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

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #749

Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: August 15, 1984
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $17,000,000
Box Office: $6,300,000
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: W. D. Richter
Producers: W. D. Richter, Neil Canton
Screenplay: Earl Mac Rauch
Special Effects: David Blitstein, Henry Millar
Visual Effects: Michael L. Fink
Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Score: Michael Boddicker
Editing: George Bowers, Richard Marks
Studio: Sherwood Productions
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Stars: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Pepe Serna, Ronald Lacey, Matt Clark, Clancy Brown, William Traylor, Carl Lumbly, Vincent Schiavelli, Dan Hedaya, Mariclare Costello, Bill Henderson, Damon Hines, Billy Vera, Laura Harrington, Michael Santoro

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Michael Boddicker “End Credits”

[2] The Bee Gees “Dimensions”

[3] Thomas Dolby “Hyperactive!”

[4] Michael Boddicker “End Credits (Reprise)”

It takes real balls to call your movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Let’s just get that one out there into whatever dimension we’re currently tuned into as that’s pressure right there before you’ve even considered the marketing conundrum you’ll be facing. When Earl Mac Rauch’s script first dropped into the laps of its lead Peter Weller and the one and only John Lithgow, I think it would be fair to assume there was a certain degree of bewilderment from both parties. Neither man had the vaguest clue what they were letting themselves in for and somehow all this nervous energy culminated in a motion picture that captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation, even though we clearly weren’t ready to process the data back in 1984. W. D. Richter’s film is quite unlike any other committed to celluloid and, after a decidedly rocky start, is finally getting the credit it’s some way overdue.

Seldom have I watched a movie with such blatant disregard for rules and conventions. It literally plops you straight into this enormous melting pot of outrageous mind-blowing concepts and scientific jargon and promptly wipes its hands of you with barely a minute on the clock. What it does then is make you a passenger and whether you’re buckled in for the wild ride or simply hanging on for dear life matters not one iota. The eighties were positively bubbling over with all manner of hip new movie trends and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension inexplicably manages to fuse a whole host of them into something so gloriously benign that your natural response is to cherish it dearly and speak of it both frequently and fondly. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em right? Now you’re getting it. But not so fast; we still have a plot to unravel.

Where to start? Well I guess as good a place as any would be the man of the hour, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller). As far as heroes go, there are few as qualified as he to discover a whole new dimension and his résumé makes for mightily impressive reading. Banzai is a modern-day renaissance man, skilled neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, stunt man, rock legend, kung-fu hotshot and comic book hero all rolled into one; pretty much the definitive cross-dimensional everyman by all accounts.

With the assistance of his mentor Dr. Hikita (Robert Ito), Banzai has perfected the “oscillation overthruster”, a device that allows his rocket-fueled car to pass through solid matter and tap into an entirely different dimension. As you can imagine, the chicks can’t slide their panties off fast enough for this rooting tooting time and space cowboy and it also helps that he has his very own back-up group for the moments when he just has to get his groove on.

Rawhide (Clancy Brown) is the man on piano, Reno Nevada (Pepe Serna) provides the sax licks, Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith) rocks a mean rhythm guitar, Pinky Carruthers (Billy Vera) takes on bass duties, and newest recruit Dr. Sidney Zweibel (Jeff Goldblum) is a man in desperate need of an instrument. However, while the music they make together is undeniably sweet, The Hong Kong Cavaliers are no ordinary rock and roll band, and a great deal more than the sum of their parts. When not jamming, they kick back at Banzai’s very own think-tank in New Jersey where they assist in the advancement of his cross-dimensional studies and generally get on delightfully. It’s all hands on deck at the Banzai Institute right now as his latest death-defying stunt has opened up one helluva can of worms.

You see, exiled leader of the Red Lectroids, Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), has gotten wind of Banzai’s exploits and promptly breaks out of his home for the criminally insane to resume his long-running feud with the Black Lectroids of Planet 10 and wipe out the entire universe. Back in 1938, Lizardo and Hikita pioneered a prototype overthruster together, but Lizardo got ahead of himself and gave it a test drive before final testing.

As a result of his impatience, he became lodged between dimensions, and while he did eventually find his way home, the chickies were no longer all in the nest so to speak. To put it politely, he’s a raging fucking nutbag and a danger not only to every man, woman and child in the solar system, but himself too I’d imagine.

Worse still, he’s got his own band of merry men, all of whom curiously share the same first name. Lizardo’s trio of henchmen, John Bigbooté (Christopher Lloyd), John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli) and John Gomez (Dan Hedaya), may appear just your regular harmless loons but, when backs are turned, they’re up to no good whatsoever. Their job is to assist their illustrious leader in securing the Red Lectroids a spot back on Planet 10 and this would spell eight dimensions of FUBAR for all humanity.

Naturally, the Black Lectroids raise objection to all these underhanded shenanigans and just so happen to be orbiting the Earth in their space cruiser at this very moment. Thus they decide to pay the legendary Buckaroo Banzai a visit and enlist his services in thwarting this monstrous threat once and for all. Just to be clear (like that’s gonna happen) – red represents the greatest single threat to mankind since head lice hit the nurseries, whereas black is the shampoo looking to do the anti-volumizing and make everybody’s hair look lustrous in the process. And Banzai’s the kind of cool cat who always bets on black.

The thing is, while our hero is only too willing to lead his cavaliers into a battle they haven’t the vaguest clue how to prepare for, he cannot be expected to deliver such an encore without the love of a good woman to see him through. Enter Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), the new groupie in town, and also dead ringer for Banzai’s dead wife, Peggy. She’s caught up in all this hubbub right up to her dainty little neck, and is just female enough to get herself captured by Lizendo’s lounge boys and be experimented on post-haste.

Suddenly, Banzai’s 99 problems hit the ton, as he now has to stop the planet from being vaporized into a gazillion atoms and save the girl. It’s a good job Goldblum found an ill-fitting cowboy suit in an old dusty trunk as shit’s just about to skip good and bad in favor of butt ugly.

If you’ve followed the plot thus far, then you must be a Red Lectroid and therefore need to be extinguished yesterday. Any attempts to grab a solitary sense tether will likely result in a parasitic aneurysm as any randomly tossed tidbits of intelligence fall directly through logic cracks wide enough to open up a 9th dimension. The term “winging it” has seldom applied so definitively or affectionately as not a single cast member has the vaguest of clues as to the what, where, when, how or why.

Instead, they mask their complete befuddlement behind the fact that they’re having a hoot and three hollers just playing their own small part in the kind of freeway pile up we all slow down to take a peek at. Inexplicably this translates into the cinematic equivalent of popping candy as it may well rot your face off but you’ll still be grinning joyously.

Where to start with regards to prized performances? Well the Black Lectroids would no doubt nuke us all from orbit if I didn’t kick things off with the Cavaliers and Weller is a simply inspired choice to head up this ragtag assembly. He was still relatively unknown in the mid-eighties and therefore a monumental risk that paid off in every way other than financially.

As Banzai, he is right in his element, using those piercing baby blues to convince us that he’s a modern-day renaissance man, skilled neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, stunt man, rock legend, kung-fu hotshot and comic book hero all rolled into one. May as well toss lady-killer in too while you’re at it as sparks fly effortlessly between Weller and Barkin in the rare event that they actually manage to steal a moment together.

His entourage is so bloated that it’s hard to know where to begin picking favorites but Brown nails it down as Buckaroo’s lieutenant, Rawhide, and Smith’s turn as Perfect Tommy positively screams out for its very own spin-off. Meanwhile, Goldblum does what he does best – that being to wander around in a dimension seemingly devised solely for him – and that couldn’t be further from a criticism.

Interestingly, Weller and Goldblum still perform together in L.A. jazz clubs to this very day and I’d like to think that Jeff occasionally busts out the chinks and spurs for old time’s sake. Had I mentioned that The Hong Kong Cavaliers aren’t the only support network available to our hero? That’s right, we also get The Radar Rangers, The Blue Blaze Irregulars and The Rug Suckers just to make head counts even more impossible and every last one of ’em plays their part with relish.

With an almost infinite number of good guys jostling to get into frame for their trading card snap shot, it’s a wonder we even know who the enemy are, regardless of the reptilian skin and bug eyes they break out as a constant reminder. However, when you throw two comic masters of Lithgow and Lloyd’s caliber in a room together, you just know the results are gonna be galvanizing. Toss Schiavelli’s wondrously malformed peanut into the mix and shove an old geezer’s pipe in his mouth and you may well be in danger of seepage. It would take a turn of extraordinary vintage to upstage Lloyd in such deliciously demented form but that is precisely what Lithgow does in what is arguably one of his finest ever comic performances.

It tickles me to my pinkest that he was up for two Oscars just prior to taking this gig and pinker still to imagine that his stint as Lizardo eventually bagged him a well-deserved gong in another dimension entirely. There simply aren’t the sufficient superlatives to bottleneck his eminence here into words, but if you ever wondered what would happen if you synthesized Mussolini and Thomas Dolby, cranked the voltage up to DANGER and kept going, then you’d still be less than halfway to knowing how much plutonium he can mine from that fusion.

From his ever-widening bloodshot rubies, to a set of gnashers that curiously resemble skinny fries dipped in crude oil, and toes so encrusted in soot that no sock could ever hope to contain them, this gift just keeps on giving. Watching him flit between autocratic and pathetic as he delivers his rousing battle cry confirms what I’ve suspected all along – that the 3rd rock from the sun is merely Lithgow’s halfway house.

How’s this for a head trip? Sherwood Studios absolutely intended on following this white-hot mess up; with Buckaroo Banzai vs. The World Crime League all set for the overthrust. Regrettably, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension nose-dived so spectacularly at the box office that it single-handedly bankrupted them and I feel a genuine twinge of sadness that this hyper-colorful universe could never be expanded on further.

On the upside, Wes Anderson openly admits to using Richter’s film as mental rocket-fuel for his charming 2004 oddity, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Kevin Smith rightly considers it the cinematic holy grail, and lifetime Banzai devotees from wide and far are now offering their retrospective endorsement. Next time guys, don’t leave it three decades before plucking up the courage to honk its horn, and we may not be robbed of our rightful sequel. Just a thought.

To be fair, it’s easy to see why audiences were so alienated back in 1984 as there’s sufficient content here for a trilogy and far too much good stuff to shoehorn into 102 measly minutes. If the major malfunction is its eagerness to please, then that’s hardly a defect in my book and Richter’s film could never be found wanting for either exuberance or team spirit. What more could we possibly want from a movie than an end credit line dance through an L.A. aqueduct? In the alternate dimension of Banzai and pals, it all makes perfect sense.

If I ever get around to preparing that time capsule, then I want The Hong Kong Cavaliers to deliver that shit personally. See what the extraterrestrials will make of us all then. After getting their antennae round The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, I reckon they’d just want to hang out. Do me a favor guys, swing by the 6th rock from the sun and pick up Lithgow on your way through. Too far out of your way fellas? To quote our reptilian friend, the Black Lectroid Commander – So what? Big deal!

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Read Big Trouble in Little China Appraisal
Read They Live Appraisal
Read RoboCop (1987) Appraisal
Read Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1978) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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