Monday, August 10, 2009


No matter where you go, it's 25 years old today

By Edward Copeland
There's no set formula for concocting a successful cult classic. Many a film has flopped when its specific aim was to be some sort of underground or small-level phenomenon. When it hits though, as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension did 25 years ago, it seems as if it were all part of the plan. I can't even remember what excited my friends and I to the theater to for this film on opening weekend or to get into its unique groove, but after re-visiting it for this piece, I found we were mere pikers in the Banzai obsession which grew to be more elaborate than I ever knew.
Much of this new knowledge came from the DVD I rented which was released in 2001 and was loaded with extras but, alas, is no longer in print. The commentary track by director W.D. Richter also includes the "real Reno," one of Buckaroo Banzai's faithful team played in the film by Pepe Serna. The commentary track alternates between real tales of the making of the film such as arguments with David Begelman over how many times Banzai could be shown wearing red spectacles in the film to Richter talking about how he didn't realize until he was filming that the story and characters were "true" and giving insights into "real" events before and after the movie takes place and how some violence was "toned down" from the truth to avoid an R rating.


Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is a neurosurgeon. He also plays with a band in unannounced concerts on the side. He's also a scientist interested in all sorts of fields related to physics and a noted adventurer, frequently saving the world with the help of Team Banzai and the Banzai Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Strategic Information. He even gets help from his own sort of militia called Blue Blaze Irregulars, trained civilians who are called upon in a pinch like Army Reserves. Buckaroo has even inspired his own series of comic book adventures. His scientific interests are an inherited one from his Japanese father and American mother (played in a deleted scene by Jamie Lee Curtis). As the film opens, after finishing some surgery, Banzai is ready to test his Jetcar and its oscillation overthruster to see whether it can pass through the solid matter of a mountain, enter the 8th Dimension and emerge from the other side unscathed. According to the commentary, he takes only three items with him: the overthruster, a turkey sandwich and Einstein's brain. (An interesting sidenote: Part of the equipment inside Buckaroo's Jetcar resembles the flux capacitor that will be the key to time travel in the following year's Back to the Future.) It's an experiment that killed his parents (perhaps due to sabotage by the evil and mysterious Hanoi Xan) and even earlier in an attempt gone wrong by Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) who was possessed by nasty aliens from Planet 10 who reside in that dimension and brought many of those aliens back to Earth with him back in 1938. Banzai's experiment succeeds and he returns unharmed and with evidence of a the simultaneous plane of existence within our own. The crazed Dr. Lizardo sees news of Buckaroo's success from his place in a mental hospital and thinks it's time for him to gather his forces and return to Planet 10 where he is known as Lord John Whorfin. The other bad aliens (known as Red Lectroids, but who look like humans without a key formula) who were released during Lizardo's 1938 experiment created and operate Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems, a major U.S. defense contractor. Did you follow all that?


Of course, "truth" or fiction, describing Earl Mac Rauch's screenplay proves to be somewhat of a pointless exercise and that's what makes Buckaroo Banzai such a fun ride, though admittedly an acquired taste, for viewers such as myself. It's a deadpan action movie, a Zen adventure, a feature-length nonsequitur. It's one long MacGuffin with a helluva cast to boot. Dialogue has taken on a life of its own such as the immortal "No matter where you go, there you are" or the seemingly pointless "Where is that watermelon from" followed by the reply "I'll tell you later." The members of Team Banzai come with unique names and even snazzier costumes such as new recruit Dr. Sidney Zweibel (Jeff Goldblum), rechristened New Jersey, who wears the cowboy costume of his grandfather, a silent film star. New Jersey uncovers a key piece of the film's puzzle when he realizes that all the Red Lectroids working at Yoyodyne appeared in Grover's Mills, N.J., on Nov. 1, 1938. Meaning, that Orson Welles' fabled War of the Worlds radio broadcast on Halloween 1938 wasn't a hoax at all but Welles was brainwashed into saying the alien invasion was one. Among the aliens at Yoyodyne waiting for Whorfin's return are John Bigboote (pronounced BigbooTAY) and John O'Connor (played by Christopher Lloyd, right, and Vincent Schiavelli, left). I feel as if I'm spending far too much time trying to describe the plot of Buckaroo Banzai instead of making a case for why it deserves a tribute, but it's such a unique hodgepodge, it almost defies praise as much as it's difficult to describe what it's about. It is what it is. “Nobody is nobody," Buckaroo says at one point. "Everybody has something to offer.” That certainly is the case with this movie, which really is a miracle for being made at all. Its origin could have gone two ways: As a feature or as an idea for a weekly TV show, but Rauch's script grew so long, the film won out and it actually got financed somehow. The film comes loaded with its own mythology, which is even expanded on the DVD, which even included spoilers for later chapters that were never filmed or told. For example, Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), the depressed woman Buckaroo rescues in the film who turns out to be the long-lost twin sister of Banzai's murdered wife Peggy will be slain two years later by his archenemy Hanoi Xan.


One thing I think I'm failing to emphasize about Buckaroo Banzai is what a funny film it is, even though its humor is no more conventional than its action or its plot. Even the score by Michael Boddicker, which at times comes off sounding like an electronic whistle, seems to be composed for laughs. Every line Lithgow utters in his crazed pseudo-Italian madman guise comes firing at the audience as if it came from a maching gun loaded with gags. "Sealed with a curse as sharp as a knife. Doomed is your soul and damned is your life," Lizardo spits. Everyone gets in on the act though, as the confused and suicidal Penny Priddy confesses to Buckaroo, "You're like Jerry Lewis, you give me hope to carry on, then you leave me in the lurch while you strap on your six-guns." There are even sight gags as when the president, afraid that a possible war will be triggered with the Soviets by the Black Lectroids of Planet 10 (the good ones) if the Red Lectroids aren't stopped, whips out the Declaration of War — The Short Form. There is even more fun to be found on the out-of-print DVD which includes an extra where subtitles from Team Banzai member Pinky Carruthers gives you astounding facts about Buckaroo's life and the institute. Did you know that Banzai's mobile unit runs on hydrogen and the institute gets many requests from SUV owners who contact the institute to see if they can turn their vehicle into more environmentally friendly modes of transportation? Of course, the movie ultimately ends on a sad note because it had a teaser for the next chapter, a chapter we've never seen and now, 25 years later, it seems unlikely that we ever will. Still, on the off chance that this really was a true story, I think we best be training as Blue Blaze Irregulars since the DVD reports there still may be Red Lectroids out there and Lizardo/Whorfin may have survived that explosion. Even if that's not true, the evil Hanoi Xan remains at large. Try to rent the DVD and acquaint yourself with the backstory.

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What a nice tribute to a classic cult film. I remember seeing this film when it first came out in theaters and thinking it was the greatest film I'd ever seen and was deeply disappointed that a sequel was never made. It still holds up and has a great sense of bizarro humor and insanely quotable dialogue as you so rightly point out. And, of course, Richter would go on to write the screenplay to another instant-cult film with very quotable dialogue, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.
I still get goose bumps just watching the end credits:
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