RetroReviews #52: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

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JULY 10, 2013 SCREENING: BUCKAROO BANZAI (1984)

While in the middle of a week dedicated to screening Terry Gilliam movies, I decided to take a look at The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, a film directed by W. D. Richter. Why choose a film with a different director? Because it’s really not. Not only does The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai have a similar title to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the most recent Terry Gilliam movie I reviewed), but sometimes it’s more Terry Gilliam-like than real Terry Gilliam movies! The Adventure of Buckaroo Banzai wasn’t made as a deliberate attempt to mimic Terry Gilliam films, but it gets my vote for best unofficial Terry Gilliam movie ever.

The main difference between this and the real Terry Gilliam movies I’ve looked at is genre. Most of Gilliam’s films are fantasy stories, often with medieval looking settings. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a sci-fi adventure, and much of the action takes place in outer space and looks futuristic. Aside from that jarring change, the rest of the film stays firmly in the same type of tone and direction as the films I’ve been watching all week. The story is very surreal, the characters are wacky and outlandishly over-the-top, there’s a largely comedic bent to the adventures, and the film satirizes many elements of real-life.

One of the most interesting thing about this film its lead character. I always thought Robocop was the movie that established Peter Weller as a lead, but I was wrong: it’s this movie. Buckaroo Banzai predates Robocop by three years, and stars Weller as the title character: “a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician [who is out] to save the world by defeating a band of inter-dimensional aliens called Red Lectroids.” Weller plays is straight no matter how crazy the film gets, and is surrounded a number of other talented actors playing zany characters, including John Lithgow as the villainous Dr. Emilio Lizardo, Jeff Goldblum as a character named “New Jersey”, and Christopher Lloyd as “John Bigboote”

Perhaps one way where this movie manages to outdo Terry Gilliam is that the “storyline” is so surreal and cryptic that its almost impossible to follow the first time you watch the movie. I honestly had no idea what was going on the entire time. Normally I would consider that a sign of bad screenwriting, but in this case its an example of the film being too clever for its own good. Dialogue flies by a lighting fast pace, and some lines that are seemingly uselessly filler are actually instrumental in understanding what happens latter. It literally is an example of “blink and you’ll miss it”. Terry Gilliam’s movies usually are “mainstream” enough to let the audience get the “big picture”, even if individual scenes really seem incoherent. There’s no such luck here. Once the movie takes off, you’re left wondering what the heck the story is about.

Finally, there’s one element of the film that is minor but my review would be incomplete without mentioning: the end credits of the film feature a simple yet extremely memorable and catchy way to close the movie. Weller and his co-stars march down a strange stadium in a straight line, set to a funky rock music soundtrack. It’s very 80s, but at the same time it’s a timeless iconic moment of cinema, and it really has to seen to do it justice. Many other movies show the main characters walking together in a straight line towards the end of the movie to demonstrate how “bad ass” they are standing together as one, and many use a musical accompaniment, but I don’t think any have ever taken the approach that Buckaroo did, where it’s done post-climax just as a “sign off” to give the character a little encore farewell to the audience. I can see why a sequel never got made, but it still cements Buckaroo Banzai as a cult classic and thoroughly fun little insane movie. No wonder this guy ended up as Robocop. He’s not just a tall and skinny guy who can kick butt, he’s damn cool to watch on screen.

*** out of ****

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