Monday, November 29, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)


Director W.D. Richter's cult-classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) is the cinematic equivalent of purchasing a comic-book on a whim and then trying to figure out what is happening in that specific issue when you have zero familiarity with previous chapters. 

And I mean that entirely as a compliment. 

As Vincent Canby wrote, regarding the film, "Absolutely nothing in ''Buckaroo Banzai'' is quite clear, nor is it supposed to be, though most of it is very funny, beginning with the opening sequence."

Indeed, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai begins, and it's off to the races.  Characters and their backgrounds -- or even contemporary relationships, for that matter -- are not explained to any substantial degree by the screenplay from author Earl Mac Rauch. 

Rather, the film assumes from the first frame that audience members are simply long-time, knowledgeable fans of science fiction/comic-book movies, and it trusts them to keep up.  The film commences in media res, and as though we are all fans of that resourceful renaissance man, a neuro-scientist/particle physicist/martial artist/rock-n-roller named Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller).  

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai then rockets forward from that assumption without looking back, delving full-speed-ahead into a genre world of aliens from the eight dimension, tragic heroic histories, the death of a beloved franchise character (Clancy Brown's Rawhide) and other familiar plot twists that deliberately reflect the cliches of the comic-book/sci-fi genres.

The result of this intelligent, take-no-prisoners approach is surely one of the funniest genre movies ever made; one that, even today, roars across the screen with an unmatched sense of confidence and good vibes.

"Is anybody out there not having a good time?" 
 


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is the tale of a great hero known the world-around.   Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is the subject of comic-books and arcade video games, and even the organizing factor behind a Boy Scouts-type organization called "The Blue Blazer Regulars." [correction: The Blue Blaze Irregulars]

One day, after performing difficult brain surgery, Buckaroo test-drives a new vehicle (The Rocket 88) that can travel five-hundred miles an hour.  While driving, Banzai also tests a device that he and his cohort Professor Hikita (Robert Ito) have perfected: an "oscillation overthruster" which can transition matter from our universe into the space-between-spaces as it were, the "formless void" of the 8th dimension.

Unfortunately, this technological breakthrough attracts the attention of twisted Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), a man who, in 1938, actually pierced the 8th dimension and was possessed by the spirit of an evil alien Lectroid conquerer, a galactic "Hitler" named John Whorfin. 

Now, Lizardo requires Banzai's oscillation overthruster to return to the 8th dimension and rescue his comrades trapped inside.  From there, it's time to wage war on his peaceful home world, "Planet 10."

After his technological breakthrough in the desert (driving inside a mountain...), Buckaroo Banzai performs at a night-club in New Jersey with his gang/band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers and is surprised to spy in the audience a woman named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), a dead ringer for his much-mourned wife.  Turns out Penny is her long lost, heretofore unknown, identical twin.

The peaceful Black Lectroids from Planet 10 -- who appear to humans as African-American Rastafarians -- contact Banzai and his people to warn him about the threat of Lizardo/Whorfin.  Worse, the Black Lectroids will initiate a false nuclear conflict with Soviet Russia within a day if Whorfin is not stopped by Banzai. 

The aliens can take no chance that this murdering psychopath could return to their world...

Banzai tracks the evil Red Lectroids and Lizardo to their headquarters in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, at the Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems factory.  Through a little computer research, the Hong Kong Cavaliers learn that Yoyodyne is an alien front company, and that Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds radio program in the late 1930s was no hoax...but rather the vanguard of a real alien invasion.  Several dozen Lectroids came to Earth and adopted names such as John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd) to engineer the release of their comrades from the Eighth Dimension...

"Laugh while you can, monkey-boy."


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai unique approach to storytelling is epitomized perfectly by a little throwaway line occurring about an hour into the proceedings.
 
Two of Buckaroo's team members (The Hong Kong Cavaliers) have gone in search of an evil Lectroid -- a being from the eighth dimension -- when they happen to enter Banzai's scientific laboratory.
 
A new team member dressed as a cowboy -- New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) -- spots a ripe watermelon on an industrial-looking device and asks, "why is there a watermelon there?"
 
The answer? "I'll tell you later."
 
It's the punch-line to an in-joke we're not privy to (regarding a previous Banzai experiment, no doubt), but as first time visitors to this cult-universe, we don't get it.
 
And we're not supposed to get it.
 
We're simply supposed to understand that Buckaroo and his team have shared many intense, crazy adventures together, all with a science-fictional bent, all with real-life consequences for each of them.

In other words, the watermelon is a touch that adds history to the universe, but no further clarity.  It's a detail indicative of a shared past; but without any context about that particular shared past.
 
The question becomes, of course, why would anyone dramatize a story in this fashion? Why would a filmmaker remove virtually all the explanations, exposition, and meaningful context from a sci-fi film's narrative?
 
The answer is right there in Vincent Canby's review, quoted above.
 
If an artist knowingly creates distance between the audience and the action on screen, said action becomes...funny. 

It's the thematic equivalent to that old Hollywood approach to lensing a pratfall in a comedy film.   If you film a comedian slipping on a banana peel in close-up, we register that character's agony as he or she hits the hard sidewalk. Ouch! The audience feels sympathy.
 
But if the cameraman steps back -- shooting from a distance (from a long shot) -- the action instead appears humorous.  We laugh.
 
That's really Buckaroo Banzai in a nutshell. The filmmakers have knowingly stepped back from the context of the cult-universe of their hero and central figure, Buckaroo Banzai.  It is a stance which allows us to observe all the goings-on not as intense action; not as life-or-death incident;  but as inherently amusing; as satire.  Specifically, the creators' distance from the wild-eyed, over-the-top narrative enables the audience to see the film as a comment on comic-book conceits.
 
At this relatively distant vantage point, the audience is free to laugh at the absurdities on display.  And commendably, the directorial approach to the material echoes that thematic approach.  Often, Richter literally stands back, heavily utilizing master shots and long shots to tell his bizarre story.  It's a perfect example of form echoing content, and it allows the audience a wide-angle perspective of Buckaroo's world so we can take in all the details, from the wacky, cobbled-together architecture/set design of the Lectroids to the almost-Duran-Duran aesthetic of Buckaroo's rock band.

"Buckaroo, I don't know what to say. Lectroids? Planet 10? Nuclear extortion? A girl named "John"?


Although it hasn't often been described in such fashion, it seems apparent today that the one-of-a-kind Buckaroo Banzai qualifies beautifully as a "camp" entertainment. 

Now, that's a descriptor that gets bandied about too loosely today among some Internet journalists, particularly in regards to 1970s science-fiction TV series that the pop culture judges haven't aged well. 

But the term "camp" actually indicates a tongue-in-cheek aesthetic, an approach in which something is knowingly played as straight as possible so as to exaggerate its inherent qualities.  Camp co-opts serious subject matter (such as comic-book tropes in this case), analyzes that material, and then makes the material humorous by playing it so solemn and earnest that laughs are generated. 

In other words, by taking material seriously to such a dramatic extent, the "inherent ridiculousness" of the concept seems to burst forth. 

Film critic Pauline Kael, writing in The New Yorker, understood the film's approach very well. 

She termed Buckaroo Banzai an example of  "unmoored hipsterism," and today that seems like the  very best descriptor possible, especially since "camp" -- fairly or not --  boasts such negative connotations for fans of superheroes, comic-books and sci-fi.  And in point of fact, some scholars now consider "hipsterism" the actual appropriation of the "camp" aesthetic from the gay subculture in which it first sprang, matured and gained pop cultural notoriety.

Regardless of what you call the particular style, however, this is surely the vibe of Buckaroo Banzai.  The film takes genre/comic-book conceits so seriously -- but  without any meaningful context whatsoever --that these familiar conventions emerge as recognizable, and then as funny, because we've seen them before...too many times to count. 

Consider, for example, the mid-film apparent demise of the character named Rawhide (Clancy Brown).  He is one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers -- one of Banzai's lieutenants -- and there's an ostensibly sad moment in which he goes down to Lectroid venom/poision, and his friends mourn.

But, of course, because this is the first and only Buckaroo Banzai film, the audience has shared no adventures, no previous missions, no time with Rawhide outside this movie and its particular narrative. 

Divorced from context, the trope of the beloved character's death lacks any psychic weight or larger emotional meaning.  Instead of being sad in this instance, we actually think specifically about the cliche, and how so many movies use it to manipulate audience emotions heading into the third-act denouement.

Imagine if the first time you ever encountered Mr. Spock -- the first time he was ever featured on-screen -- was in the film The Search for Spock (1984).  You would have no idea what the big deal was; why he is important; or what was happening to the character.  The character and his issues in the story would suddenly become less important. 

Instead, how he is used as a cog in the film's narrative wheel would become the primary issue of concern.  To put it another way, you'd be thinking of mechanics instead of emotions.

Again, this is the "distance" from the action that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai knowingly generates and cultivates.  Divorced from the meaning of the trope (the death of a beloved character), the moment just becomes another throwaway exercise in false continuity; an exercise in genre form, with no attached emotional meaning.  We are asked to reflect on form, on tradition of the form, not on the specifics of the plot.

Over and over, Buckaroo Banzai plays out this joke.  Buckaroo is apparently in deep mourning over the death of his wife, and in this movie, he accidentally (!) stumbles upon her identical twin, Penny.  Because we never saw Buckaroo with his wife and never saw her demise in any previous (alluded to...) adventure, this subplot again becomes about the form of pervasive sci-fi cliches rather than any specific character context.  The surprise twin! The doppelganger! The woman who looks exactly like a lost love!  You've seen this idea played out in everything from Dark Shadows to Fright Night (1985).

But removed from the emotionality that historical context and previous franchise entries could provide the audience, the sub-plot again becomes about a concept -- a cliche -- and the movie positions it all as a joke.  Penny and Buckaroo fall in love almost instantly, as the form demands. They are meant to be together.  It plays not as real romance, but as humorous commentary.

Silly dialogue such as "Take her to the pit!" similarly recalls pulpy sci-fi magazines of the 1950s, and in general Buckaroo Banzai has a great deal of fun mocking the conventions of serialized comic-book adventures. 

In particular, John Lithgow is brilliant as Dr. Lizardo -- an alien version of Hitler we're told, -- who comes off as absolutely absurd.  There is nothing remotely menacing about this character, though he could take over an entire planet, apparently. 

But as played here -- with no overall context backing-up his menacing villainy -- Lizardo is simply a twitching, sneering, thick-tongued cretin, not a world-ending maniac.  We don't fear him; rather we laugh at his outrageous qualities.  So in this circumstance, we are asked to consider the qualities of comic-book villains.  Separated from a history of evil deeds, they can come off as incompetent, and therefore funny, especially since they often fail so egregiously.

Finally, the consistent distance from context makes Buckaroo Banzai a comedy about the genre itself, and its most-frequently hauled out conventions.  I often call the 1984 Richter film  the This is Spinal Tap of genre films, and that's because it serves so ably as a parody of an entire strain of literature and film  Not the rock milieu, as is the case with the Reiner film of 1984, but the conventions of comic-books and science fiction movies as they existed in the mid-1980s. 

However, this is the important thing: the film is not mean-spirited about its sense of fanciful parody.  On the contrary, the stand-back approach of the filmmakers' (both in terms of form and content) assumes a deep fund of knowledge on the part of any audience

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai assumes we can keep up; that we will recognize such conventions as the death of a beloved character or the surprise appearance of an identical twin, and understand the joke.  Plus, the movie's pace is downright delirious, so that Buckaroo Banzai is unfailingly smart and fast-moving at the same time.

That's why, in the lingo of the film, Buckaroo Banzai is really something of an "inter dimensional breakthrough." 

It serves as both a straight-forward comic-book adventure and even as a post-modern, humorous comment on the longstanding literary and film conventions that make a hero like Buckaroo -- a hero in the mold of James Bond or Doc Savage -- so appealing and influential in our culture.

And that's why -- yes -- I still hope to see Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League in theaters one of these days. 

Because no matter where you go...there you are.

18 comments:

  1. Awesome!

    I do love this film. I've got more than a few comic books in my background and from that opening scroll info dump, which is really all you get in the film at a slightly sedate pace, it was a ride I've enjoyed time and again. I loved the tie-in to War of the Worlds, the absurdity that the aliens would all give themselves the name of 'John' (Bigboo-TAY, Smallberries, Yaya, and of course Parker). I guess it's as good a reason as any the name's so common. Aliens invaded! Also the little touches of color as you point out, to imply a history and richen the story without dragging into 20 minute background expositions. And the dialogue. I do love the dialogue. Apart from Buckaroo's signature line that you quoted at the end there, I'm most partial to Lithgow's rousing address to his Lectroids, played as straight as you please, which to me, made the call and response just priceless.

    Whorfin: Where are we going?!!

    Lectroids Crowd: Planet 10!!

    Whorfin: When?!!

    Lectroids Crowd: Real Soon!!

    I may have to pull it off the shelf again today and give it a fresh viewing.

    Think I'll take in Big Trouble in Little China while I'm at it. They've got a lot in common.

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  2. woodchuckgod:

    Great comment. That dialogue is totally awesome isn't it? Just delightfully...ludicrous.

    I really love Buckaroo Banzai too (though truth be told, I am a little more partial to Big Trouble in Little China...which I must see now on blu-ray...in part because of the John Carpenter connection).

    But both Richter-movies are really smart, really funny, really fast-moving efforts with great absurdist-dialogue and a true love of the genre.

    They just don't make 'em like Buckaroo Banzai and Big Trouble in Little China anymore, alas. But at least we have those titles, right?

    Thanks for the comment, my friend,

    Best,
    JKM

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  3. I love, LOVE this film and can put it on pretty much any time and get right into it. So ahead of its time and really an instant cult film - as much as I hate that cliche term, 'tis true.

    I love that the filmmakers assume that its audience have intelligence and are willing to go along for the ride even though we really don't much of the backstories of all these characters. I think that what helps us in caring about what happens to them and to feel somewhat bad about what happens to poor Rawhide is the casting. Such a fantastic, eclectic cast of character actors and they really go a long way in breathing life into these oddball characters and making you care about what happens to them right from the get-go. Banzai and his crew are just instantly likable that we (at least I did) develop an instant rapport with them which may explain why the film continues to have a devoted cult following to this day.

    I also really enjoyed your observation: "one that, even today, roars across the screen with an unmatched sense of confidence and good vibes" amen, my brother! Ain't that the truth. I think that sums up why this film is so enjoyable to watch.

    And I second BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA which is made in the same unabashed, goofily demented vein as BUCKAROO BANZAI. Quite possibly my two fave genre films from the 1980s.

    I'm so glad you decided to tackle this film, JKM. For awhile I had been secretly hoping that you would.

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  4. John, I have to point out that the name of Buckaroo's Boy Scout-like support group is the Blue Blaze Irregulars, not the Blue Blazer Regulars.
    One other thing that I've always loved about the movie is Michael Boddicker's synth-score, which, sadly, has never been released commercially. I have fond memories of walking in NYC with the NYU Science Fiction Club all whistling the end credit theme from Buckaroo Banzai.
    "Character is who you are in the dark."

    Howard

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  5. Hello my friends,

    J.D.: I'm so glad you mentioned the casting. My goodness: Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, Clancy Brown, John Lithgow, Vincent Schiavelli, Christopher Lloyd, Carl Lumbly, Jeff Goldblum, and on and on. It's an amazing cast, and you actually wish the movie were longer so that you could spend more time with each actor/character. That's very true.

    I'm glad to know you are a fan of this one. Frankly, I can't believe it took me so long to get around to covering Buckaroo Banzai here...

    Thank you so much for the comment; and I agree with you about BTILC too. I have to get around to that title here as well.

    Hey Howard: Thanks for the correction; I wrote down what I heard...which was wrong, I suppose. I'll fix that going forard.

    I'm glad you mentioned the score: the end credits music video is such a high-point here, in my consideration. I love it. I didn't know the score was never released commercially.

    "Character is who you are in the dark" -- love that quote! One amongst many quotable lines of dialogue here

    Thanks, my friends.

    warmest wishes,
    JKM

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  6. Yeah, I would really dig to read your thoughts on BIG TROUBLE... aside from your excellent analysis in your JC book, of course.

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  7. Thanks, J.D. I wrote that book almost twelve years ago now, I guess, which is hard to believe.

    But that's enough time to gather fresh thoughts on it. Are you doing a second annual J.C. Blogathon in 2011? I'd love to write about BTILC as part of that!!

    best,
    JKM

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  8. Thanks for turning me on to some great flicks. yalan :p film izle

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  9. It's funny, Buckaroo and Spacehunter were both misses and both watches, but it's clear Buckaroo gets the thumbs up over Spacehunter. This is good to know.

    I knew JD was a huge fan of it and getting the endorsement from you both is pretty big.

    Also, I'm open to a second Carpenter week.

    Quite an analysis as always John. This sounds like quite the unique and distinct picture. I do enjoy Weller and someday I will get there. Wonderful as always.

    Best,
    SFF

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  10. Hmm... yeah, I'm tempted to do another JC Week. I didn't even get a chance to tackle one of my faves of his - ESCAPE FROM NY. Gonna be hard to top your article, though, JKM. : )

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  11. Hi J.D.

    -- I would love to see you tackle another JC Week, and nonsense, rubbish, no way about that second part (though I appreciate your kind words).

    I would love to read a Radiator Heaven retrospective of Escape from New York. That would be AWESOME. You are a thorough, inventive and knowledgeable writer, and if you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, in this case) for ESNY, it would be fantastic.

    And count me in if you go 'round a second time on JC!

    best,
    JKM

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  12. JKM,

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. Yeah, I've been seriously thinking about another JC Week. I have also been thinking of other directors as well... Maybe Peter Weir? Don't know if he would generate enough interest, though. Of course, there are the more obvious ones - Tim Burton, Coen bros... I've been meaning to do a write-up on MARS ATTACKS one of these days...

    As for EFNY... I love that film so much. Been thinking about doing something about it and tying it in with my crushing disappoint over ESCAPE FROM L.A.

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  13. I believe this is the finest examination of this film I've read, John. Like J.D. said, it was so ahead of its time. And as you say, it "is not mean-spirited about its sense of fanciful parody." One perfect description for a film that seemingly defies one. Thanks for this.

    p.s., put me down as looking forward to another JC Week.

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  14. He Le0pard13: Thank you for your kind words about my review of Buckaroo Banzai, my friend. It means a lot to me.

    I agree with you and J.D. that this movie was sooo far ahead of its time; only now can we begin to appreciate how much it gets right.

    Thank you for the comment,
    JKM

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  15. Hi J.D:

    I would support any of those choices for a blogathon! Personally, I think a Peter Weir week would be amazing. Ditto Tim Burton.

    I have a soft spot for EFLA, simply because I read it as a parody/satire/remake of the original, rather than a straight-on sequel. But I can't deny I was originally disappointed with the retread nature of the film!

    best,
    JKM

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  16. JKM:

    The problem I have with EFLA is that it is such a let down on almost every level. I certainly can get behind a parody/satire/remake/sequel but I felt that Carpenter made the wrong choices - an ineffectual villain, crappy CGI mixed with good-looking CGI, lame sequences like Snake playing b-ball and wasting such an awesome cast of character actors! There are things that I do like about it... as much as people cite it as being what's so wrong with the film, I actually love the surfing sequence with Snake and Peter Fonda and the ending of the film is pretty cool.

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  17. Well, I guess it's left up to me to defend ESCAPE FROM L.A. ;-). I think writer/blogger Mr. Peel's assessment just about covers why my affection has grown toward this shaggy dog with fleas. I don't necessarily blame anyone for their disappointment with the film. But because of its somewhat prophetic vibe, and JC and Russell's screenplay take (with attitude to burn) of my hometown, I can't help but have a soft spot for it. Plus, who doesn't love Kurt's absolute coolness with the character once more?

    Like the original (and nothing will surpass it), it absolutely captures aspects of the city and its citizens. I think Carpenter and Russell were going for a different target in the guise of a sequel/remake (à la Hawks) with this one. I love the cast in it (and agree Pam Grier is wasted, big time). Still, it gets a lot right, in spite of itself. Besides that great ending (maybe I'm an anarchist at heart), my favorite part remains Steve Buscemi's Map to the Stars Eddie aside during the L.A. Coliseum sequence. He completely and thoroughly nails this place when he delivers the line (with just the right mix of perspective and pose):

    "This town loves a winner..."

    I'll get off my soapbox, now ;-). Thanks, guys.

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  18. Just a minor point, but the bus used in Buckaroo Banzai is an early model Neoplan Spaceliner, not a Scenicruiser.

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