DIRECTED BY: W.D. Richter
CAST: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension has all the makings of a writer mishmashing years of different ideas he’s come up with, figuring a way they can all work together cohesively inside the conventions of a movie. The script is written by novelist Earl Mac Rauch and feels just like a sci-fi novel that has already built up this preexisting world starring a character that has intricate origins covered over several volumes. But Buckaroo Banzai is a one-off movie that rushes through some very intriguing character history all while being more preoccupied with its less interesting main plot.
The titular Banzai (Peter Weller) is a renaissance man: a neurosurgeon by day, a rock star by night, and all the while pursuing his hobbies of martial arts and particle physics. Everyone in the country knows who he is and he’s even interviewed on talk shows as though he’s a celebrity.
With the help of his team, called the Hong Kong Cavaliers, Banzai has just stumbled upon a great discovery. A device called the oscillation overthruster has just been perfected, allowing man to venture into another dimension right here on Earth. His discovery was a long time coming. His mentor, Dr. Hikita (Robert Ito), first built the prototype back in 1938. Hikita’s partner, Dr. Lizardo (John Lithgow), became stuck between dimensions all those years ago and is now currently living in a mental home where his brain is also occupied by a member of the evil alien race, the Red Lectroids, who are currently living in this other dimension and trying to break free and return home. I think.
The plot is pretty convoluted and much of the crucial information is given during a two minute hologram message, a la Princess Leia, where a member of a rival alien race, the Black Lectroids, tries to explain what’s going on.
The premise seems like it would have been pretty interesting if we were made privy to it along the way. We spend so much of the first act trying to piece together implied background information that we miss crucial details of the already-confusing plot it’s attempting to set up.
In reality, Mac Rauch had written some dozen Buckaroo Banzai stories prior to this one. However, none of the others ever came to fruition, and oftentimes during this movie you can tell that the author thought he’d have the chance to tell more of Banzai’s story, not feeling the need to include much background info in this one. As a result, the film relies way too much on information given about our hero’s history during its opening text crawl another one of the many Star Wars similarities.
This may have been more interesting if it spent the beginning setting up who Banzai is, perhaps focusing more on him as a character rather than competing with major plot development at the same time. We feel robbed of an interesting personality. Even a lot of James Bond movies open with the secret agent in the middle of some fight that has no relevance to the main plot. It’s just to get us into the vibe of what we’re about to watch. Buckaroo Banzai doesn’t even do this.
The story takes a minute to get hold of its footing early on. The first scene features Banzai testing out the overthruster device and we have no idea what’s going on yet. We would rather see him playing with his band and then rushing to perform surgery afterwards–all while setting up the overthruster plot with dialogue exposition.
Director W.D. Richter does a great job utilizing creative storytelling devices to convey an admittedly intricate and unusual plot, but has some trouble assembling suspense during the final battle scenes, which ultimately feel void of excitement. This may be a result of a lack of urgency behind what’s at stake for our characters. The only time we get any clue as to what’s motivating Banzai and his crew is during the brief hologram message that informs them that the world will be annihilated if they don’t succeed at stopping the Red Lectroids. Pretty dire, huh? However, we don’t feel any more pressure following this telegram than we did leading up to it.
Director W.D. Richter does a great job utilizing creative storytelling devices to convey an admittedly intricate and unusual plot.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is confusing, yes. But it’s also cool and stylish and I want to watch it again and I don’t know why. There’s really nothing else like it. The intermittent and usually out-of-place humor makes for an even more bizarre tone. Together, Richter and Mac Rauch concoct a self-aware and intentionally campy B-movie that has the budget of a mainstream studio picture. The end result is a masterclass on pop-surrealist filmmaking, a product of a creative individual with unhinged and unrestricted boundaries, yet just enough instinct for what’s entertaining on a broader level. Simply put, the oddity and individuation that is Buckaroo Banzai would have never gotten made in today’s world.