The 80s were a gold rush of attempts to grab the MTV generation by the wallets, which explains how W.D. Richter ever got the money together to make “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension”. It was also the era of “high concept” films, which explains why it proceeded to do abysmally at the box office and then disappear into a lifetime of “The movie you wanted isn’t in, so try this…” sections of rental shops and the occasionally showing late night on cable channels. Over the years it got what could best be described as a quiet cult following, though more accurately it was a “doesn’t talk about itself much because it just takes too long to explain it” following. Not because it’s an especially intellectual or overtly strange movie, but because it’s ridiculous in so many different ways.
The basic premise sounds like something a 12 year old would come up with for a book they never wrote, but spent hours sketching the cover for. Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is an American-Japanese neurosurgeon and physicist, trained in the ways of the samurai, who splits his time between playing with the world-renowned Hong Kong Cavaliers (a group of similarly talented scientist rockers) and doing awesome science stuff. After successfully driving a rocket car directly through a hill, he releases the Red Lectoids from their interdimensional prison and so that the Black Lectoids, who come from Planet 10, give him ‘til sundown to put the baddies back or else they’ll start World War 3.
That’s the quick version. The longer version includes HG Wells War of the Worlds, the President’s back surgery, his mentor’s arch nemesis Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow, being absolutely batshit crazy and scary as hell), the machinations of the Secretary of Defence, discovering his dead ex-wife’s previously unknown identical twin, and having a country music loving Dr. Sidney Zweibel (Jeff Goldblum) learning to integrate into the band/research facility. A lesser movie would have used any two of the subplots as it’s entire story, but that would have been dull as that would also have explained half of it.
This movie is firmly of the opinion that explanations are for losers, so just has things happen and leaves the audience to work out why. Well, mostly. It has moments when it explains things with a signpost and a fairground barker, but that inconsistency somehow adds to the overall effect. It’s like going through the recent issue of a 30-year long comic (a fitting analogy, as we find out that Banzai has a regular and widely read comic about his actual life) that doesn’t care about new readers. So, him having a science mansion, a command centre tour bus, a hotline to the President and the UN, and a superfan club that doubles up as a militia is just a thing that happens. With no warning. It’s less Deus Ex Machina and more a relentless “you’ve missed that issue, but carry on reading for now”.
It’s also relentlessly 80s, to the point that it becomes timeless by everyone being so fashionably new-wave hip that you just can’t think of a point when anyone ever actually looked or sounded like that. On top of that is the weird never-when feel of the eras music videos, where half of it is a pastiche of a 50s that never happened and half a New Romantics retelling of a Doc Savage story. Furthermore, it drags in other 80s habits of being incredibly apolitical and utterly America-Centric, and also pulls off the trick of utterly avoiding any racial tension issues (a decidedly Southern sounding police officer dealing with the corpse of an African-American looking character that had jumped out of a spaceship) whilst being a bit racist in and of itself (the Italian character sounds like ‘Ello ‘Ello would say it’s a bit much, and all the Black Lectoids are aggressively Jamaican). Not enough to overly annoy, especially as the Black Lectoids are the good guys and the Red Lectoids are pretty much space hicks, just enough to go “yeah… that was the 80s”.
The minor short-falls are countered by the end of New Hollywood having left a bunch of quite serious actors with time on their hands and rents to pay. The central cast is brilliant, although it’s a boys-club of characters, and they all play it absolutely straight with just the right levels of passion. Occasionally this moves into somewhat stiff and formal performances, but the dialogue cover that by them being serious men of science/rock and roll who have the serious job of saving the planet. That also helps make it amazingly quotable, at least amongst all your friends who watch it with you. Everyone else will just look at you kind of funny.
There are no jokes, but you will laugh at various points and then try to decide if that was the intention or not. Because all the way through it you’ll be wondering “why?” and “what were they trying to do?”, as it weaves between being either pretentious excess or a kind of absurdist metafiction about comic book aspirations. The direction is focused and strait-laced, with minimal sex or violence. It can lag at points, but if that’s an attempt at replicating the feel of older movies or a lack of craft isn’t an easy call.
Overall; it’s a mess, a gloriously delightful mess. Half cliche, half unstopping power-ride of cliches you forgot were even a thing. You never have enough time to question anything, or to challenge the logic of it all, as your run though it all open mouthed. It’s confusing, like a good puzzle, so whilst the plot might not bring you back for a second viewing, trying to unpack it all and work out what you actually sat though, could well do it. Watching it with friends who also haven’t seen it becomes a whole game, as you join together to share what others missed and to ask important questions like “Did that character actually die or not?”, “Where did the drummer keep the Uzi?” and “Why was that melon in a vice?”…