No matter where you go, there you are.
Like so many cult films, this 1984 production was initially considered a box-office failure. Its cult popularity grew by word of mouth and the advocacy of American ubercritic Pauline Kael. Essentially it’s the typical story of a scientist/rock ’n’ roll musician/brain surgeon/samurai who fights evil aliens named John from the eighth dimension.
This is a brilliant and lively spoof of the sci-fi superhero genre. Visually and aurally rich, it bears multiple viewings, yielding fresh surprises each time. The retro-techno look, the non-linear alien spacecraft and the entire cast’s deadpan delivery of gee-whiz material blend effortlessly. It’s excessive and understated at the same time and its underlying silliness is engaging, even to adult sensibilities. And it has Jeff Goldblum dressed as a cowboy.
An opening story background crawl, a la Star Wars, informs us that Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) had a Japanese father and a US mother, and is expert in neurosurgery, martial arts, particle physics and music. His colleagues, all ‘hard rocking scientists’, back him up in a band called The Hong Kong Cavaliers. He also has his own quasi boy-scout organisation: The Blue Blazers.
The film opens with team Banzai preparing to launch a rocket car in the desert flats. Unfortunately, test pilot Banzai is missing, off recruiting a top surgeon (Jeff Goldblum). Once the doctor agrees (in the midst of performing an operation), Buckaroo enquires somewhat unexpectedly, ‘Can you sing?’ Goldblum’s character responds, ‘A little … I can dance.’
Soon after, Banzai manages to show up at the test site dressed in a black, Ninja-style fire suit. The jet car is launched at break-neck speed directly at the mountain. A blue beam from the car zaps the mountain and, rather than crash, the car appears to be absorbed into the mountain. It briefly enters ‘the eighth dimension’ while travelling through the mountain’s mass. The hero and his jet then rematerialize on the other side of the mountain, unharmed.
The rest of the film involves an alien species, called Lectroids, who inhabit the eighth dimension. Buckaroo’s trespass enables the Lectroids and their inter-galactic race war to spill over into our dimension. Black Lectroids, who appear to humans as Rastafarians, are good, while the bad Red Lectroids appear as typical white males.
The Red Lectroids (all incidentally named John) are attempting a world takeover through a front corporation (‘Yoyodyne Propulsion’) and the help of mad Doctor Lizardo (John Lithgow, whose performance steals this movie). Christopher Lloyd and Dan Hedaya also turn up in hilarious performances as two of the aliens (John Bigboote and John Gomez respectively).
When the Black Lectroids discover that arch criminal Dr. Lizardo is on the loose on Earth, they threaten to wipe out the entire planet. They give Buckaroo 24 hours to capture or kill him lest they be forced to annihilate the earth.
Meanwhile, Buckaroo’s love interest is a ‘lost soul’ named Penny (Ellen Barkin), introduced attempting suicide at a Hong Kong Cavaliers club date. She also happens to be his deceased wife’s long-lost twin sister …
Confused? That’s okay. It even opens with the sense that you’ve walked into a movie halfway through. It is so rich with quick, odd bits of detail that you sense that each hints at a richer story. Likewise just enough of the characters’ backstories are revealed to pique our interest. The only way to pack so much into a 102-minute movie, is to simply discard structure and continuity. It’s not that it is disjointed; it’s more that it trusts you to be on it, or at least interested enough to work through any confusion. It is smart, energetic, infectious, truly odd fun.
I first saw it on video release in 1984 and, for reasons I still cannot explain, I watched it five times in a single weekend. I think much of sci-fi is dependant on heroes who embody a specific ideal. The attraction of the Buckaroo character is that he embodies the ultimate fantasy: of simultaneously being everything at once.
The ending credits alert the audience to watch out for the sequel, ‘Buckaroo Banzai versus The World Crime League’. I only wish it had been produced.
Director: W.D. Richter
Writer(s): Earl Mac Rauch
Runtime(s): 103 minutes
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.