The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
***/**** Image B Sound B Extras B-
starring Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum
screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch
directed by W.D. Richter
by Walter Chaw It isn't so much that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (henceforth Adventures) is hard to follow, it's that it's hard to assimilate. Once you're drawn into the deadly serious heart askew of W.D. Richter's film, its Gordian plot begins to unravel, its tangled web unweaves, and it becomes clear that the most disturbing thing about this legendarily convoluted camp masterpiece is that it makes perfect sense. That moment of clarity occurs somewhere in the middle of the fourth viewing, and while I can't necessarily guarantee that the trial is worth it for everyone, it was for me. Adventures reveals itself as a commentary on racism, an exploration of communism in the Reagan era, a surprisingly influential genre piece, and a sly statement on early Eighties excess and malaise. What I'm trying to say is that the film is holding my brain hostage, and I would like it back.
Buckaroo (Peter Weller) is a rock star, physicist, comic book superhero, brain surgeon, cult figure, and Eastern aesthete--the product of an interracial union between two brilliant scientists and the discoverer of the Oscillation Overthruster (shades of Back to the Future), which facilitates the travel between ours and the Eighth Dimension. After a successful trial run of the device comes to the attention of mad Lord Whorfin (John Lithgow), the villain attaches his tongue to electrodes, escapes from his mental ward while uttering a few classic bon mots ("Laugh while you can, monkey boy"), and joins up with a team of evil aliens (each named "John" and played by Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Dan Hedaya) intent on stealing the Overthruster so that they might rescue comrades trapped in the Eighth Dimension. While attempting to pinch the doodad, they also abduct Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), Buckaroo's dead wife's identical twin. Buckaroo springs into action along with his Hong Kong Cavaliers (Jeff Goldblum, Pepe Serna, Clancy Brown, Lewis Smith) to rescue the lady fair, save the Earth, and sing soulful ballads to suicidal groupies.
Beginning with Buckaroo's mixed parentage and proceeding through the arrival of good "black" aliens ("Lectroids") that resemble Rastafarians and have as their first Earth contact a pair of redneck poachers, Adventures shows itself to be unusually sensitive--particularly for an Eighties film--to racial issues. In the naming of all its villains "John" and designating them as "red," the film also speaks tangentially to both the egalitarian ideal of communism and the perception in the United States of Russians as philosophically interchangeable (and perhaps indistinguishable in appellation).
It comes as little surprise in retrospect that director Richter is responsible for the screenplay that became Philip Kaufman's excellent 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In its focus on technology and personal achievement (to the extent of naming one character "Perfect Tommy"), Adventures also works as a critique on the rise of a pastel-coloured consumer dystopia. Note the number of times the film features an extra calling out "It's Buckaroo Banzai!" or clutching a copy of the "Buckaroo Banzai" comic book: it is on the one hand a desperately flippant ploy to create a cult of personality whole cloth, and on the other a means by which to express the studied artificiality of a decade.
Adventures is not a conventionally successful film: its pacing lags, its narrative is confused and crippled by sloppy edits, and though its self-consciousness might be interpreted as satire, too often it just plays as unpleasantly glib. What saves the production is a collection of performances that are either deadly earnest (Weller, Brown) or histrionic in a way that elevates the material into the realm of high camp (Lithgow). Not for every taste and, even then, not a film that can be appreciated as much more than repetitive if sometimes cool noise the first time through, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is a cult film because it immediately hints at something subversively grand and pays off over the course of repeated screenings, both internally and literally. The best thing about a movie this wilfully silly is that it never patronizes its audience for loving it, and, in the end, that might be the best reason for giving it a chance.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension shows some signs of age in occasional blurring, grain, and (especially in chapter 16) fatigue lines bisecting the image vertically on MGM's Special Edition DVD. The film, presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, is nevertheless in the best shape I've ever seen it, the transfer displaying little evidence of digital artifacts. The oft-mentioned side-effect of a print of this age that has been so well scrubbed (see also: Willow) is that the aging special effects appear inserted and awkward. In the case of Adventures, however, this artificiality actually works towards a reading of satirical interest, if you're so inclined. The Dolby 5.1 remix is a good example of what can be done with an old soundtrack: there is fine usage of the rear channels for directional effects and a good deal of effective low-end bass. The dialogue is crisp and never swallowed by the score, which sounds more than a little cheesy.
An extended version (simply titled Buckaroo Banzai, unlike the theatrical release) reveals itself to merely be a (clumsily) branched option to view a short home movies-style prologue that restores Jamie Lee Curtis's cameo as Buckaroo's long lost mother. Additional deleted scenes, almost all of them adding character edifications that would have clarified the film immeasurably (though probably lessened its vital cult elitism), are of poor video quality and thus could not be smoothly reincorporated into the film. They are accessible through the special features menu.
A feature-length commentary from Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch (as fictional Hong Kong Cavalier Reno) is a teeth-gritting affair that alternates between some genuinely interesting anecdotes from Richter and Rauch's egregious decision to "prank" his audience by suggesting that the film is actually a documentary based on the "real" Buckaroo Banzai. Lengthy discussions on how much Peter Weller resembles Buckaroo and the multitude of untold stories in the "real" Banzai's life aren't funny to begin with and fail to be funny upon multiple repetitions. I hate, hate, hate commentary tracks like this, and more unfortunately, the lack of respect shown the audience by such a gimmick undermines the very quality that has engendered loyalty to the Buckaroo Banzai phenomena. Worsening matters is a subtitle commentary called "Pinky Carruthers' Unknown Facts" and a 23-minute documentary, "Buckaroo Banzai Declassified", which begins as a typical promotional piece and ends with more of Richter pretending that Banzai's a real guy. It's all tiresome and disingenuous in a way that the film is not.
You'll also find character profiles (Buckaroo's is enhanced by movie shots), a photo gallery, and something called "Banzai Institute Archives," tediously including mock album covers for Buckaroo's nonexistent band. Of greater interest are text reproductions of less than sterling print reviews circa the film's release. Jet Car All Access allows an intimate look at Buckaroo's car for those who are not only geekily curious about a campy construct but also geekily curious about fake cars. I of course use the term "geek" with love and respect. The trailer for a Fox spin-off that died on the vine plus a 1.85 anamorphic teaser for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension itself round out the disc. The superfluous NUON technology appears here, its flashy vestigiality mirroring the quality of the bountiful extras. Die-hard fans might be amused--Richter, et al can only hope for patient bemusement from the rest. Originally published: January 22, 2002.