Some movies click with you instantly. Some fail to connect right from the gate. Then there are those movies that by every measure you should love, that you want to love, but for some reason you never completely fall for. Fortunately, the heartbreak doesn’t have to last forever. Time can’t change a movie’s content or message, but it can change the viewer. People mature, their values change, their perspectives widen (hopefully). Revisiting a movie years later may elicit a completely different experience.
I've had to grow into certain movies. Carpenter films are a perfect example. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA hits the bullseye at any age, but you need to have lived a little to appreciate the pacing of THEY LIVE. THE THING puts the monster right in your face (or wearing your face), but the existential evil of PRINCE OF DARKNESS requires a bit more contemplation.
It doesn't work for everything. Every five years or so I come back to NIGHT OF THE COMET certain I’m going to unlock all its joy. The joy still alludes me. I know everyone adores it, and Kelli Maroney and Catherine Mary Stewart are amazing, but the story never lives up to the potential. So, I was nervous returning to another beloved cult classic. Was I finally ready to sip from the nerd grail that is THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION?
Neurosurgeon, martial artist, particle physicist, speed racer, and rock singer Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) has just achieved his greatest accomplishment, driving his rocket car straight through a mountain, via a side trip across the 8th Dimension. Unfortunately, his well televised success catches the attention of Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow), a megalomaniacal alien who, 45 years earlier, escaped the 8th Dimension by way of body-jacking the brilliant scientist, Dr. Emilio Lizardo. Seeing the opportunity to free the rest of his imprisoned followers, Whorfin sends his Red Lectroid underlings, John O'Connor (Vincent Schiavelli), John Gomez (Dan Hedaya), and John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd), to kidnap Banzai’s mentor, Professor Hikita (Robert Ito), and steal the oscillation overthruster. Banzai momentarily thwarts Whorfin's plans, despite being distracted by a suicidal blonde, Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), who looks hauntingly like his dead wife. Meanwhile, a representative from Planet 10, John Parker (Carl Lumbly), brings Banzai and his team an ultimatum from the leader of the Black Lectroids, John Emdall (Rosalind Cash): stop the renegade Whorfin from escaping Earth or her orbiting ship will start World War III. Also, Jeff Goldblum is dressed like a cowboy.
For so long I wondered why I couldn’t quite gel with BUCKAROO BANZAI. I was down with other cult films, like REPO MAN and ERASERHEAD, why couldn’t I crack BANZAI? Well, after 34 years (!), I’m happy to announce that this time, I finally got it. I can follow the plot, I can sync with the tone, and can get behind the performances. And yes, it is wonderful. I also see why my younger self had such a hard time with it. This movie is so densely packed with crazy it’s like a neutron star. Before the movie even starts, we're hit with the ridiculous title, the strange graphics, the bizarre Casio theme song, and a delirious text crawl. It only gets stranger from there.
The world of Buckaroo Banzai is a dizzying mix of clever satire, overacting, underacting, violence, silliness, and heart. I’m convinced the first draft was crafted by a genius 12-year-old, either confused about how the world really works, or pining for how it ought to work. Banzai, played with understated brilliance by Weller, is a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Albert Einstein, Captain Kirk, Toshiro Mafune, and Elvis Costello. He pivots from performing brain surgery, to hosting a science symposium, to rocking out on stage without missing a beat. He is so well respected that the President of the United States has to schedule an appointment for his time. He's always ready with a six-gun or a philosophical insight. Weller’s earnest p, without a hint of irony or cynicism, is what keeps the rest of the insanity comfortably riding the rails. Banzai is unflappable, whether he’s squaring off against aliens or stopping a rollicking rock show to quiet the tears of a despondent woman. If all action heroes were this centered, they could get a lot more accomplished.
This movie has one of the largest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen. Banzai’s entourage alone is gigantic, ranging from his band/compatriots, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, to a robust support staff of technicians and guards, to a nationwide civilian task force, the Blue Blazer Irregulars, who can be called upon at a moment’s notice. Add in the different factions of Lectroids and a DR. STRANGELOVE-esque contingency from the US government and you should be drowning in character soup. Director W.D. Richter does an incredible job of constantly juggling the cast so that everyone, from a simple mental ward orderly (Jonathan Banks, Mike from Breaking Bad!), to a machine gun toting junior Blazer (Damon Hines), has a memorable part. The characters are so distinct, like Banzai's manager Rawhide (Clancy Brown), that their presence adds up to more than their scant screen time.
If Banzai is on one end of the composure scale, then Lord John Whorfin is at the extreme opposite end. John Lithgow gives the looniest performance of his life, which is no small feat, given his colorful history. Appropriately enough, Whorfin is introduced in the nuthouse, hooking electrodes to his tongue to experience flashbacks. Inheriting his host body’s Italian accent and a faulty recollection of popular sayings (“home is where your wear your hat”), Whorfin babbles like Geppetto on meth. Lithgow is at 100% mania from start to finish, which might be why I had a hard time with this movie in my youth. Whorfin is a lot to handle. Like Weller, though, Lithgow totally commits to the role, leaving no room for knowing winks. Unlike all the other Lectroids, we never see Whorfin’s true alien visage, since no amount of makeup could be more convincingly alien than Lithgow’s physical performance.
The thing I didn’t entirely put together until recently is that even though John Emdall, leader of the the Black Lectroids, considers Whorfin to be great threat to her planet (she equates him to “your Hitler”), the maniacal criminal is, for the most part, completely incompetent. The same can be said for all the Red Lectroids. The mothership they have spent years constructing is hobbled together from junk. Their secret base at the Yoyodine Propulsion Systems factory looks more like a squatters’ camp. Either they have really slacked off during their exile on Earth, or John Emdall is seriously overreacting. These losers couldn’t take over a Denny’s, much less a whole planet.
The one exception is Whorfin’s put upon lieutenant, John Bigboote. He is a bit like New Jersey in that he seems to be the only one concerned about the madness around him. While New Jersey is free speak his frequently blown mind, Bigboote is forced to grumble to himself, because no one listens. Either his partner John O'Connor is too preoccupied with torturing a scantily clad Penny Priddy (in a weirdly kinky plot point), or his boss is too busy being a ranting nutjob. Adding to the insult, Whorfin goes out of his way to torment him, like always pronouncing his name as “Big Boody,” no matter how many times he is corrected (“Boo-ta! Ta! Ta!”). When a frustrated Whorfin screams at him “You’re the weakest individual I ever know,” Bigboote can only express his impotent rage by giving him the finger when he turns his back. Take your petty vengeance where you can, John Bigboote.
Tucked away under all the flash and circumstance are a few surprisingly progressive elements for a 1984 sci-fi farce. Barkin’s Penny Priddy seems like a typical ditzy blonde love interest when first introduced crying in a nightclub. While she certainly has her ditzy moments, Penny is a tough, resourceful, and brave addition to the team. She also has at least a passing understanding of quantum mechanics, so she is more than meets the eye. And while there are precious few other female roles in the enormous cast, at least Rosalind Cash gets to be the leader of a whole planet.
Although Black and Red Lectroids look the same as aliens, it seemed a tad insensitive that all the Black Lectroids in human disguise were given Jamaican accents and dreads. Looking closer, though, it’s more of a quietly subversive wink. The good guy aliens, played by black actors, are technically advanced, organized, and have a very funky fashion sense (John Parker is dressed like Rick James). The bad guy aliens, all played by white actors, are the exact opposite. Their inventions barely function, they are constantly bickering or goofing off, and they all dress like insurance salesmen. No one ever brings this up, except the doofy president (Ronald Lacey), who thinks John Parker is talking about starting a race war rather than fighting aliens. Everyone just ignores him, because we all know what doofy presidents can be like.
Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Buckaroo Banzai’s mind-bending, comic book Zen back in 1984. Unfortunately, I was not alone. The movie bombed at the box office, and even though the credits assured us it would, the next adventure never came. It's a shame, because no one can watch the ending sequence, where Buckaroo's crew triumphantly join him on a march down the L.A. Basin, without longing to see what happens next. Crazier things have happened, though, so maybe one day we will get to see Buckaroo Banzai against the World Crime League. I'm sure Goldblum wouldn't mind breaking out the woolly chaps one more time.