In her 1984 review, The New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael called one new release a “fermented parody of M.A.S.H, Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, and the TV series The A-Team.”
The key word here might be “fermented” since the film in question is not a clear-cut parody of any popular sci-fi or adventure franchise (unlike, say, Spaceballs). Neither the movie nor its titular character have much interest in making fun of famous characters.
Instead, W.D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension dances to the beat of its own, very different drum. Here’s why you need to see the film, one of the most bizarre superhero/sci-fi comedy mash-ups currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Not a direct parody of those franchises Kael mentioned, Buckaroo Banzai still shares an important strand of their DNA: namely, the golly-gee excitement of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and other comic-book or radio serials of the 1930s and ‘40s. Above all else, these sci-fi stories sought to wow audiences with far-out worlds, aliens, and never-ending twists. Buckaroo Banzai aimed to adopt a similar storytelling ethos; but unlike its influences, Buckaroo Banzai wanted to be weird.
If you asked a particularly imaginative 10-year old what they wanted to be when they grew up, their answer might accurately describe Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (pre-Robocop Peter Weller). He’s a physicist, neurosurgeon, experimental test pilot, and rock star all at the same time.
Together with his best friends and backup band the Hong Kong Cavaliers (who are also all scientists), Banzai tests really cool cars, plays in bands, and fights evil villains. Kael called their lives “a boy hipster’s dreams of glory that are almost pre-sexual,” though she didn’t mean this in a particularly harsh way. Very quickly, with its opening scene of Banzai performing surgery before driving an experimental jet car that can drive through matter, the movie establishes itself as having very little to do with reality.
Rather than attempt to give audiences Flash Gordon, with the outer shell of a hero masking a deeper internal struggle (think Luke Skywalker), director Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch tried to build a new kind of character from scratch.
It’s worth noting some details feel papered over. An opening scroll reveals that Buckaroo Banzai has an American mother and a Japanese father, meaning he began life as he lived it: “going in several directions at once.” It’s a little ridiculous, to put it lightly, that the decidedly un-Japanese Weller, whose stoic cool is admittedly terrific, plays a Japanese character.
Beyond that, the movie successfully creates a fun little world for itself, one in which presidents hang out in circular beds discussing alien invasions and in which scientists are constantly looking for a man named Buckaroo. The Hong Kong Cavaliers, who are also never really explained, make up for their mystery with a whole lot of style.
It’s the type of logic that works for kids but would never really fly in today’s backstory-laden sci-fi epics. Who are the Hong Kong Cavaliers? They’re Buckaroo’s friends. Far more important than their backstory is how they look, especially in terms of Perfect Tommy’s (Lewis Smith) incredible outfits. Jeff Goldblum has a small role as the newest Cavalier, a surgeon and pianist who is also a cowboy named New Jersey.
But the real star of the show, as any fans of old serials know, is the villain. John Lithgow plays the menacing Dr. Lizardo by going full-tilt weirdo; he’s the type of guy who electrocutes his tongue to get himself going. Starting off in an insane asylum, the way Lizardo berates the attendant is pure mad-scientist behavior, with the villain cackling every step of the way. In lieu of offering his backstory, the movie would much rather show the audience Lithgow yelling, “Laugh while you can, monkeyboy!”
There’s a sense of earnest goofiness to Buckaroo Banzai that keeps its comedy from flying off the rails. Christopher Lloyd plays an evil alien henchman named John Bigbooté who is constantly correcting people about the pronunciation of his last name (it’s Bigboo-TAY). When the president is given documents in order to declare war, he is presented with a short form.
The jokes come fast and frequently in the form of one-liners, puns, physical slapstick, goofy makeup — basically everything but the kitchen sink, gags adding up they appear to pile on top of each other.
Buckaroo plays fast and loose with its plot, which on paper revolves around the alien dimension that Buckaroo discovers after driving his jet car through a mountain. There’s a deep backstory for the characters, all of whom can flip a switch into serious acting when a point has to be made. That’s clear in Buckaroo’s burgeoning romance with Ellen Barkin’s Penny Priddy, who meets Buckaroo at one of his rock shows, where she tries to kill herself. Her gunshot misses, and all of the Hong Kong Cavaliers drop their sonic weapons and pull out their guns.
Things sort of just happen in Buckaroo Banzai, from sudden gunfights to the announcement of a sequel and the entire cast walking for an extended period in the dried-out L.A river as the credits roll. But those things, almost 40 years later, are still side-splittingly funny.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is currently streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S..