The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
By Bruce Hall
September 9, 2014
So...we meet again, Buckaroo Banzai. We have tangled many times before but can assure you, this time will be the last. For too long you have been a thorn in my side; a pain in need of remedy. But I am not ashamed to admit it took me this long to realize our destiny was to face each other again, for the last time. It is a shame, really. For we are very much alike, you and I. Clever, resourceful, unimpressive at the box office but still very handsome...at one time I could have used someone like you in my...organization. Alas, it matters not. For today, I am the victor. Today, I am the Buckaroo, Mister Banzai.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some background.
Buckaroo Banzai is the kind of weird flick that couldn’t help but develop a cult following. It’s the kind of movie dedicated nerds love to love, and it’s easy to see why. Writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter set out to create a fictional universe filled with insanely colorful characters and based on a preconceived, deeply intricate mythology. The character himself is part Buck Rogers, part Indiana Jones, part Eddie Van Halen and part Stephen Hawking’s brain in Robocop’s pre-murdered body. He’s fearless, patriotic, smugly detached yet approachable, and he absolutely adores children.
He is, basically, the single most kick ass individual who has ever lived.
So naturally, he travels the country in a double decker tour bus solving crimes with his rock band and inventing jet powered vehicles that can break the sound barrier. If that isn’t bad ass enough, all his scientific exploits are made possible by the incredible Oscillation Overthruster, the world’s most powerful energy delivery device/portable story MacGuffin. One day, right after flawlessly performing experimental brain surgery with (not on) Jeff Goldblum, Buckaroo (Peter Weller) casually drives his pickup through the eighth dimension at 700 miles an hour. He returns with an unknown life form, proving his theories on interdimensional life and the built-toughness of Ford trucks.
His activities draw the attention of the world media, as well as the criminally insane Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), who is secretly working with an evil race of aliens called Red Lectroids. For generations, they’ve been at war with the Black Lectroids for control of a place called Planet 10. There’s more, but it’s really not important. What you DO need to know is that Lizardo wants to get his hands on Banzai’s Oscillation Overthruster so he can return to the eighth dimension and...murder everyone...or something. Desperate to stop him, the Black Lectroids enlist the help of Banzai and his crime fighting, math genius rock band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. Together, they have 24 hours to stop Lizardo, prevent World War III, and presumably, finish their new album.
If you’re wondering whether this movie looks as insane as it sounds, the answer is complicated. Thematically, Banzai is a wildly ambitious film. It sells itself as the globetrotting adventures of a brilliant musical genius and scientific tactician, pitted against an interstellar invasion force of Sicilian lizard people. But Buckaroo himself doesn’t seem particularly brilliant as he walks into ambushes, stumbles into clues and only occasionally rescues people from danger by putting them in even more danger. His rock band sucks, and not in an ironic way. It’s more of the “the guy scoring this movie couldn’t be bothered to write anything” way. In short, their music makes Jem and the Holograms sound like Led Zeppelin. And his world spanning adventures never again take him out of the 310 area code, let alone across dimensions. And the nefarious invasion force in question consists of mostly of Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli - that’s Doc Brown and Jeff Spicoli's biology teacher to you.
This would be fine, if Buckaroo Banzai felt more like a comedy and less like a pastiche of interesting ideas duct taped together and filmed over a three day weekend. There are definitely moments - Lloyd is typically funny as a character whose name is a running gag that should get old but never does. And Lithgow gives one of the greatest performances of his life. Quite frankly, I’d rather watch him than anything else in the movie. That’s unfortunate, because Peter Weller is supposed to be the star. As both a solid actor and a real life academic and musician, he’s got the chops and the point of reference for the character. But his native deadpan delivery lacks the sense of camp and playful abandon the character - and the movie - is meant to have.
Buckaroo Banzai reminds me of the more irreverent incarnations of Doctor Who, with a little of whatever your favorite crime fighting team is thrown in for good measure. But the tone of the film is all over the place. One minute it’s a cornball adventure, then its self-serious, and then there are scenes where you can tell something is supposed to be amusing but you can’t tell what it is. Or, the joke lacks context to such a degree that you know WHAT you’re supposed to be laughing at, but it’s just hard to understand WHY. The worst part is, for a movie that cost $17 million to make, I’ll be damned if I can find a penny of it on screen. What is meant to be a rousing, futuristic sci-fi adventure looks like an eighth grade play filmed whenever and wherever nobody was around to chase the actors off.
I appreciate the vision and ambition behind Buckaroo Banzai, and with such a great cast, it’s a shame that none of it works. But a poor script, unfocused plot and subpar production values from start to finish are too much for even the highest of concepts to overcome. There are plenty of films that I enjoy for potential over product (Tron and Richter’s own adaptation of Big Trouble in Little China come to mind), but this movie is not one of them. Sorry fans, but not even John Lithgow at his unhinged best, or Jeff Goldblum in sheepskin chaps can keep this film from being a failure on every level. So I bid you farewell, Mister Banzai. Now that I’ve revealed my plans to you, I am going to turn my back and walk away, leaving my inadequately prepared henchman to oversee your fate.
I’m afraid we shall not meet again.