The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, 1984.
Directed by W.D. Richter.
Starring Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Clancy Brown, Vincent Schiavelli, Carl Lumbly and Dan Hedaya.
Adventurer/surgeon/rock musician Buckaroo Banzai and his band of men, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, take on evil alien invaders from the 8th dimension.
The 80’s film Buckaroo Banzai (I’ll dispense with the full unwieldy title for convenience’s sake) has got a pretty strong case for being one of the last truly ‘cult’ movies. The film, conceived by old college roommates W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch, was dreamed up with ideas of being a full on box office smash. Back in 1984, this never happened, with mainstream audiences not really ‘getting’ the non-conformist storyline and often downright weird segments of anarchic action comedy.
Pre-internet word of mouth about the film mostly centred on midnight screenings, and if ever there was a film to be watched in a party atmosphere it’s this one. The variety of quotable lines, visual effects, ropey costume design and sheer fun make it something of a geeky treasure trove.
This was way before any sort of ‘geek culture’ existed in how we understand such things now. The production team thought they were producing a hit, with influences ranging from classic Westerns, sci-fi and Saturday afternoon TV to left of centre comic books. Nowadays, this kind of self-referential smartness can be seen in all sorts of TV and film features, with the recent sci-fi adventure Guardians of the Galaxy perhaps being the closest in style.
However, this is one film that others can’t really approximate. In the words of Kevin Smith, it doesn’t really give a shit if you get it or not. In the barest of terms then, the plot goes a little something like this:
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), the famous neurosurgeon/physicist/martial artist/secret agent/rock star breaks through to the 8th dimension with his new invention, the Oscillation Overthruster. This spectacular feat alerts an evil alien race, the Red Lectoids, who along with the possessed Dr Lizardo (John Lithgow), want the Overthruster to help them take over the Earth. Banzai and his team of fellow agents (and backing band) the Hong Kong Cavaliers have to stop them and save the planet.
At least, I think that’s it…
There is such a range of things going on in the margins with Buckaroo Banzai that you can’t ever be too sure. The slap-stick comedy mixed with comic-book camp, political melodrama and what seems like a ton of other genres play fast and loose with narrative structure. Broadly speaking it is essentially an action comedy, but if you try and pin-point it exactly you find other genres and influences filtering through. The old racial parable involved in the Red Lectoids, or red necks and the Black Lectoids, all speaking in cod-Jamaican accent, is like something from a 60’s sci-fi serial, while the brief romantic interlude of Buckaroo and Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin) is another thing altogether, evoking the overarching sweetness of John Hughes teen adventure.
The film also features a massive cast of stars and soon to be stars, with Jeff Goldblum – wearing a cowboy outfit throughout for some reason – Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown and Vincent Schiavelli all sharing space with the anarchy.
View it without making too much of a judgement and you’ll find yourself loving it, despite never really knowing what’s going on. One thing that is for sure is that it looks like it was a hell of a lot of fun to make and this energy and excitement transfers to the viewer in fine style. Pure weirdness for its own sake.
The Blu-ray release from Arrow contains almost as many extras as there are styles and influences on show in the film itself. In-depth individual interviews with Weller and Lithgow give an insight as to where they found the influences for their characters. In Weller’s case, he based Buckaroo on a mixture of 80’s pop star Adam Ant, French explorer Jacques Cousteau and the film director Elia Kazan. Lithgow reveals that much of his domineering showmanship as Lizardo was based on Italian dictator Mussolini (with accent tips from an Italian tailor at MGM) This, plus a Q + A with the two hosted by famous fan Kevin Smith provides plenty of info on the film’s background and cultivation.
The disc also includes the original opening sequence – with Jamie Lee Curtis as Buckaroo’s mother – CGI footage of the jet car from the proposed 1998 TV show, all deleted scenes and the iconic closing sequence without credits. The featurette Buckaroo Banzai Declassified is an intriguing making of piece, with director W.D. Richter presenting the film as a ‘docu-drama’. All of these features go some way to explaining the ongoing appeal of the film, without ever really describing the full strangeness at work.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.