Back in 1984, a director named W.D. Richter and a writer named Earl Mac Rauch somehow got the green light to put together a smorgasbord of science fiction and pop culture ideas into one loopy movie that was a financial failure, but continues to inspire passion in die-hard fans to this day.
It’s called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and it is one crazy animal.
The premise and plot are not easy to summarize, but let’s try. Buckaroo Banzai is a half American / half Japanese adventurer: in equal parts scientist, surgeon, inventor, and rock star. On one particular day, he performs an experiment which allows him to pass through solid matter. In doing so, he passes through another dimension, making contact with a world known only as “Planet 10”. That gets the attention of some alien criminals who were secretly exiled to earth from Planet 10 years earlier, and who sees Banzai’s work as their ticket home. But the leaders of Planet 10 don’t want them back, and they don’t want them back so badly they are willing to destroy the earth to keep it from happening. So it’s up to Buckaroo Banzai and his team of fellow adventurers / scientists / rock stars to stop the exiles before the earth is destroyed.
That is more-or-less the set up, but it leaves out some important stuff like how the aliens hypnotized Orson Welles into covering up their arrival with his War of the Worlds broadcast.
In any case, understanding the plot is only a small part of “getting” the film. You also have to understand the world that Buckaroo Banzai lives in. In this world, Buckaroo Banzai is a famous celebrity, perhaps the most famous man alive. He’s not just an adventurer, he’s also a surgeon, a scientist, an inventor and a rock star. And he’s surrounded by team who share all the same passions and areas of expertise–that is, his fellow scientists are also all in his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. And everyone knows these guys, and everyone loves them.
Banzai’s organization is massive, and includes scientists and fighters all working together to do good, who have all got funny nicknames like “New Jersey” and “Reno” and “Perfect Tommy”. He’s got reserve soldiers, kind of like national guardsman, ready to help, and even some sort of junior division who look like scouts. He’s a guy who has comic books published about him that are read by duck hunters in the rural America, and who, when told that the President is on the phone to talk to him, replies, “The president of what?”
All of this is important because it shows the utter audacity with which the filmmakers are doing their thing. They tell their story with a confident swagger that challenges the audience to keep up. There are lots of funny things going on, but they are mixed with high-stakes adventure, social satire, and crazy science fiction ideas. They have created a highly detailed–though rarely fully explained–landscape and then opened up the curtains just enough for us to look in. For many, a glimpse will be more than enough–it’ll just be too weird, too random, too oblique to draw them in further. Or it may just feel too stupid.
But others will connect strongly with the surprising plot, the quirky humor, the wacky concepts, and the indications of larger world beyond the immediate plot and become hungry for more. And thus we see the small but passionate following the film has–the so-called “cult” audience. That definitely included me. I saw the film when it came out, and it grabbed my little 14 year old imagination and never really let go. Of course, there was a lot I didn’t understand at the time.
I didn’t know how much the story was influenced by pulp adventure fiction of generations earlier, for example, particularly Doc Savage. Doc Savage is a character who originated in pulp magazines in the 1930’s & 1940’s who was a non-powered “superman”–a near perfect human specimen of strength and intelligence. Often referred to as the world’s first superhero, Doc Savage fought criminals and threats of all shapes and sizes with the help of his own team of expert companions. In many ways, Buckaroo Banzai is basically the same template with more modern science fiction ideas and a bit of Japaneses sensibility thrown into the mix.
Watching the movie now in the cold light of adulthood, I can much more easily see its flaws. At times, the pacing is awkward, the action set pieces uninspired and the relationships shallow. But of course it’s hard to let go of a film that got its way into my brain so strongly. And I don’t appear to be the only one, based on all the articles and features you can find online about the movie, as well as all the direct and indirect references to be found in other famous science fiction properties. (Here is a list of some of them, including something about Wes Anderson’s referencing the film’s closing title sequence, which I’ll get to soon)
And the movie has got some genuinely great things going for it. One of them is the dialogue. It’s full of memorable and amusing turns of phrase. You can find lists of examples with a quick internet search, but you are better off just watching the movie and enjoying them fresh. Though the poor sound mix on my DVD (was it always like this?) make some of them hard to catch, but they are there, so just pay attention!
Another high point in the movie is the performance by John Lithgow as the leader of the evil aliens, Lord John Whorfin. Lithgow’s character is hilarious and surprising, while still being genuinely threatening. His dialog is all delivered in an extreme Italian accent that just make his speeches–in equal parts war-mongering and philosophical–even more funny and weird.
And there’s more to this truly amazing cast. Peter Weller (aka the original Robocop) plays the titular Buckaroo Banzai, who delivers quite a restrained performance considering how oddball a film it is. At his side are friends and allies including Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Ito (Quincy‘s Sam) and a young Clancy Brown. Carl Lumbly, known to many as Marcus Petrie on Cagney & Lacey and Marcus Dixon on Alias, plays John Parker, one of the “good aliens” who all have a Rastafarian look. Amongst the evil aliens are Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Dan Hedaya. Topping all that off is Ronald Lacey–the creepy Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark–as the President of the United States, whose National Security Advisor is played by stand-up comedian Yakov Smirnoff! I don’t know if you know who all those guys are, but just look them up and you’ll see this is a pretty talented and experienced group of people who are all working together.
Finally, I cannot walk away from talking about Buckaroo Banzai without mentioning one of the elements that has been one of the most enduring for me, even going to back to when I first saw it over thirty years ago: the ending title sequence.
You can go catch it on youtube here, but the gist is this: after everything is over, a title card promises a Buckaroo Banzai sequel that never came. Then some dated though catchy theme music plays as we are taken without explanation to a Los Angeles aqueduct. A rope is tossed over the side and Buckaroo Banzai shows appears on the edge, wearing a gray suit and a red bowtie which basically make him look precisely like a prototype for Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor from Doctor Who, (who of course didn’t appear until 25 or so years later. He climbs down is quickly joined by friends and teammates: Perfect Tommy, New Jersey, Reno, Billy, Rawhide (who died in the film), Pinky Carruthers, John Parker, and Penny Priddy. Together, these heroes…march.
That’s right, they march around the aqueduct. In rhythm. Without really talking to each other or anything. They smile a bit. And sometimes they even do a little extra two-step dance. But mostly, they are just showing off, and kind of awesome.
After some close ups, we come back to the group and see that it has grown, so now there’s about 16 of them. I don’t know who all the newcomers are, though a young character named Scooter Lindley is confidently walking out in front. And Perfect Tommy has changed his clothes, which is good because what he was wearing at the beginning was the most awkwardly 80’s thing I have ever seen. At the end of the sequence, the group walks past the words “Buckaroo Banzai” which have been graffitied onto the wall and continue right off-camera, leaving the rest of the credits to play out over that still image.
Why do I spend so much time describing this? Simply because it’s just so strange, but as a result so memorable. In that way it perfectly captures the entire film. Strange but memorable, and something that I love. When it comes to thinking big and crazy thoughts about storytelling and the way that humor can be part of that, it’s one of the truly formative cinematic experiences for me.