I watch a lot of weird movies (I write about many of them here in the Schlock & Awe column), but few are the weird movies that are utterly baffling, nearly incomprehensible, but completely undeniable. One of those movies is 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Just… I mean, that title alone is a wonder of modern wordsmithery. After having seen the title in TV Guide listings and the VHS box on store shelves as a kid, I finally saw this movie for the first time a few years ago and I was CON-FUSED.
I mean, what is it? An action movie? A sci-fi movie? A comedy? A pastiche? Even the film’s trailer doesn’t even know what to do with it.
If you’d seen the above trailer, would you have any idea what the movie’s about? I sure wouldn’t. But that’s kind of the beautiful thing about the movie – it doesn’t need you to understand it to enjoy it and kind of get what it is. In fact, the writer Earl Mac Rauch and the director W.D. Richter (a fairly prolific screenwriter) purposely made an almost impenetrable movie that almost required footnotes for all the things in it. Lesser (or greater, let’s be honest) movies usually spoon-feed the audience the “pertinent” information, but there’s a whole life and set of given circumstances going on here that we only barely get to know. This is an art film, for sure.
The story – near as I can figure – is an alien invasion plot. The titular Buckaroo Banzai (played amazingly well and with much badassness by Peter Weller) is a brain surgeon, martial arts master, molecular physicist, secret agent, comic book hero, and rock star all rolled into one. This is a world where everyone knows who Buckaroo Banzai is, and he’s amazingly good at everything. As the movie begins, he and his sidekicks/research assistants/band members, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, are preparing to test a new rocket-powered car utilizing his invention, the Oscillation Overthruster, and he goes careening into a mountain but instead of crashing, he breaks through into the 8th dimension and discovers alien life on Earth but not of it.
So then in a nuthouse is Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), who once tried to replicate the same experiment in the ’30s and ended up being attacked by Red Lectroids, the alien species from Planet 10 residing in the 8th Dimension, and his brilliant, Italian brain is infected by the Red Lectroid’s leader, Lord John Whorfin. Everybody from Planet 10 has the name John for some reason, and slowly many other Red Lectroids had come into our dimension, setting up a fake science company called Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems waiting for someone to invent the technology needed to return to Planet 10 to defeat the Black Lectroids who had banished them. There are several of these guys, but their leader in Whorfin’s stead is John Bigbooté, played by Christopher Lloyd.
And as if THAT weren’t enough, the Black Lectroids plan to destroy Earth to keep Whorfin and company from returning to Planet 10, so Banzai and the Cavaliers have to stop this, all the while the government wants to take the Lectroids’ technology for themselves. Also, a brain surgeon colleague of Banzai’s gets brought into the group, Dr. Sidney Zweibel, who everybody calls New Jersey (played by Jeff Goldblum) and he is super nerdy. There’s ALSO there’s this woman named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin) who is at one of Banzai’s shows and tries to kill herself because some guy stood her up, who happens to also be the long lost twin sister of Banzai’s late wife who was murdered by an evil guy.
Truly, this is a movie that defies explanation, because even just listing the plot moments like this doesn’t make any sense, even though that is actually what happens. To not to dumb down any of the film’s 104 minutes is something of a milestone. I’m constantly impressed by the fact that it’s a movie we’re expected to keep up with even though there’s no possible way we really can. And yet, it’s fun because everyone in the movie is 110% committed, funny, and equally weird.
I mean, just look at this moment when an angry John Whorfin screams at John Bigbooté (which he constantly pronounces “Big-Booty” but is apparently supposed to be “Big-boo-TAY”) for being shortsighted:
That’s all of it right there, man. Actors like Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli in weird rubber alien masks arguing with John Lithgow with shocked-out crazy hair and a ridiculous Italian accent.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension came out on Blu-ray in the UK via Arrow Video, but I didn’t think it was ever going to get a proper release here in North America. Leave it to the folks at Shout! Factory to change that. Buckaroo is being released in super awesome two-disc collectors’ set as the first in their new imprint Shout Select, a series of movies they think should get more love than they do. Each one has a numbered spine and classy artwork.
The set has many great legacy special features–including a commentary featuring director W.D. Richter and “Buckaroo Banzai” (who is really just writer Earl Mac Rauch in character)–but there are two new and very exciting features: The first is a brand new, two-hour-long documentary about the making of the film, from the writing, to the production (which saw Richter having to fight a producer tooth and nail on very stupid points), to the cast, to the release, to the legacy of the movie. It’s a fascinating piece and could easily be digested in small chunks or as a complete knowledge meal. It features new interviews with Richter, Weller, Lithgow, Lloyd, most of the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and tons of behind-the-scenes personnel.
The second new feature is a new commentary track by Denise and Michael Okuda. Now if you’re a fan of the Star Trek franchise and are in to any of the value added material on those releases, you’ll no doubt recognize the husband-and-wife duo as not only having worked in key positions on the Trek films and shows, but are essentially the historians and keepers of knowledge when it comes to the saga as a whole. But what you might also not know–I didn’t–is that the Okudas are the founders of the first and largest Buckaroo Banzai fan group and basically know as much about the movie as anyone can. The commentary is a bit dry, but it’s full of information, both about how things were done and about the plot itself, since it’s sort of hard to follow if you’re any normal viewer.
If you haven’t seen The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and you’re a fan of weird ’80s ephemera and actors being super great, then I think you kind of owe it to yourself to watch. It feels like a fever dream Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh had while falling asleep after reading quantum physics books and watching 1930s Flash Gordon serials. One of the major plot points is Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast, and there are references to people like Thomas Pynchon and Miles Davis. It’s crazy…CRAZY. And John Parker as my witness, I love it to bits.
To quote the film’s President of the United States: Buckaroo, I don’t know what to say. Lectroids? Planet 10? Nuclear extortion? A girl named “John”?
And it contains one of the greatest and most imitated end credit sequences in the whole universe, right after arrogantly proclaiming that they’d return in Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. Sadly, that adventure never materialized, but that means we’ve got this odd sort of part-two of a series that doesn’t exist.
Images: MGM/Shout Factory