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Non-Review Review: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (try saying that ten times fast) is one of those quirky cult movies that has built up a rather large following in the twenty-five-odd years since its initial release. Not withstanding the wonderfully quirky title, the intentionally campy production design, and perfectly awesome cast, it’s easy to see why the movie may have found the niche which cherishes it so much. Unfortunately, it’s also possible to see to see why the movie never found its footing with a larger audience.

Not so fast, Buckaroo...

The titular Buckaroo Banzai is one of the most hilariously over-the-top renaissance men I think I’ve ever encountered. He’s a kung-fu neurosurgeon with a fascination for quantum science, who runs his own institute, travels on a tour bus, and plays in his own rock band in his spare time. I honestly don’t know where he gets time to sleep. Clearly a rather conscious tip of the hat to iconic pulp heroes like Doc Savage, Banzai seems to have done everything and anything. You know you’re an expert in your given field when you get radio signals asking, “Buckaroo, the White House wants to know is everything OK with the alien space craft from Planet 10 or should we just go ahead and destroy Russia?”

The movie actually quite resembles its lead, as it proves quite tough to define. It seems a curious blend between an affectionate homage to those old-time pulp serial adventures (the credits even promising a follow-up that never materialised “Buckaroo Bonzai Against the World Crime Syndicate”), an overblown parody of soft science-fiction and a bizarre stream of consciousness. All the time, the movie has an endearing smile on its face, so we known not to take the dodgy special effects or nonsensical plot all too seriously.

Shocking...

The movie essentially follows Banzai as his latest adventure (a trip into the eponymous eighth dimension) provokes an alien menace who is “as evil as your Hitler.” With the world facing the prospect of annihilation if our doctor/scientist/rockstar hero can’t step into the breach, it’s a race against time to stop an evil alien warlord from escaping captivity in the eighth dimension. If he can’t stop this menace, the world will be destroyed, as other aliens trigger nuclear war between Russia and the United States.

All of this is done on a remarkably low budget. Which, to be honest, is part of the charm – though I imagine it scaring off quite a few viewers. The film casts the always superb John Lithgow as the evil alien dictator, which gives you an idea of the tone the film is trying to set. I love Lithgow, but there’s no denying that the man seems to have an unbearable craving for scenario – he doesn’t just chew it, he devours it. It’s camp and cheesy – after all, Christopher Lloyd plays Lithgow’s sidekick, the alien Big Booty Boo-Tay – but, if you can go with it, it’s decently entertaining.

Lithgow never phones it in...

In fact, I found myself wearing a smile for most of the film, I must confess. As Buckaroo set about saving the world with his red glasses, professor outfit (complete with bow tie, because bow ties are cool), and sidekicks (including members of the “Blue Blaisers”, his personal fan-club), I couldn’t help but feel that sense of cheeky nostalgia the movie seemed to be aiming for. That said, the movie does have some significant pacing problems. The simple fact is that not a lot happens, and there’s boatloads of exposition present – even once we get past the halfway mark.

I can see why the film is divisive. Even ignoring the corny production values (which I found endearing, but others may find irritating), there was the issue of back story. The movie attempts to evoke the feeling that we’re just watching one adventure in a whole pantheon of Buckaroo Banzai serials by a constant series of internal references. For example, we find out that the girl here, Penny, is the identical, long-lost twin sister of Buckaroo’s dead wife Peggy. We never meet Peggy, but we meet her identical twin, which is a wonderfully hackneyed way of introducing the same actor in a different role – clever because it’s not needed here. We just presume Ellen Barkin appeared as this character’s twin in a previous film we never saw nor heard of.

Tough cell?

Similarly, the film crafts a rich fictional history, as character talk about the past adventures of Banzai and allude to a history of the eighth dimension that stretches back to 1938 (the year that Orson Welles broadcast The War of the Worlds). There are all sorts of crazy references to things that are never explained. Chasing an alien through the institute, the team’s new recruit asks, “Why is there a watermellon there?” His colleague replies, “I’ll tell you later.” We are never told later.

I can appreciate what the movie is attempting to do, but it’s an approach which has its drawbacks. In watching it, there were times I felt like I needed a handbook to figure out what the hell the characters were talking about. It’s possible to allude to unseen past events in a way which makes it clear that this adventure is but one of many, but they don’t all involved this awkward level of detail. For example, in another series constructed to remind audiences of those classic pulpy serials, the Indiana Jones films, the audience never doubted that Indy had been on dozens of adventures we had never seen (even with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles).

Young bucks...

The movie has its moments, but it also seems just a little bit too in-joke-y or insular for its own good. It feels like the audience isn’t quite in on the joke that’s being told, which is a bit disappointing. On the other hand, the cast and crew give the movie enough charm and energy that it’s hard to hate the film. In fact, the credits sequence – which is wonderfully simplistic – might be my one of my favourite credits sequences ever. It’s literally just a shot of the cast walking together to a funky beat, but it seems so friendly and affectionate it’s hard not to smile at it.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice, Nice, Nice. This movie is a great companion feature for something like “Six String Samurai,” “Time Bandits,” or “American Astronaut.”

    I have much love for the cheese.

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