Monday, May 21, 2012

“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” 1984- Dir. W.D. Richter

What I Remember:

Yes, many of us recall this movie with fondness. It was a staple of '80's hip, if there was ever such a thing.

A kind of live action comic book, "Buckaroo Banzai" was brilliantly creative while also being absurdly silly. One gets the sense that the filmmakers were trying to put every possible thing that would appeal to a teenage boy in one place. "Ok, so he's a race car driver who holds the land-speed record, he's a secret agent, he'll be fighting aliens, he'll have a hot girlfriend that he has no time for, he'll have a posse that uses all kinds of high tech toys..."
You gotta wonder where they drew the line, if at all. They stopped short of making him a rock star. Or did they? I vaguely recall him performing in some club, but it was more like a cocktail deal, or maybe a singer-songwriter showcase. There is also a dim memory of Perfect Tommy playing keyboards.

Certain lines from "Buckaroo Banzai" became commonplace for me and my buds;
"No matter where you go, there you are."
"Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy."
This last line was uttered by Dr. Lizardo, portrayed hilariously by John Lithgow. Using a kind of Chico Marx Italian accent, Lithgow is probably the funniest bad guy ever. He, and all the other aliens, both the Black Lectroids and the Red Lectroids are all named John Something, but he also has the alias of Emilio Lizardo. The Black Lectroids, when shape shifting into human form, look like Rastafarians, and the Red Lectroids look like uptight businessmen. With alien heads.
Besides Lithgow, there were a lot of well-cast actors in the film, including Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum and Ellen Barkin. Banzai was played with perfect aplomb by Peter Weller.

"Buckaroo Banzai" was obviously designed to be a cult/midnight movie favorite: something best to be enjoyed while under the influence of your favorite mind altering substance. For some reason, in my mind, it was much more than that-- a truly creative, hysterically funny satire that throws the kitchen sink at you. I do recall thinking that a lot of the ideas were not thoroughly thought out, but that they were put in the movie just the same. That would NEVER happen now. Goddam, uptight now. Loosen up, present era!

After re- watching

"May I pass along my congratulations for your great interdimensional breakthrough. I am sure, in the miserable annals of the Earth, you will be duly enshrined."-Lord John Whorfin

Plot Summary

Brain surgeon, Speed demon, rock star (yes, rock star) Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is an international celebrity, and also in pursuit of the land speed record. In actuality, Banzai is attempting to cross into another dimension with the use of his "Oscillation Overthruster".  It turns out that in venturing to this other dimension, Banzai has awakened an alien planet, Planet 10 from the 8th Dimension, that has long been feuding in some kind of bizarre race war. If one group of aliens is able to obtain the “Oscillation Overthruster", allowing them to return to their planet, the other group of aliens will start a nuclear holocaust and obliterate Earth to stop this homecoming.


The biggest surprise to me was just how era specific this film was. Watching "Buckaroo Banzai" is akin to time travel. Suddenly it's 30 years ago, and the hair, music, clothes, jokes etc. are as '80's as they can be. It's much more effective than "Hot Tub Time Machine". That being said, there is a level of innovation and pure satire that has much more to do with '60's cinema than '80's. "Buckaroo Banzai" resembles crazed free-for-alls like "Head" and "Putney Swope" as much as it does its contemporaries ("Breakfast Club", "Terminator"). The idea of making a kind of superhero/super spy satire is a tired one to be sure, but when it is done to such ridiculous lengths, it can almost take on an unexpected freshness.

No question the movie is designed to have a cultish, midnight movie appeal. The fact that this other planet is having a race war is not dwelled upon. If anything it is encouraged that we take sides immediately. There's no talk of reconciliation, or that there are good and bad in both groups. Nope. The Red Lectroids are pure evil, and the Blacks are pure good. Well maybe not so good, if their only solution to preventing the escape of their enemies is to blow someone else's planet into oblivion.

Exactly how seriously does "Buckaroo Banzai" take itself? When the bad guys have names like John Bigboote ("Big bootAY" he keeps insisting), obviously not very. The movie makes the stakes as high as possible--destruction of the Earth, and yet you are never really concerned about that. The MacGuffin, that Overthruster thingy, is of no consequence to us. We care pretty much about where our next laugh is coming from, and just how weird things with the aliens will get. Maybe if the characters took the threat of annihilation with a bit more gravitas, then we would. Nobody seems too worried, except maybe one of the black Lectroids, John Parker. Banzai's posse/band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, seem to take the whole thing lightly, even when some of them get killed.

So yes, it's a comic book of a film, and obviously a fantasy for the teenage geek in all of us.


Much of the high tech in "Buckaroo Banzai", which was so modernistic in 1984, looks hilariously dated now. The giant rocket-powered minivan with which Banzai enters the 8th Dimension looks like an '80's Ford Pickup that has been retrofitted by Nomad from Star Trek. Obviously, the use of a pickup for speed is meant to be funny--I get that. But the stuff inside that's supposed to look so techie, looks like the nightmare cables and switches from "Brazil". All the computer readouts seem as primitive as cave drawings when compared to today’s touch screens. The actual trip that Banzai takes into the 8th dimension resembles a broken screen version of that old video game Galaga.

The Galaga tribute may not have been very effective, but the gags are. There are some absolutely huge laughs in this movie, and some of the best are throwaways. One of my favorite moments comes right after the climax of the film, when BB returns to his lair from Yoyodyne (where the Reds were staging their escape), and a guy who we’ve only seen in passing at a console, asks Banzai something like, “Should we suspend operations, or tell the President to attack Russia”? Buckaroo says quickly “Yes on 1, no on 2”. Then the guy can’t remember what he asked, and goes “Wait—is that blow up Russia?” It’s beautifully well timed and delivered.

Any scene with Christoper Lloyd (Bigboote) and/or Lithgow is uproarious. There’s a famous moment when Bigboote gives Whorfin the finger, and it reminded me of a line uttered by the great actor James Hong in “Big Trouble in Little China”, when his character, David Lo Pan, a powerful and mystical Chinese villain, sees that the good guys have penetrated his hideout. He looks up from his crystal ball or whatever and petulantly yells,  “This really pisses me off!” Comparisons between these two films make a lot of sense it turns out, since “Big Trouble” was written by the director of “Buckaroo Banzai”, W.D. Richter.

Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch were the creative team behind this incredibly original work. Rauch is apparently an MIT engineer from East Texas, and if that’s not strange enough, he also wrote the script for “New York, New York”. One gets the sense that he was this mad scientist, concocting a world that we only have seen in part. You can imagine the trouble these two got into with their Hollywood execs and producers. In fact, it’s documented that Executive Producer Sidney Beckerman removed the original D.P., Jordan Cronenwith (of “Blade Runner” fame) and replaced him with Fred Koenekamp, a much more standard cinematographer. The only scene that remains of Cronewith’s is the great nightclub scene where Banzai meets Penny (Ellen Barkin). The rest of the film has a very flat look, and that’s not totally a bad thing. This makes it lean more towards comedy, and less towards being an actual sci-fi actioner.

The score by synth wiz Michael Boddicker (not the Orioles pitcher) is so very ‘80’s. Electronic drums, heavy square wave patches and thumping bass quarter notes put us right in the pop frontier of that period. The weird and well known credit sequence, with all the good guys marching around the dried up LA River in semi-formation is a cute story. Boddicker hadn’t yet written that final track, so he told the cast to march to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, since it had the same tempo and feel.


This is Lithgow’s movie, no question about it. He is so over the top and inspired as Lizardo/Whorfin, that he dominates every scene he is in. He was probably at the height of his film career, coming off superb turns in “Terms of Endearment” and “The World According to Garp”. He apparently learned his Italian accent by giving his lines to an immigrant tailor in the costume department, and having the tailor record them. Acting! When he gives his big inspirational speech before the Red Lectroids attempt inter-dimensional travel, he channels Benito Mussolini perfectly. It is at once terrifying and uproariously funny. The climax of the speech is a favorite moment:
Whorfin: Where are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet 10!
Whorfin: When are we going?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Lithgow’s expressions when he is giving himself electric shocks (the tongue clamp alone is worth the price of admission), are pure genius.

Weller, who, like Lithgow is a product of the theater, is handsomely calm throughout. He plays the part of the modern Renaissance man straight and without a snicker or camera acknowledgement. It reminds me of Michael Jai White in “Black Dynamite”. While all this absurdity is going on around him, he is absolutely in character and dead serious about his heroic persona. In a nice coincidence, both Lithgow and Weller have played large supporting roles in the Showtime series, "Dexter", albeit in different seasons.

Penny, the almost love interest, is portrayed by Ellen Barkin doing her best Shirley MacLaine, crinkly smile through tears. She doesn’t have a lot to work with, admittedly, but she is always sexy in everything, and she is very funny in the nightclub scene.

As for the supporting cast, Banzai’s posse headed by Jeff Goldblum (New Jersey, the Jewish doctor who dresses like a fancy cowboy), Lewis Smith (Perfect Tommy, the ultimate cool cat) and Pepe Serna (Reno, the Italian tough guy) are all fine, but totally overshadowed by the Red Lectroids, headed by Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya. They are great in every scene.


“Buckaroo Banzai”, was expected by most of the people working on it, to be a huge hit, but it was a huge flop. Apparently it was caught between regimes at Fox, and never received the studio support it deserved. It’s not a great movie by any means, it is way too cluttered, and there are some scenes that just slow things down and don’t really capture the frenetic pace of the rest of the film. Roger  Ebert predicted cult status for it, and that is exactly where it belongs. The movie tries to be too many things, Comic Book, sci-fi, satirical comedy, heroic tale. However, It should be seen just for it’s remarkable level of originality, and for the insanely good performance of John Lithgow.

On 1st Look:  1/2            On 2nd Look:

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