In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Boasting a title so long you’re apt to doze off simply reading it, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is a hodgepodge homage whose chances of hooking the hoi polloi were somehow less than hopeless.
Buckaroo purported to zip along on the zappy, manic energy Ghostbusters showed earlier in the summer of 1984. (Buckaroo bailed on an original release of June 8 — a date on which, astoundingly, both Ghostbusters and Gremlins opened in a rare same-week studio showdown for similar audiences.) But summer’s dog days proved no kinder to this mongrelized mélange of pulp fiction, sci-fi and matinee idols, and its box office tally crossed fewer million-dollar milestones than its hero did dimensions.
To gaze upon Buckaroo Banzai is to be baffled by any commercial potential anyone involved could have possibly believed this gewgaw to possess. Remember the scene in Ghostbusters during which Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), possessed by an otherworldly Keymaster named Vinz Clortho, maniacally rambles a bunch of gibberish about Slors, Vuldrinis, Torgs and McKetrick Supplicants? Buckaroo spends at least one-third of its time on a similarly stream-of-consciousness list of fantastical ideas, inventions, aliens, alliances and threats — few of which are captivating.
Let’s start with the wild occupational roulette of its title character, whose exotic, alliterative name would seem to place him among the likes of Buck Rogers or Doc Savage. Buckaroo is an experimental neurosurgeon, renowned martial artist, esteemed particle physicist, beloved rock ‘n’ roll star and founder of the Banzai Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Strategic Information. Oh, and he has his own arcade game. Born to an American mother (played by Jamie Lee Curtis in a deleted prologue) and a Japanese father, Buckaroo “began life as he was destined to live it — going in several directions at once” (just like the movie).
Peter Weller has described his Buckaroo as a mix of Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Adam Ant. Were all of them charmless drips? Practically Lebowskian in his laconic nature, Weller’s soft-spoken demeanor works fine early. But outside of a nightclub scene in which he plays his own guitar and pocket trumpet, Weller never seems to enjoy, let alone embrace, this oddball’s nerdy persona. Shouldn’t Buckaroo Banzai get just a little bit of a visible, geeky rush rocketing a jet car through the eighth dimension or piloting an alien spacecraft all by himself? More dull than debonair, Weller seems uncomfortably at odds with the film’s curlicue craziness, and his self-seriousness becomes a fatal liability.
His dour demeanor largely wastes Ellen Barkin’s efforts, too. She plays Penny Priddy, the suicidal doppelganger of Buckaroo’s deceased wife (who, in an excised subplot, was killed by the nefarious World Crime League). Even when skittish and shy, Barkin oozes her trademark feral sexiness. But Weller’s impenetrable wall repels even that powerful force.
As Buckaroo’s foes, at least John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya (Clueless) and Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost) know what’s what. Lithgow is Dr. Emilio Lizardo, a once-promising scientist now locked up in the loony bin. It turns out he entered the eighth dimension, too, in 1938, only to return possessed by Lord John Whorphin — supreme overlord of the evil Red Lectroids who, after losing a civil war with the Black Lectroids of Planet 10, was banished to the eighth dimension as punishment. (Fret not if you’re lost. There’s no quiz.) Lizardo wants to use Buckaroo’s modern technology to retake Planet 10. And if Buckaroo can’t stop him, the Black Lectroids will … by wiping them out with a nuclear attack over the U.S. that will be confused for a Russian attack and spur World War III.
No genre stranger or snob, Lithgow goes full-tilt gonzo as Lizardo — supernaturally pursing his lips into a pouty pique, tacking an “A” on-a-to-a-ev-a-ree-a-word-a and skittering around like an alien anxious to claw off his human disguise. He’s never been so infectiously goofy, snarling out the pejorative term “monkey boy” for humans. So what does the movie do with a part tailor-written for this twice Oscar-nominated actor? Cut him from half of it altogether, in favor of speculative particle physics, government-contract conspiracies or Jeff Goldblum in full cowboy regalia.
Even less screen time is afforded Lloyd, Hedaya and Schiavelli as Lizardo’s alien lieutenants, despite their superbly expressive makeup jobs for such a modestly budgeted movie. The film’s funniest eccentric indulgence is the running joke that all Lectroids, whether Red or Black, have the first name “John.” And because there are so many, their surnames have moved beyond the mundane (Parker and Emdall) into the wildly surreal (Smallberries and “Bigbooté). Schoolboy as the punchline may be, the emphasis on “Big Bootay” never gets old.
Then there are the four groups of sidekicks at the ready to help Buckaroo Banzai. Analogous to Doc Savage’s Furious Five, the Hong Kong Cavaliers take center stage — doubling as his scientific eyes and ears and his Blues Brothers-esque backing band. (Along with Goldblum, you’ll recognize veteran character actor Clancy Brown as Rawhide and, if you’re a fan of ’80s soft rock, Billy Vera as Pinky Carruthers.) But for those who aren’t webmasters of a Banzai Institute wiki, good luck discerning the Radar Rangers from the Blue Blaze Irregulars or the somewhat naughtily named Rug Suckers.
If “Buckaroo” sounds far too encyclopedic, well, there’s one of those, too. The character of Buckaroo started as a sprig of an idea in the mind of W.D. Richter, who found a screenwriting hot hand in the late 1970s with reinventions of Dracula and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as the Robert Redford prison drama Brubaker. He entrusted the development of Buckaroo to Earl Mac Rauch, a fellow writer whom he admired.
Over the next several years, Rauch wrote fitfully, starting and scrapping countless drafts. And yes, he apparently compiled them into The Essential Buckaroo, a 300-page book stuffed with his notes and unfinished scripts. Comparatively, Rauch’s original idea to have Banzai fight “lepers from space” seems like an easier image to conjure than “Lectroids from Planet 10” and certainly more akin to the pair’s original description of the idea as a tribute to the “out-and-out, accelerator-to-the-floor, non-stop, kung-fu movies of the early ’70s.” (If you want a tasty slice of that, try Richter’s work on the peerlessly weird Big Trouble in Little China.)
As it stands, Buckaroo is far too earnest in its sci-fi convictions to feel much like parody. And in one of the least-likely end-credits promises of a sequel, the teased Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League never came to pass. Fox tried to develop a TV series years ago that went nowhere, although the character lives on in a series of comic books written by Rauch.
Naturally, the film has since become a cult-film célèbre renowned for its willful, Man-damning obstinacy; named one of the 50 best in the genre by Entertainment Weekly, it’s practically a shoo-in for nearly every cult list. Truth be told, Buckaroo’s narrative switchbacks aren’t that much more convoluted or complicated than most modern-day mainstream blockbusters. (While “busy” doesn’t mean “smart,” at least “Buckaroo” has the decency to be an hour shorter than Transformers: Age of Extinction, for which you’d need a skid-loader for narrative flab.) And although its actors claim it would take an hour to describe the plot, Buckaroo can be summed up easily, if oddly: A Renaissance man and his team of rock ‘n’ roll scientists are all that stand between Earth and its destruction by aliens.
The seeds of later, better sci-fi movies are also scattered within it. There’s Back to the Future, whose legendary Flux Capacitor shares a design with Buckaroo’s Oscillation Overthruster necessary for interdimensional travel. (Neil Canton, one of the film’s producers, would also produce the Future franchise.) The mass brainwashing that has let Red Lectroids live among us undetected for years became the thrust of John Carpenter’s They Live. The alien forms of the Red and Black Lectroids were clearly a model for the makeup in Alien Nation a few years later. Weller found the right mix of pathos and playfulness three years later as Alex Murphy in RoboCop. And there’s the humans-as-collateral-in-an-intergalactic-war angle of both Men in Black and this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Buckaroo’s legacy has endured a bit outside the genre, too. Although Michael Boddicker’s Casio-demo score is mostly middling, it perks to life for a closing-credits theme that resembles the whistled “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai by way of Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.” During the credits, the cast swaggers onto the screen in time with the music — an idea Wes Anderson nicked for the final moments of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which coincidentally also features Goldblum in a supporting role).
Preternaturally influential. Perversely strange. Bookishly overwritten. Narratively ADD. Inconsistently acted. Why has “Buckaroo” held on? It’s not good per se, but it’s impossible for something this bizarre to not be at least occasionally interesting. Even when triple-knotted, the film’s shoelaces are still long enough to trip over. But it does find a confident stride in satirizing America’s patented xenophobia and fear of Communism. (Not for nothing are the bad guys named the Red Lectroids.)
Of the script’s sundry oddities, the most inspired ties into Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. As it turns out, all the Red Lectroids hiding out on Earth all got Social Security cards in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, on Nov. 1, 1938 — hours after Welles’ broadcast — and threatened him into retracting his report as a falsity. It’s a great goosing of the paranoiac undertones to many of our most persistent urban legends.
And as the Black Lectroids’ preemptive nuclear strike looms, several scenes make wild hairpin turns into cheeky, Dr. Strangelove territory. Laid up by back surgery, and perhaps giddy from the painkillers, the American president considers a “short-form declaration of war” against Russia. Of all possible choices, cornball Communism-comedy staple Yakov Smirnoff plays the president’s National Security Advisor. And when the threat is resolved (after a long, anticlimactic and finale-padding battle), there’s a delicious throwaway line about the president’s confusion over whether to “go ahead and destroy Russia.”
There are fun fripperies to be found on the fringe of Buckaroo’s free-for-all. But like the bells and whistles of a garish pinball game, they are but momentarily enjoyable distractions on a machine that was destined to tilt from the get-go.