by Nathan Sacks
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension is not so much a cult film as it is a perfect storm of every cult movie signifier ever recognized. It has the adolescent male fantasy elements, fantastical genre trappings, deep mythology and characterization, psychedelic special effects, quirky sense of humor, and reams of talented character actors. It is also cheap, confusing to follow at times, and has a ridiculous ’80s soundtrack. Buckaroo Banzai is not as perfect as it sounds, but the concept alone—had it been improved by a higher budget—could have become as successful and beloved as the great genre entertainments of that era, on par with the work of John Carpenter, James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, and many others. Unlucky for us, that was not to happen. The film flopped, a sure-to-be-superior sequel never materialized, and Buckaroo was sent into litigation limbo, a place more deadly and inhibiting than even the titular eighth dimension.
Director: W.D. Richter
Producers: Sidney Beckerman, Neil Canton, Dennis E. Jones, W.D. Richter
Writer: Earl Mac Rauch
Cinematographer: Fred J. Koenekamp
Editors: George Bowers, Richard Marks
Music: Michael Boddicker
Cast: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lews Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Carl Lumby, Vincent Schiavelli, Jonathan Banks
Genre: Adventure / Comedy / Romance
US Theatrical Release: August 10, 1984
US Distributor: MGM
First time director W.D. Richter had previously been a prodigious and quirky Hollywood screenwriter, responsible for scripts like the 1978 remake-masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the awesome Robert Redford prison movie Brubaker. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch went all-out in creating the mythology of Buckaroo Banzai, devising a complicated sci-fi world that could have provided fodder for an entire comic book universe. The clear aim was to replicate the adventure and mad science of the early pulp magazines (particularly scientist-adventurers like Doc Savage) without falling into anachronism. Just as Star Wars did, Buckaroo Banzai would avoid becoming archaic by injecting quirky humor and likable actors while simultaneously taking the mythology seriously.
The film has abundant humor and style. However, the plot gets convoluted and therefore is hard to piece together from a single viewing. That by itself is not necessarily a flaw; various great films, from The Big Sleep to Chinatown to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, have intricate plots that require a spreadsheet to follow, but are still very enjoyable to watch. In the case of Buckaroo, part of the fun is not in understanding what is going on, which oddly frees the viewer to pay more attention to the exciting details and inventive visuals.
Peter Weller plays Buckaroo Banzai, a renowned neurosurgeon, adventurer, race car driver, and rock guitar player. The character is clearly patterned on Lester Dent’s pulp character Doc Savage, a near-superhuman renaissance man. Like Doc’s Fabulous Five, Buckaroo employs a team of like-minded specialists called the Hong Kong Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are, unlike Savage’s crew, also a rock band. The main difference between Savage and Banzai, however, is that the thin, elfin Weller looks nothing like Dent’s depictions of the tanned “Man of Bronze” Savage. The filmmakers patterned Banzai’s look on 80s new wave rock stars like Adam Ant, and he is a bit removed from the 1930’s he-man ideal. Weller makes the character a cerebral threat, though not a physically imposing one. We get a glimpse of the Hong Kong Cavaliers in performance at the beginning of the film, where they play some generic 80s blooze. Banzai arrives on stage and peels out a guitar solo, and then whips out a cornet and starts soloing on that. Regarding the musical quality of the Cavaliers, there is a reason no one ever talks about the Buckaroo Banzai soundtrack. (Although, to be fair, there is a nice song that plays over the credits).
Buckaroo Banzai is a male adolescent fantasy to the nth degree. Who at that impressionable age would not want to have a group of friends who each had specialized adventuring skills and played in a band together? The opening concert also features the film’s most famous line of dialogue: “No matter where you go, there you are,” a line so meaningless that it is surprising how often it is referenced.
Buckaroo is experimenting with his new device, the oscillation overthruster, an invention so pseudo-scientific it might as well have been called the MacGuffin MacGuffin-thruster. The device allows his rocket car to physically pass through a mountain and enter another dimension (the eighth dimension) where aliens poised to take over earth have been hiding. This becomes the high concept of the film: what if there was an alien invasion, but the aliens were on earth, living all around us, caught in some sort of dimensional shift?
The news of Banzai’s discovery reaches Dr. Emil Lizardo (John Lithgow) in jail. Years earlier, he was driven mad when his body was possessed during an earlier excursion to the eighth dimension. Lizardo breaks out and teams up with the villainous alien Lectroids, who have been hiding on earth ever since arriving in New Jersey in 1938, alerting Orson Welles to their presence (Welles would later be hypnotized into thinking that the alien invasion he witnessed was a hoax).
Buck gathers the services of his team in order to save the world. The Hong Kong Cavaliers include Clancy Brown as Rawhide, Buckaroo’s muscle, Lewis Smith as Perfect Tommy, a handsome blonde with multiple aptitudes for guns, science, and rhythm guitar, as well as Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Sidney Zweibel (aka “New Jersey”), a fellow neurosurgeon recently introduced to the crew. Fans of that actor will be happy to know that the film has some prime Goldblum, as he spends much of the running length in a red cowboy getup and fur chaps and occasionally plays piano.
There is a surprisingly deep pool of acting talent in this film. Ellen Barkin plays the love interest Penny Priddy, who seems permanently on the verge of hysteria, as if she is deliberately overplaying the stereotype of the helpless, constantly captured pulp woman. Vincent Schiavelli and Christopher Lloyd play Lizardo’s henchmen, while Dan Hedaya and Carl Lumbly also appear as Lectroids. Lumbly is a good Lectroid who aids Banzai—interestingly, all the good Lectroids in the film are portrayed by African-American actors, while all the evil aliens are white. I somehow doubt Richter intended this as any sort of serious metaphor, but it does add to the film’s diversity. Yakov Smirnoff shows up as an advisor to the president and Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) even shows up as a prison guard.
I hesitate to describe the plot in much more detail, as it is not necessary for the viewer’s enjoyment. In fact, it could even be a hindrance. The odd and offbeat touches of humor throughout the film are usually its best moments. Weller constantly underplays Banzai, especially in moments when he is spouting nonsense scientific jargon or sharing a wise truism with a colleague. This is invariably hilarious, and is actually not far from his sardonic but understated performance as Robocop.
One of the film’s most exciting moments is the pre-credits announcement for the next Banzai movie, Against the World Crime League. One can only imagine how a film with Weller facing off against a group of supercriminals (likely another superior collection of now-canonized 80s character actors) would have looked. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension proved too complicated for general audiences and was a box office failure, and W.D. Richter’s production company was soon shuttered. The rights to the character changed ownership many times, and in the late 90s a cartoon version of Banzai was demoed but never produced. The proper follow-up to Buckaroo has yet to materialize. Does it deserve to, 30 years later? I say yes. Even if Weller is a bit too gray and hunched to play the part, Buckaroo Banzai is one of those rare characters in the history of science-fiction franchises who appears too infrequently on our screens. Clearly there was a lot more to explore in his world. In another universe close to our own, I imagine Buckaroo Banzai theme parks and billion dollar reboots. Maybe that’s not what a small, eccentric film like this deserves. But if ever a franchise reboot actually seemed worthy of a Kickstarter campaign, Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League might be it.