The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension (1984) **˝
I have this vision in my head of director W. D. Richter, writer Earl Mac Rauch, and producer Neil Canton all gathered together in a kitchen, huddled over a huge mixing bowl beside a cardboard box labeled “Kraft Instant Cult Movie.” Inside the box are packets marked “Doc Savage extract,” “Powdered condensed Commando Cody serial,” “Irony flakes,” and so forth. All they need do is stir the lot together with a few B-list actors and let simmer for 90 minutes or so, and voila! What they’ve failed to realize, of course, is that cult status is merely the afterlife reserved for a few unusually fortunate box-office bombs— a cult film is not something you set out to make if you have half the sense the gods gave a tree frog. True, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension did indeed develop the cult following it seems to have been consciously meant to attract. But like all genuine cult films, it picked up that following gradually and belatedly; its initial release was such a cataclysmic failure that it drove the Sherwood production company out of business, instantly scuttling the sequel proudly forecast in the closing credits and creating a thicket of ownership quandaries dense enough to send the VHS tape swiftly out of print and to delay the DVD release for years. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai also plays up the other big hazard of the purpose-designed cult film: its carefully calculated eccentricity quickly comes to seem irritatingly forced. It would have been a much better movie had Richter and company relaxed a bit, and not tried so desperately hard.
The first hint of that overly strident nuttiness comes during the opening crawl. While the overall gist is the same, the text on the screen differs markedly in detail from the words of the voiceover ostensibly reading it aloud as it scrolls up the frame. Amusing in principle, but in practice, all it does is to create undue difficulty for those who might like to take in all of the information being presented, since each version contains potentially significant data that the other omits. Regardless, the upshot is that Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller, from Leviathan and RoboCop), son of an American mother and a Japanese father (scientists the both of them), is the sort of man one rarely encounters outside of Mexican wrestling movies: physicist, neurosurgeon, rock and roll star, multimedia pop-culture icon, and (when circumstances require it) international superhero. His bandmates, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, are all scientist-heroes in their own rights, although with one exception, the movie will remain vexingly vague about what exactly it is that they all do. That exception is Dr. Sidney Zweibel (Jeff Goldblum, of Jurassic Park and Independence Day), a neurosurgeon nearly the equal of Banzai himself, whom the boss-man is recruiting into the group as the film opens. It’s been a difficult time for Banzai of late, for he recently lost his fiancee, Peggy, to a murder plot organized by his nemeses, the World Crime League— but we can safely forget about that, as neither Peggy nor the World Crime League has anything to do with the present story, existing in the background solely to motivate that sequel that was never made. Instead, this movie hinges upon an experiment that Banzai will begin as soon as he and Zweibel finish operating on a little Eskimo boy’s brain.
So far as the authorities— represented here by a visiting Secretary of Defense (Matt Clark, from The Terminal Man and The Horror Show) and his staff— are aware, all Banzai is doing is testing the inline speed capabilities of the jet car he and his colleagues have built out of a late-model Ford pickup. The real experiment is something more exotic and ambitious, however. Another of Banzai’s colleagues, a Professor Hikita (Robert Ito, from Women of the Prehistoric Planet and Fer-de-Lance) who is apparently unique among the Hong Kong Cavaliers in having no role in the band, has been helping him develop a device they call an oscillation overthruster, which will enable the jet car to pass through solid matter by taking a shortcut into the eighth dimension. The overthruster was derived from the work of an Italian scientist named Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow, of 2010 and Raising Cain), who attempted much the same thing late in 1938, but met with imperfect success. Lizardo evidently got stuck partway through the dimensional barrier, and whatever he experienced while trapped between worlds sent him to a mental hospital where he’s been confined ever since, claiming to be somebody named John Whorfin. Banzai seems to believe that Lizardo’s mistake lay in the insufficient speed at which he was traveling when he activated his overthruster, and thus Banzai’s version of the device is installed in the cockpit of his supersonic jet car. The test is a complete success (although it naturally takes the observers from the Pentagon by surprise when Banzai veers off of the track on the salt flats to race headlong toward a huge outcropping of solid rock), even to the unexpected extent of bringing back some sort of eighth-dimensional organism that affixes itself to the jet car’s undercarriage.
With the day’s triumphs in both neurosurgery and applied physics behind them, Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers turn their attention to rocking and rolling. At this point, we discover at last that there is at least one thing these guys can’t do— their band sucks so hard it has an event horizon. The crowd loves them just the same, of course, but there’s one person in the audience who is so obviously not enjoying herself that Buckaroo stops the show in the middle of the first song (thank Euterpe!) to address her, and see if he can’t do something to cheer her up. The tearful young woman’s name is Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), and she’s sad because she’s flat broke, the pawn shop wouldn’t take her luggage (apparently all she has that might possibly be of value), and she just got booted from her room at the YWCA. Banzai replies to her sob story with what may be the stupidest platitude ever uttered, then sits down behind the piano normally played by Hong Kong Cavalier Rawhide (Clancy Brown, from The Bride and Pet Sematary II) to perform a solo number dedicated to Penny. It’s easy to see why she would pull out a pistol here and attempt to blow her own head off, as the fucking song is even worse than “Beth,” and it’s being played at her inadvertent instigation; ritual suicide seems the only appropriate response. A cocktail waiter bumps her elbow while she’s pulling the trigger, though, and the shot goes wild. Reasonably assuming that Penny must be trying to Dimebag Daryl one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers, the management has her arrested, but Banzai is kind enough to swing by the jail the next day with his right-hand man, Perfect Tommy (The Final Terror’s Lewis Smith), to spring her. He does this because Penny is a dead ringer for his deceased fiancee— in fact, it will eventually be revealed that the two girls were identical twins, separated at birth. Ordinarily, you might expect that to be a significant development, but in this movie, it’s just a lazy-ass way to establish Penny as Buckaroo’s love interest without having to spend time on any of that tiresome character development crap.
Meanwhile, Dr. Emilio Lizardo has been watching the TV news, and deranged or not, he immediately grasps the significance of Banzai’s achievement with the oscillation overthruster. Busting out of the mental hospital, he flees to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, in search of two men known as John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli, from Lord of Illusions and Lurking Fear) and John Bigbooté (Christopher Lloyd, of Schizoid and Back to the Future). (Incidentally, note that accent above John Bigbooté’s terminal “e.” It’s pronounced “BigbooTAY,” and he’ll be very upset with you if you call him “John Bigboot” or, worse yet, “John Bigbooty.”) O’Connor and Bigbooté turn up shortly thereafter at a press conference whereby Banzai hopes to explain the import of his trip through the eighth dimension, and after Buckaroo receives a strange electrical shock over the telephone in what was supposed to have been a call from the President (Ronald Lacey, from Flesh & Blood and Sword of the Valiant), he unexpectedly finds that he can see the two Johns in their true form. Odd as they may look in their human guise (and let’s be honest— Lloyd and Schiavelli are two odd-looking guys), it’s nothing compared to the combination of reddish, leathery skin, bald heads, and staring, black, lidless eyes that now confronts Banzai’s mysteriously enhanced senses. Bigbooté and O’Connor catch on quickly that they’ve been discovered, leading to a shootout between them and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, the Johns’ objective being to steal the overthruster. There’s a great deal of confusion, naturally, with much chasing about and many shifts of advantage, but Banzai manages to hang onto the contested device this time around. He also learns (from the logo on the side of their getaway van) that his mysterious enemies are affiliated somehow with a company called Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems.
Meanwhile, a strangely organic-looking spaceship in orbit around Earth deploys a landing craft to rural New Jersey. O’Connor and Bigbooté attempt to intercept the small ship’s pilots, but one of them, calling himself John Parker (Carl Lumbly, of Lifepod and Caveman), slips through their trap and makes his way to Banzai’s headquarters. He arrives just as Zweibel and the rest are puzzling out the significance of the information they have gleaned from hacking into Yoyodyne’s computer system— that roughly 100 people, all of them named John, and none of them having any of the expected identity paper trails, signed on at the company’s Grover’s Mill lab on November 1st, 1938. Parker has with him a package for Dr. Banzai. It contains a holographic message from John Emdall (Rosalind Cash, from The Offspring and The Monkey Hustle), the leader of a race of beings from Planet Ten who call themselves the Lectroids. According to the aliens’ missive, this John Whorfin whom Emilio Lizardo has been claiming to be ever since his brush with the eighth dimension was once the leader of the Red Lectroids, Planet Ten’s warrior caste. He and his followers were banished to the eighth dimension after their brutal military dictatorship was overthrown by the Black Lectroids who constitute most of Planet Ten’s population, but Lizardo’s accident allowed Whorfin to hitch a ride back to our universe inside the human scientist’s brain. Shortly thereafter— on Halloween of 1938— Whorfin tore open a big enough hole in the dimensional wall to free 100 or so of his people, and they have been laboring ever since to find a way back home for a rematch. Buckaroo Banzai’s newly perfected overthruster would allow them to succeed, so it seems fair to Emdall that he should be the one to prevent that eventuality. Thus the phony phone call from the President imparting to Banzai the ability to see through the natural cloaking system that all Lectroids possess, and thereby recognize Whorfin’s agents for what they are. Unless Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers can stop John Whorfin within the next twelve hours or thereabouts, the Black Lectroids will be forced to destroy the Earth (or, more precisely, to engineer an Earth-destroying nuclear war between the US and the USSR) in order to eliminate the threat of a resurgent Red Lectroid tyranny once and for all. In other words, it’s going to continue being a very busy week for Banzai and his friends.
Did you ever encounter a movie that wanted so very, very badly to be loved that you felt like a churlish old grump for not doing so? That’s about how I relate to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension. Its creators went out of their way to include anything with even the slightest chance of appealing to whatever fanbase the pulp novels of the teens and 20’s or the sci-fi and adventure serials of the 30’s and 40’s might still have had, then threw in a load of off-kilter parody to lure in those who had little direct interest in such things, but might fondly remember seeing a few chapters of Radar Men from the Moon when they were kids. For the pulp true believers, we have a hero who is for all practical purposes a 1980’s update of Doc Savage (although Buckaroo Banzai is perhaps less the Man of Bronze than the Dude of Polyvinyl Chloride). Like Savage, Banzai is a scientist/musician/superhero with a team of sidekicks sporting somewhat absurd nicknames, and better yet, he’s got enough Japanese ancestry to excuse a scene or two of him performing tai chi meditation exercises with a katana— because this was 1984, and as we all knew in those days, only a ninja can out-gross a ninja at the box office. For the chapterplay geeks, there’s a convoluted plot designed so that somebody needs rescuing from something about every ten minutes once things start moving, and focusing on a grand game of Supertech Keepaway. And for the people who don’t really give a shit about any of that stuff, but can be counted upon to nod and smile at the B-ness of the proceedings so long as it’s apparent that some kind of fun is being poked at something strange and old-fashioned, the movie serves up a screwball alien culture that it takes great pains not to explain, scads of absurd situations, and potentially amusing character quirks by the truckload. The trouble is partly that it’s just too much, and yet somehow doesn’t really add up to anything, and partly that the parody and homage aspects of the movie undermine each other.
This is quite a complicated fictional universe, after all, and even if large parts of it are meant in jest, it would be nice if some effort had been made to connect all the pieces and at least paper over all the seams. I’d kind of like to know what’s supposed to be so perfect about Perfect Tommy. I’d like to know why Dr. Zweibel suddenly starts dressing like a K-Mart Kowboy when he joins up with the Hong Kong Cavaliers. I’d like to know why Whorfin/Lizardo has apparently spent his period of confinement in the mental hospital giving himself electrical shocks to the tongue to the tune of 10,000 kilowatt-hours per month, and why no one seems to be troubled that he hasn’t aged a day in nearly 50 years. And I’d really like to know what all the bullshit surrounding Penny Priddy, the deceased twin sister she’d never heard of, and the unseen and seemingly irrelevant World Crime League was supposed to be about. I’m told that the novelization of the screenplay that came out contemporaneously with the movie addresses some of these issues (and a bunch of others that never really needed addressing in the first place), but that’s beside the point. A movie ought to be capable of standing on its own without ephemeral tie-in media to hold it up.
The filmmakers’ inability to reconcile tribute and parody is the more serious problem, though, largely because the two sides of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai stem from separate and indeed contradictory motives. There are exceptions, obviously, but for the most part, the jokes are aimed at a different audience from the rest of the film. Rather than springing organically from the tropes of the genres this movie both honors and sends up, the humor is plainly meant as a bid to broaden its appeal beyond the retro-sci-fi fanbase, which somebody presumably feared was too small to yield the desired ticket sales. Consequently, even when the gags work (which, to be fair, is most of the time), there’s a weird, tacked-on quality to them. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai lacks the earnestness of a Star Wars or a Raiders of the Lost Ark in its celebration of early 20th century trash culture— hell, it lacks the earnestness of a Starcrash or a Treasure of the Four Crowns. But at the same time, it is a less committed spoof than, say, Killer Klowns from Outer Space or The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. It remains reasonably entertaining, not least because of John Lithgow’s incredible overacting (among other things, he’s-a gotta da most outrageous-a B-movie Dago accent-a you ever-a heard), but it needed some more tightening up in the screenplay and a deeper trust from its creators in the power of geeks as a market segment. After all, it’s not like the compromises they made in courtship of a mainstream audience achieved the desired end, anyway.