The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
(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 Dimension “made 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.