Saturday, December 04, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 124: Space Precinct (1994 - 1995)


Just a season after Steven Bocho and ABC-TV brought extreme grittiness (not to mention four-letter words and bare behinds...) to televised cop dramas with the popular NYPD Blue (1993 - 2005), veteran British producer Gerry Anderson premiered his own unique take on the cop genre: the futuristic adventure, Space Precinct. 

This one-of-a-kind science fiction TV series from the nineties had roots going all the back to a never-aired pilot film -- Space Police --  in 1986.  Covered in Starlog Magazine at the time, the drama starred Shane Rimmer as an Earth cop named Brogan working in a very, very  alien environment.  

By 1994,  when the concept finally went to weekly series, American actor Ted Shackelford (Knots Landing) assumed the role of Officer Patrick Brogan, a family man  and  officer working in the 88th Precinct in Demeter City, on the distant planet called Altor. 

The suburbs.
And -- in an eerie repeat of what occurred with Space: 1999 in 1975 -- absolutely no one knew what to make of the new Anderson drama. 

Specifically, Space Precinct aired sporadically in syndication across the United States, often at 3:00 in the morning.  It hardly dented the pop-culture bubble.

Apparently, many station programmers weren't certain if  Space Precinct  was an adult drama, a kid's series, or something else entirely. The adult narratives about drugs ("black crystal") and sex suggested the former. The fanciful alien make-up design and cops-and-robbers-styled action indicated the latter.  

Frankly, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. 

Just before Thanksgiving of this year, Space Precinct was officially released on DVD here in the States by Image Entertainment.  Now, sixteen years after it first aired, modern audiences can judge for themselves the quality of the program.
From "The Snake," a booby-trapped Omega Tanker.

In brief, I'll state this: if nothing else, Space Precinct is truly a fascinating historical artifact.  

This is so because the Anderson venture is one of the last sci-fi TV programs to rely almost entirely on miniatures and models rather than CGI in terms of depicting alien space ships and environments. 

Much of the episodic action of Space Precinct occurs in a colossal Blade Runner (1982)-styled future metropolis rendered completely in miniature, and often with impressive results.   

Across the episode catalog, audiences see the waterfront ("near the anti-gravity processors"), parking decks ("Protect and Serve"), mom-and-pop shops ("Enforcer"), the spires of the Hotel Nirvana ("Protect and Serve"), futuristic crack-houses ("Double Duty") and other facets of the metropolis.

The program's ubiquitous flying cars, or "hoppers," are also small, meticulously-detailed models -- moved about on wires -- and there are some really terrific craft designs highlighted in Space Precinct.  

Standard issue police cruiser.
The futuristic apartment complex/space station that orbits the planet is absolutely gorgeous, for instance, and the standard-issue police cruiser -- a multi-engined, fighter-type affair -- is the utilitarian but fun workhorse of the series' action.

Commendably, the miniatures are even used to buttress the series' pervasive and droll sense of humor.  In an episode called "Double Duty," an impressive space colossus appears in space over the orbiting precinct house, and is the punch-line to a very funny joke about an alien race seeking its lost queen.

In another episode, there's a whimsical little pizza-delivery hopper that gets pulped during a chase. And in yet another show ("Body and Soul"), the miniature work evokes a kind of anxiety or terror.  An impressive space derelict -- covered in space dust -- is discovered crashed on the pitted surface of Merlin's Asteroid. 

The big drawback to this old-school special effects approach is simply that the ships/vehicles don't always look entirely convincing while in motion over  atmospheric Demeter City.  Sometime, it is all too clear you're  watching highly-detailed miniatures.  In the worst shots, it's one step up from a Godzilla movie of the 1960s. In the best shots, the Space Precinct visuals really do pass muster, even almost two-decades later.

Interestingly, the space-bound chase scenes -- which don't have to deal with rain, fog and other atmospherics of city-life -- are still uniformly excellent today.  In keeping with the cops and robbers, daily-life-in-space milieu of the show, these chase scenes, on occasion, even feature the futuristic equivalent of "driver's side air bags" -- inflatable ejection pods used in the event of an accident.  Again, the intent of such devices seems to be to evoke bemusement or humor.

Anderson-quality pyrotechnics.
Also, well in keeping with the Gerry Anderson legacy and tradition, every episode of Space Precinct features at least one gigantic, incredibly impressive explosion. 

In "Protect and Serve," a futuristic parking deck gets totalled in glorious, fiery fashion; in "Body and Soul" a prototype derelict spaceship self-destructs after a tense countdown..  In "The Snake," a mad bomber detonates a space freighter in the interstellar void, and so on.

Perhaps even more importantly than the miniature effects, the alien creature designs of the series forecast the fascinating approach of Farscape (1999-2003); namely the incorporation of puppets into the mix so that the featured aliens truly seem like aliens...and not just like lightly-retouched humans with rubber ridges on their foreheads or noses.  It's a revolutionary approach that differentiates it from its contemporaries in America (namely TNG and DS9).

Now, Farscape really and truly mastered this method of creating memorable alien creatures.  Space Precinct made the same valiant attempt  about five years earlier, but not on such a flamboyant and wholly successful scale. 

That said, the aliens featured in this series -- largely a rogue's gallery of cosmic criminals -- are a pretty fascinating and entertaining bunch.  After a few episodes, you don't really consciously process the fact that you are actually watching animatronic puppets.  Therefore the creature designs -- while initially startling and a little too whimsical for my taste -- ultimately prove effective.

In terms of behind-the-scenes personnel, Gerry Anderson -- as always -- assembled a top flight crew.  Here, the late, great cinematographer Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi [1983], Octopussy [1983], Lifeforce [1985], Runaway Train [1985] and A Fish Called Wanda [1988]) shoots several episodes.

Amongst the directors helming individual episodes are such vets as John Glen (The Living Daylights [1987], Licence to Kill [1989]) and Sidney Hayers (Circus of Horrors [1960].   Their expertise is needed and well-deployed, especially because some of the sets (interior and exterior) seem cramped and even impractical for shooting.

Writers on Space Precinct include Marc Scott Zicree, and J. Larry Carroll.   Zicree's stories, in particular, are very enjoyable, and successfully transmit the jaunty, almost tongue-in-cheek vibe of the series.   For example, Zicree laces his efforts with little in-jokes and tributes to other famous genre programs. In  Zicree's "Enforcer" there's a joke about a "bruise the size of a horta's egg," and a passing reference to a crime called a  "1701 in progress."  

As you'll recognize, these are both fun and knowing Star Trek references.


"It's a Whole New World"

The sun sets over Demeter City, on the planet Altor

Set in the year 2040, Space Precinct follows the busy happenings in Demeter City's 88th precinct, an orbital space station and headquarters for the planet Altor's multi-racial police force.

Twenty-year NYPD veteran Patrick Brogan (Shackelford) has recently transferred to the 88th from Earth, and is slowly adjusting to life on this strange alien planet.  He has brought along his wife Sally (Nancy Paul), his son, Matt, and his daughter Liz.  Together they live on another space station, the "suburb" orbiting the city-planet "downtown."

At the precinct house, humans, Tarns and Creons work together to police the dangerous city below, which is named for the Greek Goddess Demeter, who -- appropriately -- held power over "the law" and controlled "the cycle of life and death." 

Officer Castle (Bendix) and Officer Took -- a Tarn -- interview two witnesses.
For easy reference, the Tarns seen here are sort of "Yoda Heads," three-eyed aliens with telepathic/telekinetic abilities and elfin ears. 

By contrast, the Creons are the bug-eyed "E.T. Heads," and seem more like the (Irish?) working-class folk of Demeter City.  Captain Podly, a man who pulled himself up "from the street" by his bootstraps, is a Creon.

Brogan's human partner in the precinct is the hot-blooded Jack Haldane (Rob Youngblood), a younger officer who shares a flirtatious/adversarial relationship with the gorgeous Officer Janet Castle (Simone Bendix). 

Right off the bat -- in terms of appearance and behavior -- long-time science fiction TV fans will find the banter and relationship between Haldane and Castle highly reminiscent of the Tony Verdeschi/Maya relationship on the second season of Space: 1999.  But strangely, the imitation is okay.  The characterizations on the show are not deep in any meaningful sense, and the scenes between these would-be lovers add another fun, romantic element to the proceedings.

In each episode of Space Precinct, Brogan, Haldane and Castle go up against criminals in Demeter City, and Space Precinct lovingly and faithfully resurrects every cliche of the cop genre and then updates each for the future milieu. 

Two Creon police officers bracket the station robot, "Slo-Mo."
In other words, various episodes involve corporate malfeasance ("Body and Soul,") drug dealers ("Double Duty") blackmailing bombers ("The Snake"), con men running protection rackets ("Enforcer") and the ever-popular witness protection and stakeout ("Protect and Serve.") 

But, commendably, the writers do their darnedest to marry these cop genre cliches to solid science fiction concepts. 

One of the finest episodes, "Body and Soul," turns the bitter hologram replica of a Howard Hughes-type tycoon into a murdering monster with a God Complex, for instance. Another show, "Body Double" uses an Alien-like xenomorph as a mob-land assassin.

Space Precinct also relies heavily on tried-and-true cop cliches for the depiction of its main characters.  There's the occasionally wrong-headed superior (the aforementioned Captain Podly) and the cop-with-the-traumatic past (on the bomb squad, no less...), Janet Castle.  And Brogan, of course, is overworked, even to the point where he can't take time to enjoy a candle-light dinner with his lovely wife.
Writing plainly, I can't argue that this sci-fi series is particularly deep, but in a way it reminds me -- in a positive light -- of the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which was essentially James Bond in Space (or Mission: Impossible in Space). 

Haldane (Youngblood), Aleesha, and Brogan (Shackelford)
As was the case there, here you get exactly what you pay for: a cop show set on another planet, with every story adapting the conventions of the cop genre to the weird, futuristic setting

Two elements of the series render Space Precinct enjoyable.  The first is the sense of pace: the series is downright frenetic and action-packed.  It never stays put too long in any given scene, so you don't have time to linger on the elements that don't work (largely the human performances and some risible dialogue).  

Secondly, if you watch several episodes of Space Precinct back-to-back you will quickly glean a feeling for the program's quirky sense of humor.   In the aforementioned "Body and Soul," for instance, there's a talking elevator that quotes Samuel Johnson (!).  In "Double Duty", there's the great joke with the bag lady from "Megalon 7" (there's your Godzilla reference...), and it features a special effects punch-line that left me cackling. 

In point of  fact, some episodes of Space Precinct even do offer a kind of elegant story structure.  For example, "Double Duty" is all about the assumptions that people make on a day-to-day basis.  Those assumptions are all perfectly reasonable, but nonetheless wrong.  In police work, such closely-held assumptions can be dangerous, even deadly.

All three storylines -- A, B, and C -- in the episode transmit this idea.  At home, Brogan is worried that his son, Matt, is hanging out with the "wrong crowd." 

An alien-esque assassin.
On the job, the "Bag Lady" wanders into the station and tells fanciful stories about how she is actually an alien queen. 

And finally, Haldane romances a beautiful, green-haired (!) witness who is mysteriously at the scene of every crime.  In each of these tales, we arrive -- along with the characters -- at the wrong conclusion.  It's a kind of charming, fun story, in its own strange, distinctly Space Precinct-ish way.

So, sixteen years later, how is Space Precinct?  Well, it's kind of a gas.  I can't argue that it is consistently or even occasionally deep or meaningful.   But on the other hand, it's never boring, frequently funny and rather enjoyable.   In other words, the series is entertaining. 

Again, my feeling about science fiction series is that they don't all have to be the same.  Today, series don't need to be judged against the yardstick of Star Trek anymore.

Space Precinct is a truly weird hybrid, drawing its manic, silly energy in equal parts from cop dramas like Fort Apache: the Bronx (1981) and TV series such as Star Trek, plus the amazing -- if perhaps antiquated -- special effects tradition of the Gerry Anderson canon.

If this description sounds appealing to you, book passage for Demeter City, and make sure your tongue is tucked firmly in cheek and your expectations are stowed safely in check.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Galaxina (1980)


Hollywood has often been dubbed "The Land of Broken Dreams," and considering the tragic fallen star of the space adventure/comedy, Galaxina, one begins to truly comprehend that tag. 

Heading into the 1980s, lovely Galaxina star Dorothy Stratten was Playboy's Playmate of the Year, and a celebrated guest-star on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) in the episode "Cruise Ship to the Stars."  

Most importantly, the performer was successfully making the difficult leap to "A"-list film projects, a transition that would ultimately be appreciated by movie critics such as Vincent Canby.  He noted of Stratten in Peter Bogdonavich's They All Laughed (1981) that she "possessed a charming screen presence and might possibly have become a first-rate comedienne with time and work."

Alas, you may recall the unhappy ending of this story. 

Dorothy Stratten was murdered in 1980 by her estranged husband, Paul Snider. Almost instantly, Stratten became a household name all right, but as the "true crime" victim  in productions such as the TV-movie Death of a Centerfold (1981) starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983) starring Mariel Hemingway. 

Watching Galaxina even today -- thirty years later -- you can't help but mourn Stratten.  Galaxina is a low-budget, science fiction romp -- low-browraunchy and scattershot -- and yet Stratten's presence is the glue that holds the chaotic thing together.  She is on-screen rarely in the first half of the film, barely speaks throughout the second half, and -- as a "robot" -- is not even really called on to emote much.

Yet, Stratten possessed that special something that can make or break a movie star.  Even playing an emotionless machine in a bad, low-budget movie, Stratten had that sparkle in her eye, and could readily hold the attention of the viewer. 

As for the movie itself, I wish very much I could make some positive comment here, but truth be told,  Galaxina is a pretty unfunny, uninspiring, witless affair.  

In fact, Galaxina makes me think I was probably too rough on Spacehunter (1983) a few weeks back.  By point of comparison, that 1983 film is a masterpiece in forging atmosphere and crafting imaginary worlds.  There, at least, there was evidence of some authentic thought and consistency about the movie's larger universe. 

No such luck here.

What little of interest exists in Galaxina mostly involves Stratten's performance, and her nice chemistry with co-star Stephen Macht.   Even as an adolescent genre sex fantasy in the vein of Barbarella (1968) or Starcrash (1978), Galaxina remains a crushing failure...a bore. 

As The New York Times opined "some of the ads for ''Galaxina'' suggest that it is sexy; it is not." 

That's a blunt but accurate assessment of the film.  I rarely write so negatively about a film -- especially one with a cult following -- but this is a really, really weak movie. 

"No Ordinary Robot"

Galaxina commences with a Star-Wars-styled title-crawl that announces that by the year 3008, space travel has become routine.  As a consequence of "increased traffic," the United Intergalactic Federation is formed, along with a police force.  Aboard Police Cruiser 308, "The Infinity," is a robot servant with a very special nature.  Galaxina (Stratten) is a humanoid machine with "feelings."

The Infinity is commanded by cranky, arrogant Captain Cornelius Butt (Avery Schreiber) and manned by Lt. Thor (Macht), who believes he has fallen in love with the mute Galaxina.  But when Thor tries to kiss the object of his adoration, she sparks and short circuits, and he receives painful electrical shocks.

After the pursuit of Darth Vader-styled alien in a mask named Ordric (voiced by Percy Rodrigues), the Infinity is ordered by authorities to Alta One to recover a mystical artifact called "The Blue Star."  The only problem is that the trip will take twenty-seven years, and the crew will have to be ensconced in cryo-chambers for the duration.

During the long journey, Galaxina makes good use of her time alone.  She watches transmissions from Earth and learns to speak and act as a human female so she can be with Thor upon his awaking.  She also  adjusts her body temperature so she will feel warm to the touch.  As far as sex is concerned, Galaxina informs Thor that, well, she can requisition all the appropriate parts...

Once at Alta One, Galaxina is sent on a dangerous mission to retrieve the Blue Star, and is captured by strange humans who worship a motorcycle deity named "Harley Davidson."  Galaxina is rescued by Thor, but Ordric returns and takes over the ship...

"What is this Sh_t?"

Galaxina isn't exactly "tension to the fourth dimension" as the trailers promised. There's an unwritten rule in Hollywood that comedies should rarely -- if ever -- be over ninety minutes long, and Galaxina feels like a virtual eternity at ninety-five minutes.  In fact, the film feels dull and overlong.  . 

Another secret to crafting a good comedy is to squeeze the laughs together; to cut out all the stuff between that doesn't work, so that the solid laughs just barrel on, one after the other. 

Again, that's not what happens here.  There's a lot of dead air, another factor which contributes to the film's lack of vitality.

Galaxina's sense of humor arises from two arenas, primarily.  The first arena is the Mad Magazine-style "parody" of genre movie classics.  Specifically, the tenor-voiced Ordric and the title scrawl (and flashing laser beams) originate from the then-current Lucas blockbuster, Star Wars (1977). 

Secondly, an entire subplot about an alien prisoner called a "Rock Eater" (Herb Kaplowitz) recalls the "it's time to feed the alien" interlude with Pinback (Dan O'Bannon) from John Carpenter's far superior space comedy, Dark Star (1975).

There's also an unfunny but early riff on Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) in Galaxina.  Here Captain Butt eats an alien egg during a meal (on a dare, no less), and it eventually returns as a diminutive alien creature that seems to imprint on him as Mommy.  If you've seen Spaceballs (1987), you've seen the chest-burster gag done better.  In fact, even Stewart Raffill's The Ice Pirates (1984) -- with its messy "space herpes"--  is also a superior variation on the same joke.

Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966-1969) gets a lengthy jab here too, via the presence of a puppy-eared, emotionless bartender named Mr. Spot on Alta One.   He even wears the famous blue uniform, albeit with a crooked insignia. 

The best, and perhaps most subtle gag in the film involves the weirdo alien culture on Alta One that worships Harley Davidson, a fun twist on the Alpha/Omega Bomb-worshipping mutants of the post-apocalyptic Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1969).

Outside the genre, the general tenor of the film is sort of akin to Animal House's (1978)  raunchiness and low-brow humor.  One scene set at a cosmic whorehouse called "Kitty's" combines that brand of humor with the aliens from the famous Star Wars cantina.  It's actually one of the movie's better scenes, despite the rubbery make-up and bad one-liners.

The second arena of comedy which Galaxina exploits involves non-sequitur and ostensibly funny character names.  Captain "Butt," for instance.  Another unfunny gag -- repeated until you want to pull your hair out -- involves a heavenly choir launching into celestial hymn whenever a character in the drama speaks the name of "The Blue Star."  The dramatis personae actually hear the heavenly chorus in all its angelic glory, and look around, baffled, for the source of it.

The best touches in Galaxina tend to be throwaway, minuscule ones.  For instance, there's one very interesting outer space composition in which an ancient 20th century space shuttle is seen, catastrophically damaged.  It tumbles across the movie frame, nose-over-engine, but is left unremarked upon by the narrative and unnoticed by the futuristic characters.  The shot is visually well-accomplished, but more importantly it nicely suggests that the universe of the movie has a real, detailed, even mysterious history.  
Later in the film, there are also some well-staged shots on the dangerous world of Alta, the "Western"-styled planet of alien human-eaters.  Director William Sachs lights all of these scenes with a color filter, in a lush, overripe, almost golden-red hue.  In this unnatural alien light, Galaxina appears quite beautiful -- but different -- her blond hair now a deep, attractive auburn.  That very look, incidentally -- a red wig on a gorgeous, porcelain-complexioned female -- was later popularized in early 21st century production such as J.J. Abrams' Alias. (2002 - 2005).

I can't really slam Galaxina on its low budget, but still,  it is pretty difficult to enjoy the movie when you are constantly noticing, for instance, the Adam West/Burt Ward Batmobile parked outside a saloon on Alta.   That kind of touch just takes one out of the action, out of the movie's reality.  And even a space comedy requires some sense of basic reality and believability.


The greatest disappointment with Galaxina must surely be the film's poor treatment of the titular character.  This android is beautiful and fit, but never really comes across as an independent, self-directed, individual entity.  Galaxina demonstrates the capacity to self-actuate and grow, in her decision to alter her body temperature and learn to speak (from TV commercials...) but the reason behind this decision is that she has fallen in love, conveniently, with Thor...the only guy around who is not a complete and total idiot

Love is a powerful motivating force, of course -- even to robots, apparently -- but movie-goers drawn to Galaxina want to know more about her; about her extraordinary nature.  Why has this particular model proven susceptible to human feelings?  The movie never tells us.  It never even hints at a reason.

It doesn't help, either, that Galaxina hardly appears at all in the first half of the film, except seated immobile in a control chair during cutaways; no more than, essentially, a very pretty mannequin.  Or that, when she does get into the action, late in the film, she almost immediately requires rescuing by macho Thor.  That sort of traditional damsel-in-distress role hardly seems appropriate for an adventure of the year 3008, and it doesn't do anything to make Galaxina fit the mold of great genre sex icons like the aforementioned Stella Star or Barbarella. 

Hell, I would have taken Bo Derek's Jane in John Derek's Tarzan of the Apes (1981). 

Basically, you just wish this movie would mythologize, build-up and idolize the Galaxina character. As an action hero. As a space hero.   As a gorgeous robot of extraordinary capability.  Anything.  And the movie steadfastly refuses to do the job.  Again, the approach is scatter shot and inconsistent.

Today, I suppose that this movie is of interest because it features a tragic star-in-the-making and some good 1980-era outer space effects.  If you saw it back in 1980, perhaps you have a nostalgic attachment to boot.  But there's not even one well-told joke in this mix.   As the ads promised back in the day, Galaxina is indeed "too good to be true..." 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Irvin Kershner (1923 - 2010)

The AP is now reporting the death of Irvin Kershner, one of the great genre directors of the 1970s and 1980s:


Kershner is indeed well-known for directing the film that many Star Wars fans argue is the strongest of the six-strong cycle: 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.  But Kershner also directed the still-impressive Never Say Never Again in 1983, Sean Connery's long-awaited and commercially-triumphant return to the screen as James Bond, 007.

In additions to those titles, Kershner directed the wickedly satirical and nihilistic Robocop 2 (1990), which met with negative reviews during its release, as well as the stylish American giallo, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), written by a young John Carpenter and starring Faye Dunaway. 

Over the years, Kershner also helmed genre TV episodes for sci-fi series such as Spielberg's Amazing Stories (1985-1987) and SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996).  He retired from filmmaking in the mid-1990s.

Looking over just a few of Kershner's movie titles today, one can detect how superbly this director was able to marshal huge action scenes in his films and -- at the same time -- humanize familiar, iconic characters and their relationships. 

Never Say Never Again presented a more human, "aging" version of James Bond, and certainly The Empire Strikes Back deepened the famous Star Wars characters tremendously, so much so that Return of the Jedi (1983) felt somewhat juvenile and light-weight by comparison.

Irvin Kershner will be remembered for his superlative contributions to modern film franchises for years and decades to come, and I hope that fact brings his family some measure of comfort on this difficult day.  This man will be missed.

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.