The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
BD - Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
DVD - 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 8th 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 8th 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 8th 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 8th 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 8th 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 owing to Richter and Rauch's egregious decision to "prank" their audience by suggesting that the film is actually a documentary based on the "real" Buckaroo Banzai. Lengthy discussions of 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 phenomenon. 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 geekily curious not only about a campy construct but also 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 1.85:1 anamorphic teaser for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th 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.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers #1 in Shout! Factory's new Shout Select series, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension makes its region-A Blu-ray debut in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. It looks pretty smashing--and apparently identical to Arrow's release in the UK, which was sourced from "original elements" per the company's site. (No such boilerplate from Shout!, who are typically quick to specify provenance.) Up front there's some gate-weave that stabilizes shortly after the opening crawl, and there are telltale signs that this is a dated master: Dynamic range is unfortunately narrow, for instance, and a uniformity of skin tones gives every white actor the same bubblegum complexion. But the grain structure is nice and supple, and the bold colours and contrasts combine to produce a fitting pop-art gleam. The image is of course bedevilled by black specks during the many optical effects--c'est la vie. 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 DTS-HD MA tracks append the feature, the former sounding strangely timid next to its counterpart, especially where dialogue is concerned. Whether the 5.1 option represents the six-channel mix that accompanied 70mm prints of the film or a from-scratch remix, the improved imaging and deeper bass it offers come at the expense of impact, even with amplification. Presumably the 2.0 alternative accurately reflects, when Pro-Logic is activated, the matrixed Dolby Stereo soundtrack most audiences would've heard; what it lacks in discrete activity it more than compensates for in visceral punch.
This is a two-disc set, the second a DVD that more or less recycles the MGM platter reviewed in full. The only new extras, if I have my intel correct, are on the BD: Slushpile Entertainment's Into the 8th Dimension (128 mins.(!), HD), a longform retrospective making-of that rounds up an impressive number of production veterans; and a second audio commentary with Michael and Denise Okuda, making a rare non-Star Trek-related appearance. I'm personally lukewarm on the film--it baffled me as a kid and fatigues me as an adult--but found Into the Dimension engrossing, as an autopsy of an alien artifact is bound to be. The eight parts or "dimensions" each focus on a different topic, recounting the project from its origins through to its cult afterlife. Screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch--who's actually not interviewed--is described as a "time traveller" who found patient allies in first-time producer Neil Canton and director W.D. "Rick" Richter as he struggled to locate the story's throughline. His script was ultimately greenlit on the strength of its title, which had a deceptive whiff of Indiana Jones about it that later led to conflicts with controversial studio head David Begelman, whose attempts to normalize the film resulted, most prominently, in the firing of celebrated DP Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner). (The interviewees, I'm grateful to report, identify the Cronenweth-shot footage that remains, and I'm with John Lithgow that his style had the potential to radically elevate the movie.) He sounds like a real nightmare, Begelman (Michael Keaton turned down the role of Buckaroo because Begelman insisted the actor sign on for sequels as well), but Richter concedes that eventually they got to make the picture without studio interference, since Begelman--who, shadowed by scandal, took his own life in 1995--grew tired of playing micromanager.
Don't be misled: There's plenty to nerd out to besides gossip, including detailed discussions of the costumes and then-cutting-edge visual effects, with motion-control camera operator Hoyt Yeatman saying he misses the pre-CGI days of blowing stuff up for real. Truly, no stone is left unturned--Richter even explains what that watermelon is doing there in that one scene. This is a great example of the DVD documentary form. As for the Okudas, they provide their usual endless reams of trivia, mostly about filming dates and locations. Self-professed Buckaroo Banzai superfans, they generally take the movie too seriously, though not in the same way that W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch's awful yakker (which resurfaces here) does. Dorks won't be bored--all others, steer clear.