Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension
Warning: This appreciation contains a few modest spoilers.
The first time I saw The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, was at Wiscon in February or March of 1986. I sat down with a friend to watch it in the film room, and was instantly hooked by its quirkiness, the fun dialogue, and the imaginative story. I came out of the film room only to find someone had stolen my coat and hat from the easily accessible coat rack; walking home in subfreezing weather was decidedly less fun.
Directed by W.D. Richter and written by Earl Mac Rauch, the story concerns the exploits of a scientist/musician/genius/celebrity, Buckaroo Banzai, and his band of associates. He and his crack team of scientists discover a way to travel between dimensions, and this attracts the attention of the world. A group of aliens, the Red Lectroids, stranded on earth since the 1930s and masquerading as high-tech defense contractors for the US Government, find Buckaroo’s inter-dimensional travel inspiring; they’ve been trying to develop similar technology themselves in order to return to their home planet (Planet 10) and seize control, having been deposed by the more numerous Black Lectroids.
The cast is a pretty stellar list today, though back then most of them were relatively unknown actors: Peter Weller in the title role; Jeff Goldblum, who had already appeared in The Big Chill and would have a subsequent role in Silverado; Ellen Barkin co-stars as Buckaroo’s love interest, but her role seemed forced, as if the writers felt they needed a female lead but weren’t exactly sure what to do about it; John Lithgow, in perhaps his most over the top performance ever, plays the chief villain of the piece, whose backstory is possibly more complicated that the script itself.
Also appearing in this film is a veritable who’s who of character actors: The late Vincent Schiavelli (Batman Returns, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest); Clancy Brown (Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption, Starship Troopers) in an all-too short role but with a dramatic death scene; Christopher Lloyd (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Back to the Future, Addams Family) does his usual great turn as an alien; veteran voice actor Carl Lumbly (perhaps best know as the voice of Martian Manhunter in the Justice League Animated Series) also as an alien; Dan Hedaya (The Addams Family, Alien Resurrection) as another alien; even comedian Yakov Smirnoff gets into the act, playing a vaguely Kissinger-like Secretary of State.
Despite an obviously low budget, the film is put together well. The pacing is near perfect, the various performances are entrancing, funny, weird, and delightful, and the premise itself was highly creative. Buckaroo relies heavily on his cohorts for support and even rescue, making this far more of an ensemble cast than it would appear to be at first. The sets are low-budget as well, but they work, and are believable and not distracting. The production design for the alien technology was fascinating and highly inventive, delivering a view of beings that are totally alien to humans quite successfully.
One thing this film was full of is background activity. When in the lair of the Red Lecrtroids, one hears recorded, inspirational messages over the loudspeakers, exhorting the workers to work hard and be loyal to their leader. There is even the classic “Watermelon” scene, a reference to a bizarre bit of set decoration, that is quoted endlessly by fans far and wide. These factors give the film strong rewatch value, as there are constantly new things to discover.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension had an interesting array of cross-marketing ideas attempted, including comics books and a variety of tchotchkies and knick-knacks, none of which seemed to catch on. Today graphic novels expanding the exploits of Buckaroo and his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, are readily available and reasonably popular – especially for a thirty year-old film franchise with no new films or TV series to help drive sales. The only thing I wish had been produced but wasn’t is a soundtrack album. Several original pieces of music from the film are catchy and quite danceable, though I suspect there just wasn’t enough material for a full album.
I was unable to find figures for the film’s production budget, but it only grossed $6.25 million domestically in theaters; not an auspicious figure, to be sure, even for thirty years ago. It has continued to earn revenue since then however, being a staple of sci-fi and adventure-based programming on a variety of television channels.
Buckaroo Banzai, despite its 80s fashions and obvious cheesiness, remains relevant to this day in terms of its exploration of sci-fi themes. Well worth the time to track down, it’s a fun film to watch and has developed into a cult classic. Even today Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension is frequently part of the film offerings at sci-fi conventions, and attracts both veteran and novice viewers. This year marks the 30th anniversary of its release, which makes it even more timely to find a copy for viewing.
On an unrelated note, I wanted to mention that I’ve been invited back to Geek-Kon again this year as a special guest. My schedule isn’t finalized yet, but I know for sure I’ll be involved in the “Game With the Guests” charity event on Friday night. Check out the Convention/Event Appearances tab on my home page for updates and further details.