Skip to main content

Take him to the Shock Tower!

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
(1984)

(SPOILERS) Maybe you had to see The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension at the time to appreciate its charms fully. And maybe you needed to be appropriately fuelled to boot. I didn’t catch it until years later, and while I could readily appreciate its cult status was earned, it resisted, and still resists, revealing itself to me as an unjustly neglected classic. It’s difficult to put a finger on why, but if pushed, I’d suggest WD Richter lacks an nth of the creative energy as a director that Earl Mac Rauch has as a writer.

Which may simply be the common writer-director failing, the fate of many who’ve attempted the transition from the unrestricted realm of head space to celluloid yet lack the equivalent tools – technical ones, spatial ones – to engineer a vision successfully. Because as a writer, Richter’s absolutely no slouch. He penned the deliriously absurd Big Trouble in Little China (another whacky ’80s flop) and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. Admittedly, he was also responsible for Stealth… Richter has only two directorial efforts to his name, though. This and the significantly less effects-intensive Late for Dinner. Neither of which he wrote himself.

The relationship between Big Trouble in Little China and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, in terms of content, is more the vein of self-conscious genre parody than true connective tissue. Big Trouble in Little China spoofs/homages all those Hong Kong wire-fu movies. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is truly gonzo in conception, but it’s also very evident that it’s all about Mac Rauch’s unfettered head space (he reportedly began a dozen Buckaroo adventures he didn’t finish before Richter enlisted him). Banzai (Peter Weller) is a half-American half-Japanese physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot and (since this was the ’80s) rock star. He’s supported by a resolute band of comrades – also a musical band – called The Hong Kong Cavaliers. There’s evidently a debt to Doc Savage in this over-achieving genius accompanied by a stalwart troupe; Doc Savage was, of course, turned into a patchy movie about a decade earlier.

Included in the Hong Kong Cavaliers’ ranks are the inimitable Jeff Goldblum, on the cusp of graduating to leading man roles but quite happy milking maximum quirk from every line – too few, as it happens – as fancy-dress cowboy-styled New Jersey. Most of the rest are fairly non-descript, apart from Lewis Smith as Perfect Tommy, an ’80s style nightmare clearly besotted with Buckaroo but respectful of his essential heterosexuality. Buckaroo only has eyes for Ellen Barkin’s Penny Priddy, who happens to be the spit of his dead wife… because, it’s revealed, she’s his dead wife’s long-lost twin sister. Barkin has little to do, but since she’s Ellen Barkin she nevertheless has a lot of presence. And their first scene is irreverent of such romantic meet cutes, with Buckaroo dedicating a song to despondent Penny but continually referring to her as Peggy.

It’s one of the few in the movie photographed by ace initial DP Jordan Cronenweth (Altered States, Blade Runner), before the producers replaced him with Fred J Koenekamp. Koenekamp, unlike Cronenweth, had been both Oscar nominated and victorious (for The Towering Inferno; yes, I know). He also worked on Doc Savage. And The Swarm. And cult Connery satire Wrong is Right. If that list fails to conjure beautifully shot movies, you probably won’t be surprised to learn The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Acriss the 8th Dimension is incredibly flat looking. Not helping matters is that Richter appears to have no visual sense or rhythm for the movie. The quirk is in the writing and some of the performances (even the deadpan ones), but the pacing is adrift, and the picture lacks the singular presiding sensibility that would guarantee the successful unleashing of a bizarre world on an unsuspecting yet attuned audience. Much of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension wouldn’t seem out of place as a TV pilot, complete with rudimentary-at-best action sequences.

But if Richter rather lets the side down, there are compensations. Not least a phenomenally unhinged John Lithgow as Dr Emilio Lizardo, first seen in 1938 – Orson Welles’ alien invasion broadcast was real, it turns out – testing a prototype oscillation overthruster, a device that enabling one to pass through solid matter. Lizardo is attacked by reptiles from the eighth dimension (Red Lectroids, who, confusingly – but hey, go with it – have been banished there by friendly Black Lectroids). Lizardo, now possessed by Lord John Whorfin, ends up in the looney bin… until he observes Banzai’s own successful jet car test drive and lets himself out. Lithgow boasts an insane Italian accent and a carrot-tinged fright wig. Reports of rampant corpsing on set in response to his mugging are entirely believable.

Less well served are his inept hench-Lectroids Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli, both top-drawer oddball actors consigned to spending most of the movie beneath Lectroid masks. Lloyd’s character is called Bigbooteé, which means he’s continually required to correct the mispronunciation as Bigbooty. Weller knows to play it dead straight (perhaps he watched Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze for prep). Also showing up are Clancy Brown, Dan Hedaya and a dubbed Ronald Lacey (as the US President).

Idiosyncratic as Pauline Kael’s tastes were, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimensionmade me laugh a lot”. She referred to the script as a “post-Altman jamboree” while warning that Richter, with his “non-existent” directing was “a long way from being up to it”. She’s exactly right when she observed that he fails to characterise his performers and “doesn’t bring out the baroque lunacy of the material”. And yet, also that “the film’s flat-footedness is somehow likeable”. My caveat is that you’re aware how much better the movie could have been, had the “unmoored hipsterism” also had a rudder.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Just a little whiplash is all.

Duel (1971) (SPOILERS) I don’t know if it’s just me, but Spielberg’s ’70s efforts seem, perversely, much more mature, or “adult” at any rate, than his subsequent phase – from the mid-’80s onwards – of straining tremulously for critical acceptance. Perhaps because there’s less thrall to sentiment on display, or indulgence in character exploration that veered into unswerving melodrama. Duel , famously made for TV but more than good enough to garner a European cinema release the following year after the raves came flooding in, is the starkest, most undiluted example of the director as a purveyor of pure technical expertise, honed as it is to essentials in terms of narrative and plotting. Consequently, that’s both Duel ’s strength and weakness.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

You are not brought upon this world to get it!

John Carpenter  Ranked For anyone’s formative film viewing experience during the 1980s, certain directors held undeniable, persuasive genre (SF/fantasy/horror genre) cachet. James Cameron. Ridley Scott ( when he was tackling genre). Joe Dante. David Cronenberg. John Carpenter. Thanks to Halloween , Carpenter’s name became synonymous with horror, but he made relatively few undiluted movies in that vein (the aforementioned, The Fog , Christine , Prince of Darkness (although it has an SF/fantasy streak), In the Mouth of Madness , The Ward ). Certainly, the pictures that cemented my appreciation for his work – Dark Star , The Thing – had only a foot or not at all in that mode.

Sleep well, my friend, and forget us. Tomorrow you will wake up a new man.

The Prisoner 13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling We want information. In an effort to locate Professor Seltzman, a scientist who has perfected a means of transferring one person’s mind to another person’s body, Number Two has Number Six’s mind installed in the body of the Colonel (a loyal servant of the Powers that Be). Six was the last person to have contact with Seltzman and, if he is to stand any chance of being returned to his own body, he must find him (the Village possesses only the means to make the switch, they cannot reverse the process). Awaking in London, Six encounters old acquaintances including his fiancée and her father Sir Charles Portland (Six’s superior and shown in the teaser sequence fretting over how to find Seltzman). Six discovers Seltzman’s hideout by decoding a series of photographs, and sets off to find him in Austria. He achieves this, but both men are captured and returned to the Village. Restoring Six and the Colonel to their respective bodie

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.