"Cult films don't make money." - BILL LANGE, producer of Massacre at Central High
"Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy." - DR. EMILIO LIZARDO, eccentric Italian physicist possessed by Lord John Whorphin, an evil Red Lectroid from Planet 10
When I suggested "Cult on Arrival" month I had but one film in mind and that was 1984's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a fast-paced, effects-laden science fiction extravaganza that had the potential to kick off a franchise but fizzled at the box office. Made by a first-time producer-director (W.D. Richter, who cut his teeth as a screenwriter on films like Peter Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon, which he co-wrote with the director, and the late-'70s adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula) and a relatively unknown screenwriter (Earl Mac Rauch, whose only prior credits were the little-loved urban thriller A Stranger is Watching and Martin Scorsese's sprawling musical New York, New York), Buckaroo Banzai was always going to be a hard sell, but you can tell that they made the film for the love of it, not because they thought they were going to get rich off it. (Of course, if it had been a runaway success, I don't believe they would have turned those riches down.)
The other group of people that Richter and Rauch arguably made the film for were the sci-fi, fantasy and comic book geeks who were in the habit of anointing whatever blockbusters Hollywood threw their way and could presumably be counted to spread the word about their film's idiosyncratic hero, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, rocket scientist and rock star who just so happened to also have his own comic book (at least in the world of the film). And so the studio went directly to the fans, showed them the trailer, handed out Buckaroo Banzai headbands (one of which I was given by a college friend) and did whatever they could to try to drum up interest in the film. These tactics drew the ire of notable crank Harlan Ellison, who used his January 1985 column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to decry the "billion dollars' worth of promotional hype such as Big Brother-style rallies at sf conventions" being used to sell what he called "this village idiot of a movie." Needless to say, he was not impressed with it.
Luckily, I was already an avowed fan of Buckaroo Banzai, having seen it many times on cable, by the time I read Ellison's withering four-paragraph dismissal of it in his 1989 collection Harlan Ellison's Watching, so I've never let it influence my opinion of the film. Then again, within its pages Ellison also derides Star Wars, John Carpenter's The Thing, Gremlins ("it is a corrupt thing, vicious at its core"), The Last Starfighter, Back to the Future, Robocop ("a film that struck me as being made by, and for, savages and ghouls") and Spaceballs -- all of which I have varying degrees of affection for -- so I know to take his criticisms with the proper amount of seasoning. Then again, he also has high praise for an obscure 1973 film called Slither, which just so happened to be Richter's screenwriting debut, calling it "the world's longest, funniest Polack joke." And he champions Big Trouble in Little China, which Richter also had a hand in, so it's clear he doesn't prejudge a film one way or the other based on who made it (although he never does seem to have a kind word for Brian De Palma).
So, why does Ellison object so strenuously to the film and does it have anything to do with why it failed commercially? To answer the second question first, yes and no. According to Ellison, if you were to subject yourself to Buckaroo Banzai, "you might have to go back to see it three or four times more in an effort to unravel a storyline in which mindlessness reaches deification and in an effort to decode the garbled soundtrack." Now, while I concede that the story can be hard to follow the first time through, I don't attribute this to mindlessness, nor do I find it to be such an overwhelming obstacle to enjoying the film. Also, I didn't see it in a theater, so maybe it was difficult to make out some of the dialogue (he refers to an "inaudible sound mix") under those conditions. On video, though, you have the option to rewind if you think you've missed something important (or, thanks to DVD, all you have to do is turn the subtitling on). I think what really sticks in his craw, though, is his assertion that the filmmakers ripped off Doc Savage and his crew, the "Fabulous Five," and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories -- and if there's one thing Ellison can't abide it's plagiarism. (Case in point: Not long after this review was published, he got into an imbroglio over The Terminator, which he believed owed more than a little to his Outer Limits episodes "Soldier" and "Demon With a Glass Hand." He eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and retroactively received credit on the film.) That's not the sort of thing that would keep the average moviegoer away, though, which leaves us with...
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is confusing! Well, yes. Guilty as charged, your honor. This is, after all, a film that opens with its lead character (played to deadpan perfection by Peter Weller) engaged in a delicate brain operation (and bantering with fellow neurosurgeon Jeff Goldblum) at the same time he's supposed to be testing a jet car, which the military has a great amount of interest in. Before Buckaroo arrives at the test site we're introduced to the other members of his team -- Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith), Reno Nevada (Pepe Serna) and Rawhide (Clancy Brown) -- without actually being told who they are or what their connection to our hero is. We also meet Banzai's mentor, Professor Hikita (Robert Ito), who we will soon learn has a history with Buckaroo's nemesis, the mad Dr. Emilio Lizardo (a scenery-chewing John Lithgow), who is being held at the Trenton Home for the Criminally Insane (which, when you get right down to it, is far from a maximum security facility). Before we get to Lizardo, though, there's the jet car test, which also doubles as a test for Buckaroo's invention the Oscillation Overthruster, which allows him to break the dimensional barrier and drive straight into a mountain. Having crossed into the eighth dimension, Buckaroo then drives through some flashy special effects (which still look okay today because who really knows what the eight dimension looks like?) and out the other side of the mountain, whereupon he is hailed as a hero and a visionary. About the only person who doesn't think he's the bee's knees is Dr. Lizardo, who had his own brush with inter-dimensional travel in 1938 (with a young Professor Hikita in attendance). That trip didn't go quite so smoothly, though, since Lizardo wound up being possessed by Lord John Whorphin, leader of the rebellious Red Lectroids from Planet 10. (More on them anon.)
Having made a major scientific breakthrough, Buckaroo's next step, naturally, is to play a club date with his rock band the Hong Kong Cavaliers (Perfect Tommy, Reno, Rawhide and, on bass, Billy Vera as Blue Blaze Irregular Pinky Carruthers). Before they can even get through their first number, though, Buckaroo brings the show to a dead halt so he can talk to the audience. "Excuse me," he says, "is someone out there not having a good time?" As it turns out, there is somebody who fits that description: the teary-eyed Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), whose tale of woe moves Buckaroo to utter the film's most famous line: "Remember, no matter where you go, there you are." The audience takes this to heart, but it's cold comfort to Penny, and when Buckaroo dedicates his next song, the aptly titled piano ballad "Since I Don't Have You," to her, she tries to kill herself. This is mistaken for an assassination attempt and she is whisked off to jail at the same time Lizardo escapes from the mental hospital, killing his sarcastic orderly (the one he called a "monkey-boy") in the process.
Cut to the next morning as Buckaroo kills two birds with one stone by bailing Penny out of jail (he has a soft spot for her since she's the spitting image of his dead wife) and picking up Goldblum, who has been recruited for the team and given the nickname New Jersey (despite the fact that he's incongruously dressed in cowboy duds for their rendezvous). Their characters are useful as the audience's gateway into Buckaroo's inner circle since the Cavaliers all know each other (obviously) and everybody else has read the comic books detailing their exploits, so little time is spent on filling in their backstories. Then again, even newcomers like Penny and New Jersey are assimilated with tremendous speed, sitting in on Buckaroo's hastily arranged press conference trumpeting his fantastic new invention. This, incidentally, attracts the attention of ne'er-do-wells John Bigboote (Christopher Lloyd, who bristles whenever anyone mispronounces his name), John O'Connor (the late, great Vincent Schiavelli) and John Gomez (Dan Hedaya, who coincidentally enough went on to play Gomez Addams's shady lawyer in The Addams Family), all of whom turn out to be Red Lectroids in disguise. Luckily, Buckaroo also has his first contact with the Black Lectroids (who are in an oddly shaped spaceship in geosynchronous orbit above New Jersey [the state, not the surgeon]) who give him the ability to see through their disguises, revealing their hideous reptilian countenances. From there the story goes kind of haywire (no, really?) and, well, if I were to try to synopsize the rest of it we'd be here all day.
Suffice it to say, the Cavaliers regroup at Buckaroo's compound (where we find out he has groupies just like any other celebrity) and put the pieces together vis-à-vis the Red Lectroids and their connection with Dr. Lizardo and Orson Welles. When it appears the Red Lectroids have achieved their objective -- the theft of the Oscillation Overthruster -- and the world is on the brink of disaster, a call is put in to the president (Ronald Lacey, whose character is presumably named after actor Richard Widmark), who's for the most part indisposed but has the presence of mind to place the fate of the world in Buckaroo's hands. This means a direct assault on the Red Lectroids' business front, a military contractor named Yoyodyne Industries, and the recovery of both the Overthruster and Penny, who has fallen into their evil clutches (and has been revealed to be Buckaroo's dead wife's long-lost twin sister). Tagging along is secretary of defense Matt Clark, who gets them past security and, prefiguring Garry Shandling's role in Iron Man 2 by two and a half decades, wants to lay claim to the Overthruster in the name of national security.
If the action flags a little during the assault on Yoyodyne, it's only because things have moved at such a breakneck pace up to that point. Plus, it's the third major sequence with characters running around with guns (after the chaotic press conference and a Red Lectroid invasion of the Banzai compound), so just because it's happening in a new location, that doesn't make it any more exciting. What saves it are the background details (an alarm system that, when sounded, says "There are monkey-boys in the facility"; a sign on a door that reads "NOBUDY CUMZ IN HERE -- SEKRIT") and the fact that their opponents have names like John Ya Ya and John Small Berries. (It seems all Lectroids -- Red and Black, male and female -- are named John. The main difference between them is the good ones are disguised as Rastafarians and speak with Jamaican accents.)
In the end, the day is saved when Buckaroo shoots Dr. Lizardo's jerry-rigged craft out of the sky and miraculously revives Penny, who suffered mightily (and disgustingly) at the hands of the Red Lectroids. This happy ending is undercut somewhat by the Black Lectroid in the sky watching over them, who says, "So what? Big deal." And the title cards that follow, telling audiences to "WATCH FOR THE NEXT ADVENTURE OF BUCKAROO BANZAI -- BUCKAROO BANZAI AGAINST THE WORLD CRIME LEAGUE," are undercut by the fact that said sequel never did get made (in much the same way that Doctor Detroit II: The Wrath of Mom failed to materialize). Still, the closing credit sequence, in which all of the good guys (even those who have fallen in the line of duty) come together and march in lockstep to the accompaniment of Michael Boddicker's excellent theme song, is a sight that would please any Blue Blaze Irregular. And even further screen adventures are out of the question, in recent years writer Earl Mac Rauch has revived the character in a comic book series, allowing him to burn off some of the stories he's been dying to tell for the past few decades. Who knows? Some day he might even get around to explaining what the deal with the watermelon is.
Watch the Magic Silver Punkin: A Newcomer's Guide to Coping with The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
Hello, friends. Perhaps, like me, you have been avoiding the motion picture The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension since its release in 1984 because you have heard descriptions of the film by its fans, and in their enthusiasm they have inadvertently made it sound incomprehensible and unwatchable. Believe me, I know the feeling. I'm writing this article the very same weekend that ABC is airing the series finale of Lost, and I have made a point of dodging that series since my one attempt at watching an episode ended in total defeat. I tuned in one night to see what the fuss was about, and I noted that the network was running a little stock ticker at the bottom of the screen with various bits of background trivia about the series. My eyes darted back and forth between the scene being played and the little stock ticker, and I gave up after only a few minutes and took refuge in an infomercial on another channel. I wanted entertainment, not homework. When Craig said we were watching Buckaroo Banzai for this project, I felt that same sense of impending doom as I had experienced in approaching Lost. "Oh, God," I thought, "I'm not prepared! I haven't read the FAQ! I'm not on the fan club mailing list! I'll be totally adrift!" Fortunately, readers, I had a spiritual guide of sorts on the perilous journey through Banzai territory: Mr. Andy Griffith.
I'm not sure if Andy Griffith has ever actually seen The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. It doesn't seem like his kind of picture, though he was in Spy Hard so you never know. Nevertheless, whether he's seen it or not, Mr. Griffith did indirectly assist me in understanding this potentially-vexing film.
Back in 1953, you see, "Deacon Andy Griffith" made a live comedy recording entitled "What It Was Was Football." This record, Griffith's variation on an ancient Vaudeville routine, is a monologue in which he plays the part of a naive and unworldly country preacher who stumbles upon a college football game and tries to make sense of what he sees, having never before witnessed such a contest. His guesses, though incorrect, are inspired. He identifies the referees as convicts, the field as a "pretty little green cow pasture," and the football itself as a pumpkin (or "punkin," in the Deacon's twangy vernacular). Once the coin toss (or "odd-manning") is over, Griffith describes the action thusly:
Well, after a while, I seen what it was that they was odd-manning for. It was that both bunches full of them men wanted this funny lookin' little punkin to play with. They did! And I know, friends, that they couldn't eat it because they kicked it the whole evenin' and it never busted. But, anyhow, what I was a-tellin' was, that both bunches full wanted that thing. And one bunch got it and it made the other bunch just as mad as they could be! And friends, I seen that evenin' the awfulest fight that I ever have seen in my life! I did! They would run at one another and kick one another and throw one another down and stomp on one another and griiiiiind their feet in one another and I don't know what-all, and just as fast as one of 'em would get hurt, they'd tote him off and run another one on!
While watching Buckaroo Banzai, I felt like Griffith's preacher must have felt at that football game. Here is a movie so wonderfully and terribly overstuffed with supporting characters, complicated exposition, and various visual distractions -- all jostling for 103 frantic minutes of screen time -- that it can be a challenge for the first-time viewer, like myself, to discern what the central plot actually is. It actually helped me to think of Buckaroo Banzai as sort of a football game, even though my understanding of football is sketchy at best. I can say that I understand the average football game and the plot of Buckaroo Banzai about equally. The finer points of both are lost on me, and the enthusiastic musings of hardcore Banzai fans (and they are legion) remain as mysterious to me as whatever the hell John Madden is saying. But I think I have a grasp on the basics of each. Let's see here. In this movie, the home team is the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and they are led onto the field of play by their lanky, steely-eyed quarterback, Mr. Buckaroo Banzai himself. Our hated rivals are the Red Lectroids, the visiting squad from Planet 10, led by the most unsportsmanlike Dr. Lizardo. Like the players in Griffith's monologue, the competitors in this film are squabbling for a "punkin to play with," but in this case the "punkin" is a gizmo called the Oscillation Overthruster, and with it you can travel to that hallowed end zone called the 8th Dimension. Eventually, after a hard-fought game, our plucky hometown boys ("hometown" meaning "Earth") are able to defeat the Red Lectroids in sudden death overtime. As Mr. Clark mentioned, the victorious Hong Kong Cavaliers were supposed to go on to meet the World Crime League in the finals, but then the whole sport went bankrupt. I suppose in retrospect that Buckaroo Banzai was the cinematic equivalent of the XFL. Except, of course, that people still remember Buckaroo Banzai fondly.
Having been forced to try and fail at a variety of athletics during my youth, I have never forgotten one bit of coaching advice common to every last sport: "Keep your eye on the ball." The ball, as I have mentioned, is a marvelous doo-dad called the Oscillation Overthruster. That name is pure Grade A science-fiction gibberish: official-sounding yet meaningless, eight mellifluous syllables which come tripping easily off the tongue. More importantly, it's the perfect MacGuffin: attractive, easily portable, and so powerful as to essentially be magical. I have dealt with this business of MacGuffins twice before in this project: once to describe the nuclear missile in Spies Like Us and again to describe the sports almanac in Back to the Future Part II. But the Oscillation Overthruster leaves those trinkets in the dust. It belongs, I daresay, in the MacGuffin Hall of Fame, alongside the ruby slippers, the Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca's letters of transit. In fact, the experience of watching Buckaroo Banzai sent me scrambling back to Francois Truffaut's famous interview with Alfred Hitchcock, wherein the Master of Suspense explained the concept of the MacGuffin:
"Well, it's the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers all the spies are after... It doesn't matter what it is, and the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it's beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture, the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters."
[Side Note: Upon reading this interview, I realized I'd been spelling "MacGuffin" incorrectly in the past by leaving out the "a." I apologize to the readers for any confusion.]
My advice to bewildered first-time viewers of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is to keep reminding yourself of the Oscillation Overthruster and its importance to the characters. Essentially: the good guys have it, the bad guys want it, and an awful struggle ensues. For villainous Dr. Lizardo, portrayed as a caricature of Mussolini by a sneering, preening John Lithgow, the 'thruster is the letter of transit which will get him the heck out of his own personal Casablanca (our dimension). For Penny Priddy, the film's sort-of love interest portrayed by a game Ellen Barkin, the 'thruster is like a ruby slipper, i.e. something she ends up possessing and cannot cede to the villains. There's a whole phase of Buckaroo Banzai which plays out pretty much like that section of The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy is locked up in the castle of the Wicked Witch, and her traveling companions have to retrieve her. (In his essay on Oz, Salman Rushdie called that part of the movie the "princess rescue story.") Extending this metaphor, if Barkin is Dorothy and the 'thruster is a ruby slipper, then Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems (the baddies' dank hangout) becomes the castle, Lithgow the Wicked Witch, and Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli his Winged Monkeys. You see? Buckaroo Banzai is already becoming easier to understand!
Beyond the complexities of the plot, Buckaroo Banzai can be a tough movie for the newcomer to warm up to. For one thing, its title character, played with almost eerie reserve by Peter Weller, is markedly different from most sci-fi/action/comedy heroes. You won't mistake him for Indiana Jones, for instance, though I'm sure the film's financial backers would have liked you to. Supposedly due to his mixed Japanese and American heritage, Buckaroo has a Western appetite for action and an Eastern sense of calm, the latter typified by his gift for coming up with Zen-like aphorisms. (The DVD helpfully provides some more Banzai koans in a subtitle track.) But above all, he's a team player. Most action movies are about the hero -- Arnold, Bruce, Sly, etc. -- getting the job done, wiping out the bad guys, retrieving the MacGuffin, and winning the heart of the pretty girl in the process. Oh, the hero can have a comic sidekick or two, but there's no doubt who's in charge. This movie, though, is more about the group effort than individual achievement. Banzai really is more like the quarterback of a team rather than a standalone hero, which is probably why the single most memorable image of this film is that famous "group march" over the end credits. I'm not sure I agree with critic Danny Peary's assessment in the book Cult Movie Stars that "Banzai is less captivating than any of his buckaroos" or that Weller "fails to deliver" with this performance. I think it's that we're not generally used to seeing someone like this as the ostensible focal point of an action/fantasy film. Not for nothing was Weller cast as the lead in Robocop, after all. His cold, robotic demeanor and stone-faced handsomeness made him ideal for that role. But Buckaroo gives us a glimpse at Weller's sensitive side as well. Probably my favorite scene in the film is that chaotic Hong Kong Cavaliers nightclub gig wherein Buckaroo serenades the weeping, mascara-drenched Penny Priddy with that lovelorn oldie, "Since I Don't Have You." (Why Buckaroo thought this song would cheer her up is beyond me.) Weller's decision to play this part so straight -- no winking to the audience -- turns out to be a considerable asset to the film in the long run, as it becomes extra-funny to hear Weller say absurd lines like, "The deuce you say!"
It's clear from the supplemental materials on the DVD that the late, highly controversial and ultimately tragic film mogul David Begelman had his doubts about Buckaroo and its unconventional hero, apparently with good reason as this film bankrupted his company, Sherwood Productions. Although trying to put the best possible spin on things and insisting that he "won more battles than [he] lost," director W.D. Richter speaks with an unmistakable residual bitterness about his battles with Begelman over such trivialities as whether Buckaroo could wear red glasses or whether he could express doubt or indecision even for a moment during a pivotal action sequence. (Richter won the first battle and lost the second.)
In fact, the entire production smacks of compromise from its title down. The working title was simply Buckaroo Banzai, but the higher-ups insisted on the longer name, possibly to better conform to the mid-1980s action/fantasy template of "campy heroic name" + "exotic-sounding locale" established by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This was, let's not forget, the fecund era of such films as Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold and The Perils of Gewndoline in the Land of the Yik Yak. In fact, this was the probably the only time in film history when producers might reasonably ask, "Can you make this title longer and more old-fashioned-sounding?" or "Is it possible to make this sound more like a dime novel from the 1930s that only old people and nerds have ever heard of?" There was, of course, a great deal excised from the film in order to get it down to that 103-minute running time. The main casualty was a subplot involving Buckaroo's long-standing rivalry with a super-villain named Hanoi Xan, who had killed both Banzai's parents and his wife. Richter insists that he voluntarily cut out this material because he wanted the finished film to have a light adventure feel and didn't want Banzai to seem "haunted." But the decision to remove this material is a big factor, in my opinion, in making the film's plot difficult to follow. And the revelation of Banzai's traumatic past might have helped explain to the audience why his demeanor is so stoic. Richter may not have wanted Banzai to be haunted, but Peter Weller occasionally seems to be playing the role based on the earlier conception of the character. In our article on Superman III, I decried the darkness and depression that now are standard in all superhero films and wished the genre would lighten up a bit occasionally, if only for the sake of variety. I still feel that way, but Buckaroo Banzai is a film that very well could have benefited from this current trend toward emotional complexity. If the film were being made today, that backstory with Hanoi Xan would all but certainly have been left in the finished film.
But the happy news is that in the era of DVD, the viewer has the choice of which Buckaroo he or she wants to see: the more lighthearted theatrical version or the weightier extended cut. I sat through both, and while I cannot say I am an expert on all things Banzai quite yet, I no longer regard the film with trepidation and existential dread. I hope that this little primer will assist others in overcoming their hesitance to watch this beloved 1984 cult classic. Friends, Buckaroo Banzai is nothing to fear. Whenever the dialogue about Red Lectroids and Black Lectroids and Blue Blaze Irregulars and such starts to get you down, just keep in mind the wise words of Deacon Andy Griffith, who concluded his football monologue with these words:
And I don't know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a doin' down there, but I have studied about it. And I think that it's some kindly of a contest where they see which bunch full of them men can take that punkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other 'un without either gettin' knocked down or steppin' in somethin'.
Final tally: Weller didn't get knocked down, and Lithgow stepped in something. Also Yakov Smirnoff is in this movie, so hooray! In Soviet Russia, overthruster oscillates you! Whatta country!
Up Next: We will bring you the first of two double features with a look at the halcyon days of Touchstone Pictures, when the Walt Disney Corporation bravely and foolishly allowed its good name to be associated with the absolute filth of Miss Bette Midler.