RETRO REVIEW: ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension’ & the Power of ‘You Can Do Anything’ Cinema
Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our third entry is the crazy inspiring sci-fi superhero tale, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)…
“Excuse me…is someone out there not having a good time?”
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) stops a performance by his band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, so that he can scan the audience. Somebody’s crying and our hero needs to know exactly how anybody could be hurting during their set. Once he locates the source — a spiky-haired pixie named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin) – he calms the jeering crowd and informs them that “they don’t have to be mean”. In a moment of zen wisdom, he tells his admirers that the journey in life is all that matters, utilizing a simple maxim that becomes the movie’s guiding force.
“Because no matter where you go…there you are.”
Banzai follows the forced confession with a piano ballad to Penny in hopes of clearing the dark cloud that hangs over her head. In a way, the scene acts a mission statement for both Banzai and the film he’s the center of. Garishly bathed in ‘80s neon and stuffed with characters as bizarre as the day is long, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimenson proves that believing anything is possible can lighten up even the darkest of days. Banzai is, essentially, the ultimate dream chaser — a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, rock musician, and, in the end, a hero out to save the world from a gaggle of inter-dimensional Red Lectroids from Planet 10. He’s the physical embodiment of confidence; an avatar for ‘everything will be alright’. This hodgepodge characterization and narrative isn’t simply there to serve as boyhood wish-fulfillment (though there is certainly an element of that tossed in), but rather a comic book style personification of knowing that your aspirations are only limited by your own mind. You can be anything. You can go anywhere. You can do whatever you want. All you have to do is believe.
While certainly outlandish, W.D. Richter’s piece of utter cinematic abandon congeals together into a singular work of chaotic insight. The syles may come from the ‘80s, but the driving philosophies are timeless and almost prescient. Weller plays Banzai like Steve Jobs filtered through a prism of Eddie Money. Hell-bent on perfecting technologies, saving lives and exploring other worlds for the betterment of mankind, Banzai’s heroism is derived from the same altruistic sense of duty as Indiana Jones. Only instead of preserving pieces of history from the hands of Nazis, Banzai is breaking the barriers of inter-dimensional travel and proving that even the laws of physics don’t mean a damn in the face of sheer determination. And while the fame is certainly nice (Banzai’s mere presence inspires both kids and adults to shout his name wherever he goes), he ain’t no Tony Stark, as one could imagine him slicking his hair and donning his white sneakers to battle the Lectroids even if Earth’s population were completely oblivious to his saving them from annihilation.
The inspiration doesn’t stop at fictional characters, either, as the screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch (New York, New York, A Stranger Is Watching) attracted one of the coolest casts ever assembled. Not only does the future Officer Alex Murphy thoroughly inhabit the titular role, he’s forced to battle John Lithgow (Blow Out), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) and Vincent Schiavelli (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), while Jeff Goldblum (The Fly), Lewis Smith (Django Unchained) and Clancy “The Kurgen” Brown (Highlander) watch his back — a veritable who’s who of incredibly talented performers who obviously read this script and saw something incredible contained within its madcap pages. As the final synth line plays and Banzai and his cohorts navigate the L.A. River, it’s like a cheery murderer’s row of your favorite “that guy” character actors, all decked out in the loudest duds imaginable. In that moment, the film becomes an injection of gravitas into your bloodstream, which allows you to walk out of the theater high as a kite on good vibrations.
Richter’s aesthetics don’t feel too far away from John Carpenter’s when he made They Live in 1988 (prompting one to wonder if the Horror Master is a fellow Banzai fanboy, as Richter also helped him adapt Big Trouble In Little China). The limitations of the film’s budget can be felt in the cheap sets and goofy creature effects, yet Banzai’s bottomless supply of earnestness helps it transcend its B-Movie trappings. Where Carpenter was the irrepressible cynic, Richter is more of an eternal optimist, providing his audience with an icon of nerdery that somehow never became the model for geeks everywhere. Because who wouldn’t want Jeff Goldblum as a sidekick, dressed up in a bright red cowboy suit? The film’s relegation to “cult classic” still remains somewhat baffling, as its insanity is also readily accessible due to the film’s cheerfully welcoming nature.
It’s a shame that W.D. Richter only ever got to direct one other motion picture (1991’s cryo-freeze comedy Late for Dinner) as his complete lack of pessimism is a quality that not only needs to be admired, but should be brought to the big screen more often. The lack of further Buckaroo Banzai adventures still bums me out to this day, as he seems like a character fit for a rebirth in the wake of the similarly sunny Marvel Cinematic Universe. Our world needs more heroes who take our hand and guide us through the worst of times, assuring us that we don’t need anybody but ourselves and our friends in order to persevere against the toughest situations. It might sound corny to the uninitiated, yet I guarantee one spin with this movie will feel like a breath of fresh air. Buckaroo Banzai is more than just a character on the screen. He’s the burning desire that lives in your gut, telling you to pick up that pen and start a new project, or to head out your door and embark upon a journey down a road you’ve never taken. He’s the original “Everything Is Awesome”, letting you know that life is worth living beyond the confines of your safe, cushy home. There are realms to explore and skills to master. All you have to do is tell yourself “I can do this if I try”. Just keep repeating a simple phrase over and over in your head…
“No matter where you go…there you are.”
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is playing at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of their “Class of 1984” programming in April.