Directed by W.D. Richter. Written by Earl Mac Rauch. Produced by Neil Canton, W.D. Richter. Photographed by Fred J. Koenekamp. Edited by George Bowers, Richard Marks. Production designed by J. Michael Riva. Music by Michael Boddicker. Starring Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Pepe Serna, Ronald Lacey, Matt Clark, Clancy Brown, William Traylor, Carl Lumbly, Vincent Shiavelli, Dan Hedaya.
Yes, that’s really the title.
For a movie with the name that it does, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is curiously low on energy. There’s plenty of intended comedy, but it mostly falls flat. Its plot is confusing and unfocused, never really exciting. Scenes noodle around aimlessly, almost as if a lesson in studied irrelevancy. It can’t even muster the archness or attitude that one expects would be already built into material like this. Here is a movie that means to mash-up incomprehensible old serials and dime-comic heroism with a potentially sweet love story, and yet it doesn’t seem to care very much about serials, heroes, or even romance. You’d think something with a title like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension would be bursting with creativity and self-confidence. It would have to, right? And yet it’s listless and uninspired. How weird.
Of course, weird is the name of the game with Buckaroo Banzai, and that’s not exactly where the flaw lies. It’s a charming idea: take a story that feels ripped from the shared universe of Saturday matinée serials, 30’s comic books, radio programs and dog-eared paperbacks, and overload them with plot and backstory cranked to 11, so that the whole experience makes one feel uncannily like they walked into the middle of something rather than it’s start. It’s like someone made a smoothie of twelve different ongoing plots. So far, so Star Wars. It sounds potentially fun.
But it isn’t. Like a lot of films that are meant to be throwbacks to earlier ages, Buckaroo Banzai makes the mistake of thinking that because its inspirations were carelessly slapped together, it can get by the same way. What makes movies like this work is when they homage the past in a style that is witty and fresh, not lazy. When they are affectionate to their sources, but not willing to copy their mistakes. To compare the two approaches, consider Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a shallow whirligig of a movie experience—but it’s done so well, with such humor and love that it’s impossible to care. Now compare that to every scene in Buckaroo Banzai, which are stilted and routine. The whole thing is routine.
But I get ahead of myself. That’s okay, so does Buckaroo Banzai—it starts with a title scroll that is about three paragraphs and probably should have been twelve. Buckaroo (for that is indeed his name) is a kindred spirit to Doc Savage: a test pilot/adventurer/secret agent/troubleshooter/rock star/physicist/neurosurgeon/all-around superstar. That’s a lot of slashes, and he has a loyal cadre of adventurer buddies, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, that help in his experiments and generally hang on his every word. He lives in a world where his rocket car can turn into a multidimensional transport with just a few top secret modifications, and where a symposium on new technology can turn into a hostage negotiation with evil aliens desperate to possess his invention. He’s the kind of guy who, whenever he does something even mildly heroic, there’s always at least five or six civilians on hand to gather round, watch, and exclaim “It’s Buckaroo Banzai!” So, given all that, why is the guy so freakin’ boring? He’s played by Peter Weller, who adopts an act that is supposed to be James Bond-style cool, but comes across as disaffected and indifferent. I like the guy, I really do. But the world’s most charismatic man he is not.
Buckaroo’s villains involve the aforementioned aliens, who are known as the Red Lectroids. They were banished from their home planet into the never-never-land of the eighth dimension, until Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) staged a multi-dimensional experiment and got possessed by the leader of the aliens, Lord John Whorfin (all the aliens are named John, which is kind of funny). That was many years ago, and now some of the other Lectroids have infiltrated human society, under cover of an evil corporation called Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems: their ultimate plan is to use their brand-new “tri-wing bomber” to open a rift between dimensions, rescue their still-trapped comrades and return to their home planet and stage a coup. Probably wipe out Earth, too, since they generally look down on humans as “monkey boys.” You can never trust those aliens.
Sounds like enough? No, there’s more. I haven’t gotten a chance to mention Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), who is the twin sister of Buckaroo’s deceased wife (that’s not really treated like the miraculous thing that is is, which is kind of funny). That they engage in a romance probably goes without saying. Certainly the movie thinks so, because it barely ends up saying it. Also, there are Black Lectroids wandering around, and they eventually team up with Buckaroo Banzai to defeat the Red Lectroids, with some misunderstandings along the way. All of the Lectroids have human disguises: the black ones look like Rastafarians, and the red ones look like Caucasians, which is politically correct, I guess. Dr. Lizardo, by the way, has an utterly bizarre comic-book-style Italian accent (“History is-a made at-night. Character is-a-what you are in-thadark!”), which makes every line hilarious, or maybe “hilarious,” or perhaps unintentionally hilarious, or perhaps intentionally unintentionally hilarious. So it goes. Should I mention New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum), another neurosurgeon who joins the Cavaliers and is constantly dressed as a Roy Rodgers-style cowboy? Why? I don’t know why. How about the bizarre alien spore that attaches itself to Buckaroo’s rocket car? Or the scene where Lord Whorfin triggers a flashback for the audience by clasping jumper cables onto his skull? Oh, and did I mention that the main character’s name is Buckaroo Banzai?
You can kind of sense here that the plot is not really the point, and that’s fair enough. Banzai clearly tries to claim as its genre the twee sci-fi parody, trying to build a house in the same neighborhood as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf, and others of that ilk. But the tone of the whole enterprise is curiously muted: you’re constantly expecting the wackiness to fully break loose, and it never really does. Weller does everything he can to play the role straight, and the Hong Kong Cavaliers seem curiously adrift: they’ve obviously been given quirky roles to play, and yet they never get a chance to really play them. It gets really unwieldy when there are seven main characters in the story, and yet none of them are allowed to have a point of view on anything; they’re distinctive only in the different costumes they wear. Even the songs, where Banzai is backed up by the Cavaliers, are strange: they’re not allowed to be ironic, or humorous, or good, or fun, or anything except a lengthy celebration of bad 80’s bar rock. It’s like they were desperate for screen time and thought “hell, let’s make him a musician, too.” It just fills up time with irrelevant sequences, and breaks the already-precarious momentum.
I see what they were trying for, and there are little elements that strike the perfect note: Barkin has good moments as the seriously confused Penny (who may or may not be brainwashed to kill Buckaroo). The story, which weaves in and out of actual history (such as the role of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in the alien invasion) is good for a chuckle.The cinematography celebrates the mid-80’s with its cheesy rock ballads, silly hair, goofy fashions rubbing elbows with nice suits, and inspirational power walks (most especially in the end credits, which is worth sticking around for and maybe the best part of the film). I like the little touches, such as closing titles promise a non-existant sequel: you get the feeling that this isn’t a movie so much as a privileged peek into a parallel universe, where Buckaroo Banzai is a thriving franchise. When the president of the US must make a fateful decision, he asks, in a Strangelovian way, for “the declaration of war – the short form!” And there’s something comfortingly zen about Buckaroo’s philosophy, which he encapsulates nicely when a bar crowd begins to make fun of a sobbing Penny: “Hey, hey. Don’t be mean. Because remember, no matter where you go…there you are.”
But it’s all very lightweight, and it never rotates its campy story into true satire, or at the very least, cheerful schlock. No one goes to a movie called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension for deep insights, but how about some sheer fun? With its cartoonish, unthreatening villains and heroes who barely seem to care, very little seems to ever be at stake, even when the screenplay is making portentous statements about the end of the world. The last line of Buckaroo Banzai is “so what? Big deal,” and that’s a rather appropriate (if unintentional) summary.
There’s a lesson, here, I think. Pop-culture pastiches need to have drive and direction just like any other film. You can’t get by on just a concept, it eventually comes across as smug and cheap. I would enjoy nothing better than to experience another, different adventure set in the Banzai universe, where the story is more enjoyable, the cast is better utilized, and the audience exits feeling giddy and punch-drunk rather than just confused. I can think of no better way to end a statement about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension than to say that it just doesn’t inspire much to talk about except for its title, which is rather disappointing. Buckaroo may believe that “no matter where you go, there you are,” but in this case I prefer the thoughts of Gertrude Stein: “There’s no ‘there’ there.”
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