Friday, July 19, 2013

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 eighth 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.


  1. Thank you, John! Your review has clarified something for me that I probably should have figured out years ago. I always understood that this movie was playing on comic book/pulp cliches, but I was infuriated by the "stand-back approach of the filmmakers." At the time, I kept thinking how much better this movie would have been if Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis had directed it. Of course, if they had, the story would've played as a slavish homage to the genre, but amped up to a modern pace. As it is, we are given a new perspective, taking our collective pop culture IQ as a given.

    The author and film critic, Stephen Hunter, wrote in my local Baltimore Sun at the time that Banzai was the first movie for the home video age because you would need to review it over and over to get all the details. I didn't think that was quite right because the details were largely cliches that we were all painfully familiar with. The part I couldn't figure out was why they didn't explore the cliches more fully like other movies. Now I understand.

  2. Nice look at this beloved cult classic, John.

    I love that this film assumes that the audience as a modicum of intelligence and is willing to go with the flow of its gonzo narrative.

    I think that the big reason we are willing to accept all the alluded to backstories of various characters and that the death of Rawhide is as affecting as it is, is down to the casting. The entire cast sells their characters perfectly and make you care about them, like them, laugh at and with them, etc. Actors like Peter Weller and John Lithgow are able to sell their dialogue and make you believe it because they are so good and treat the material with just the right amount of gravitas and fun.

    This is a film that I never tire of watching and is definitely a spiritual companion of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, which, of course, was written by BANZAI's director W.D. Richter. Both films have that same infectious, go-for-broke gonzo energy and drop you into a world that you either get or your don't.

  3. I was blown away by this movie from the time I randomly rented it in the early 90s. I immediately started recording audio for my college radio show, and it became a quotable movie in the vein of Ghostbusters and Big Trouble.

    Since then Buckaroo continually resurfaces and grows for me. Recently I discovered the inspiration came from the 30s Doc Savage pulp serials.

    Future movies borrowed from it, and I even pointed out here that The Life Aquatic was a kind of hommage to it. (see 8/1/05 entry)

    Plus there are the similarities of the Jet Car's Oscillation Overthruster to the Delorean's Flux Capacitor.

    In addition, the raw acting talent in the movie it amazing. What a hero.

  4. John, wonderful review for a movie that definitely deserved it's sequel Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.


  5. SteveW1:16 PM

    Kael also got it right when she called the film a "post-Altman" bash," because Richter's approach is very similar to that of Altman in the '70s. The muttered overlapping dialog, the slightly aimless storytelling, the way we kind of drift into this completely realized world, with it's own mysterious in-jokes and subtext and oddball characters. It's entirely antithetical to the way sci-fi blockbusters are made today.

    I have to say that the movie would probably fall apart completely without Lithgow, though. The movie needs his go-for-broke craziness, or it would probably drift off into the ether.

  6. Anonymous5:24 PM

    Yes, World Crime League, along with Wrath of Mom, need to be made.

  7. Always liked this film. I still can't understand how it got made though. Imagine the pitch meetings for it! Peter Weller did a perfect job of playing the comic book hero part dead straight and having Lithgow hitting 100% on the crazy-o-meter throughout the movie was exactly the counterbalance needed to make the whole thing work. "Laugh while-a you can monkey BOY!" should have been a popular catchphrase.

    Much as I would have liked to see the promised sequel it really would ruin the joke (in more than one way) wouldn't it?