high school comedies and thrillers that have even been forgotten about by the people who made them. Despite the fact this means a steady stream of 1/10 ratings the Cinema Monolith is always a good read, and yes, I have been paid in unwanted Hammer Horror box sets to say that.
So, to Buckaroo Banzai. Famous fans include Kevin Smith, who has extolled the film’s virtues, and Wes Anderson, who incorporated quite a few nods to W.D. Richter’s oddball sci-fi fantasy into The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. If you care to look closely enough you’ll also see references in the Back To The Future trilogy, Star Trek, Men In Black and even David Fincher’s Fight Club.
Buckaroo Banzai didn’t play for very long in cinemas, as Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom were all released around the same time, and between them they snaffled up most of the available screens. It also appeared during the 1984 summer Olympic Games, when most right-thinking people around the world were transfixed by Daley Thompson’s performance in the decathlon, and there wasn’t much in the way of promotion, either. A bunch of mixed reviews didn’t help matters – although some were very positive by all accounts – but perhaps most importantly there was a lack of star power; against the wishes of studio 20th Century Fox, Richter and producer Neil Canton wanted an unknown actor to play intrepid traveller Banzai, and Peter Weller – who eventually secured the role – was not widely known at the time. Still, after bombing at the box office, Richter’s film found a more appreciative home on VHS and the aforementioned Betamax, allowing fans to pore over the detailed sets, in-jokes, spoofs and references to other movies, TV shows and adverts of the day (which, I must admit, largely went over my head unless glaringly obvious).
Perhaps the biggest obstacle between Buckaroo Banzai and the huge, wallowing mainstream mass of cinemagoers that apparently exists out there somewhere is that the movie requires an immediate leap of faith on the part of the viewer, and this probably accounts for the fact that it still attracts more than its fair share of ‘love it or hate it’ reactions from first-timers today. In the first minute you are dropped into the middle of a fairly odd (and slightly confusing) scenario, and any enjoyment thereafter depends on whether you’re the kind of person that is able to happily relax and go along for the ride or the kind of person that gets frustrated and gives up if you can’t make sense of a movie’s freewheeling logic. And this really does freewheel.
Weller’s Banzai is a straight-faced all-American (though supposedly half-Japanese) hero, and also a kind of celebrity polymath: his various jobs include rock star, comic book hero, particle physicist, neurosurgeon and racing car driver, and he seems to move from one occupation to another at whim. He is joined in this bizarre range of practices by The Hong Kong Cavaliers, a group of friends and co-workers who also make up his backing band, and support during the film’s events is also provided by a legion of fans, who are themselves split into a number of amusingly-titled factions (my personal favourite being a group of combat experts called ‘The Rug Suckers’). Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch never explain how any of this has come to be, or even simply how Banzai became well-known in the first place, and we only get the briefest of glimpses into the backstories of one or two characters, so it’s easy to see why many have been left confused by the movie.
Still, once you’ve made sense of this oddball world, the plot is fairly straightforward. Buckaroo enters another dimension during a jet car testing session, and his discovery of alien reptiles there – called the Red Lectroids – interests Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), who breaks out of a facility housing the criminally insane shortly afterwards in an attempt to take over the world. Lizardo is actually possessed by the leader of the Red Lectroids, John Whorfin, who hooks up with several fellow Lectroids already on earth (including in their number Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedeya and the memorably hangdog-faced actor Vincent Schiavelli). Amusingly, they all share the christian name ‘John’, although some have picked elaborate surnames so that they can hide in our midst (if you think the name ‘John Small Berries’ is odd, wait until you meet John Bigbooté, who gets incredibly angry if his name is mis-pronounced as ‘Bigbooty’).
As you would expect, a few human versus alien battles take place during the film, but they’re largely eclipsed by the sheer oddness of Buckaroo’s mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world. The critic Pauline Kael praised the movie’s sense of fun, and this and its kinetic energy are probably its two saving graces. There’s a commitment to the proceedings from most involved, which is impressive given how different it is to other sci-fi films of the era – even the spoofs – and it’s little wonder that so many cast members have established careers since that contain many similar irreverent roles: as well as Lloyd, Hedaya and Lithgow there’s an early appearance here for Jeff Goldblum as a surgeon / urban cowboy who is accepted into the Cavaliers.
For me, though, the big disappointment was Weller’s Buckaroo, a straight-faced, deadpan hero with very little in the way of charm; it’s like he’s playing Robocop three years before he actually had to, and it doesn’t quite fit with the anarchic, crazy tone. On occasion this approach does lead to some well-delivered laughs (‘wherever you go, there you are’ he philosophises at one point from the stage), but after a while he begins to seem a little flat and dreary, unfortunately, which is odd considering that he’s supposed to be the world’s foremost renaissance man. There’s very little in the way of chemistry with co-star Ellen Barkin, too, who plays the romantic interest Penny Priddy. Apparently Weller was a little unsure about the character, and confused about the tone of the film, during production … and I think it shows.
Still, Buckaroo Banzai contains plenty of energy and fun elsewhere, and I can see why so many have taken it to heart. It’s really unlike most other sci-fi films of the period. It feels like a spoof at first (the original Star Wars trilogy being an obvious early target), but it also has a confidence in its own world, characters and story that most spoofs lack. Additionally, at times it is so straightly-played you end up wondering whether it is a spoof at all. As such I found it hard to judge what exactly I was watching, but it certainly didn’t ruin the experience for me. I like its weirdness, even if I had little clue as to what the hell was going on at times.
Directed by: W. D. Richter
Written by: Earl Mac Rauch
Starring: Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum
Running Time: 98 minutes