The Wonderful Weirdo Postmodern Pop of Buckaroo Banzai

Buckaroo Bonzai

So it appears that Kevin Smith is going to remake The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension as a TV series for Amazon. This is the latest in a line of movies and TV shows riding a wave of 80’s nostalgia that includes the excellent Netflix series Stranger Things. I couldn’t be happier about this fascination with all things 80’s. After all, I was born in August, 1980, which means, of course, that, while I remember some of these movies coming out, the ones made in 1984 or before, such as Rocky IV or The Karate Kid, already seemed like old movies by 1988. There was already a built-in nostalgia. Besides that, though, mainstream 80’s movies had a lot going for them. They had exchanged the dour tone of the 70’s for something more playful, whimsical, hopeful.

That’s why it’s hard to picture such a fun, fantastical, weird, surreal movie like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension coming out in any other decade. Still, the script, a science fiction-adventure-comedy that sort of makes up the rules as it goes along, is a bit too weird for a mainstream studio like MGM. And yet here we are, eh? However, as you might expect, there was constant studio interference and arguments, to the point where director W.D. Richter stuck a watermelon in a scene and had Jeff Goldblum, in a garish cowboy outfit, say, “Why is there a watermelon there?” in an apparent effort to fuck with the producers and studio executives. And by the way, the question, like so many others in the movie, goes unanswered.

The director’s cut  inserts an opening montage about Buckaroo’s early life. Born to an American mother and a Japanese father (who somehow  had a kid who grew up to look like Peter Weller?), both geniuses in their own right, died tragically in their own attempt to reach the 8th dimension. Buckaroo grew up interested in everything. Becoming a neurosurgeon wasn’t enough for him, so he also formed a rock band (a kind of 80’s new wave group), of which his back up players are also his sidekicks, accompanying him on all sorts of adventures for the betterment of humanity. He’s also apparently a zen master and, oh yeah, the subject of a popular comic book series.

Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai
Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai

In the opening scene, a team of scientists, engineers, and crew are waiting around in the desert fiddling with a rocket car with which they intend to break the land speed record. They’re all ready to go, but the only problem is that the car’s driver, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), isn’t there. Because he’s in the middle of brain surgery. We cut to Buckaroo and fellow neurosurgeon New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) operating on a patient. One wonders how competent these guys really are when New Jersey remarks that everything sort of looks the same once you get too deep into a man’s skull. But, no worries, because Buckaroo is in control. Sort of. During this scene, Buckaroo says one of most quotable, if not funniest, lines in the movie: “Don’t tug on that — you never know what it might be attached to.” Actually, the movie is full of these silly, very quotable lines. At one point, the mad scientist villain John Whorfin (John Lithgow) screams in an over the top Italian accent, “Laugh while you can, monkey boy!” The man he’s referring to looks nothing like a monkey, which makes the line that much better. Some other choice quotes include, “No matter where you go, there you are,” and, “Character is what you are are in the dark.”

Buckaroo and the Hong Kong Cavaliers’ main foes are the evil alien Lectroids. They’ve been on earth since the 1930’s, undercover as humans at the Yoyodyne factory, which develops technology for the military. The Lectroids were once imprisoned in the 8th dimension but they were set free by Dr. Emilio Lizardo during an early experiment in interdimensional travel. Lizardo’s body becomes possessed by the evil Lord John Whorfin, who waits decades for someone to develop the technology that will allow him to lead the Lectroids back to their home planet. That technology is developed for Buckaroo Banzai and rigged onto his rocket car, with which Banzai travels briefly through the 8th dimension.

Banzai is perfect for Peter Weller’s laid back deadpan style. He’s a polite cat who never loses his cool, no matter how dangerous things get. Weller would later develop this style further when he starred in Robocop in 1987 and then Naked Lunch in 1991. Buckaroo’s mellow nature contrasts perfectly with John Lithgow’s completely over the top John Whorfin, played by consummate character actor John Lithgow, who would later become most famous for playing another alien who disguises himself as human. Actually, the cast is loaded with great mainstream and cult character actors like Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum, and the wonderful Vincent Schiavelli. Christopher Lloyd plays the befuddled Lectroid John Bigboote (pronounced “big bootay,” though most people just pronounce it “big booty”) is about halfway to Doc Brown in this film (I’ve always thought ol’ Doc Brown was at least half alien). The casting of the Lectroids is actually quite brilliant in that the actors look a little weird, as if they couldn’t get their human masks quite right.

John Whorfin rallies the Lectroids
John Whorfin rallies the Lectroids

At the beginning of the second act, Buckaroo is “ionized” and can see the Lectroids underneath their human disguises, much like Roddy Piper’s character would be able to do with the help of sunglasses in 1980’s They Live. The red Lectroids, the bad guys, are pretty decent looking aliens with a neat campy design. Sometimes the masks and rubber they wear over their hands looks artificial, but that kind of adds to the charm. And there’s an interesting bit of identity politics going on in the movie. The good aliens, the ones helping Buckaroo in his pursuit of the red Lectroids are the black Lectroids. When they disguise themselves as humans, they look like Jamaicans, complete with the accents and dreadlocks. God only knows why writer Earl Mac Rauch chose to go this route, though the decision might have been as arbitrary as anything else in a script that is equal parts influenced by postmodernism and surrealism. Nothing is true, everything is permitted, as Hassan Sabbah said on his deathbed . That kind of thing. Even Buckaroo’s Hong Kong Cavaliers are aware of the arbitrary nature of the reality they’ve been written into. When they find out that aliens are living on earth and posing as Yoyodyne employees, they notice that, although the aliens are all named John for some reason, some of their last names, like “Smallberries” give the whole thing away as a joke, while others, like “O’Conner” seem designed to help the aliens fit in and assimilate.

This surreal clash of opposites abounds throughout the film. For instance, after Buckaroo has gone through the mountain and crossed over to the 8th dimension, there is the inevitable press conference. However, even though this is clearly one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, the press conference is only attended by a handful of reporters, a couple of whom are actually undercover Lectroid agents, and it it takes place in a hotel conference room that’s hosting a motorcycle convention later. The secretary of defense actually makes note of the motorcycle convention and says they need to speed things up so that they can make room for the bikers.

Buckaroo Banzai was directed by W.D. Richter and it’s one of only two directing credits he has. He’s mostly a writer, having written the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake as well as co-writing Big Trouble in Little China. The direction isn’t bad, though it’s certainly not spectacular. The genius of the movie, if there is any, lies in the writing and the casting, with which Richter undoubtedly had some input.

Red Lectroids
Red Lectroids

Writer Earl Mac Rauch only has four credits, the last of which was the 1989 John Belushi biopic Wired. His first screenplay was a co-writing and story credit on Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York in 1977, so his film career lasted just over ten years. Rauch came to screenwriting after having a novel, Dirty Pictures from the Prom, published while he was still attending Dartmouth College and written when he was a mere nineteen years old. The book, long out of print and retailing on Amazon for as cheap as sixty dollars and as much as several hundred, is apparently a postmodern romp heavily influenced by the work of Thomas Pynchon. The plot, while much more serious in tone and definitely not as over the top as ol’ Buckaroo Banzai, definitely seems eccentric. Grant Maierhofer, who actually managed to get his hands on a copy, wrote in an article for HTML Giant  that main character Barnaby Saltzer’s “younger brother Creynaldo dies when he’s seven years old having already written several masterpieces and painted paintings that come to sell for thousands of dollars.” A little bleak, a little weird, yes, and the novel seems to continue down a very bleak path. Continues Maierhofer:

Barnaby’s life is described through his teen years and into college, from which he eventually escapes into Mexico where he’s detained and antagonized by a bizarre gang of Neo-Nazi marauders until managing to get away and into the states again. Along the way he’s raped and assaulted by a little person, goes on a date with an African American gal at a barren diner in the middle of nowhere before the only three other patrons rape the girl and leave Saltzer there beaten to discover her body later.

It doesn’t appear that Rauch has been very busy since adapting Bob Woodwar’s book Wired for the screen. He’s written a handful of Buckaroo Banzai comic books that have recently been collected as trade paperbacks. Doesn’t seem like there’s much else, unless he’s been writing under a pseudonym. I mean, who knows. Sometimes people just say what they need to say, get it out of their system and don’t feel the need to write anymore. Maybe he is writing, but not publishing, a la JD Salinger. It doesn’t really matter, though. Even if Rauch had only written the screenplay for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, he would be remembered for accomplishing what so many other writers have aspired to: composing a work that is a pastiche yet wholly original. That something so wildly postmodern and surreal was somehow allowed to exist within the tight studio system of 1980’s Hollywood is a bit of a miracle. The movie is a treasure.

Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Goldblum as New Jersey
Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Goldblum as New Jersey

And…whoo-hoo! Buckaroo was released on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory on August 16th!

About Patrick King 23 Articles

I wrote short stories and a novel before I wrote my first pop culture piece in 2010. Maybe this means I have a certain “literary” perspective that I bring to my criticism. Maybe it means I’m pretentious. Probably both. I get a kick out of art house films and more “lowbrow” entertainment like cartoons and professional wrestling. You can find more of my writing on my personal blog, Mugwumpcorporation.com

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