“Would a watermelon in the midst of a chase sequence not be, in its own organic way, emblematic of our entire misunderstood enterprise? At once totally logical and perfectly irrational?”–W.D. Richter, explaining why there is a watermelon inside the Banzai Institute
DIRECTED BY: W.D. Richter
PLOT: We are first introduced to Buckaroo Banzai as he rushes by helicopter from completing a delicate neurosurgery to test-drive a trans-dimensional race car in the Nevada desert. Banzai successful breaches the Eighth Dimension with his oscillation overthruster, but the experiment attracts the attention of the mad Dr. Lizardo, as well as a gang of Lectroid aliens who also want the device. Between rock and roll gigs and particle physics press conferences, Buckaroo and his band of scientist/musician/adventurers, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, will uncover an alien conspiracy that (naturally) threatens the fate of the world.
- This was writer W.D. Richter’s first directorial effort after having half-a-dozen screenplays produced (including the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Banzai eventually became a hit on VHS but was a huge flop in theaters, losing six million dollars and bankrupting the production studio. Richter only directed one other movie, the 1991 independent comedy Late for Dinner, although he continued to write screenplays (including Big Trouble in Little China). Richter did not write the script for Buckaroo Banzai, however; it was penned by his pal Earl Mac Rauch.
- The name of the evil front corporation in Banzai, Yoyodyne, is a reference to a fictional corporation that appears in Thomas Pynchon’s novels.
- In 2003 Entertainment Weekly ranked Buckaroo Banzai as the #43 cult movie of all time.
- The sequel promised by the end credits, Buckaroo Banzai vs. The World Crime League, was of course never made, although legend has it that Richter is still trying to get it produced to this day. In 1998 pre-production work was done on a Buckaroo television series for the Fox network, but the show was never picked up. The Buckaroo brand has persisted through the years with a novelization and comic book adaptations.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We require a flashback to show how the Eighth Dimension was originally discovered by a then-sane Dr. Emilio Lizardo—but how to introduce it without disrupting the flow of the story? This movie believes the most natural way to incorporate the memory is to have a now-insane Dr. Lizardo hook electrodes onto his tongue and shock himself so that arcs of lightning fly out of his eardrums. We have to assume this bizarre home-electroshock therapy explains the perfect cinematic precision of the following flashback sequence, because no other sane theory is offered for Lizardo’s act of high-voltage masochism.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Refer to the plot synopsis. Any movie that successfully incorporates a band of rock and roll scientists, an invasion by aliens uniformly named “John,” the Eighth Dimension, inexplicable watermelons, and Jeff Goldblum as a New Jersey neurosurgeon who dresses like a cowboy—while working inside the Hollywood system, with a $12 million dollar budget—has worked hard enough to deserve a space on the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.
Original trailer for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension
COMMENTS: According to an unofficial Buckaroo Banzai FAQ, the most frequently asked question about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is not, as one might expect, “what in the hell did I just watch?” or “how in the world did this thing get made?” or even “why does Jeff Goldblum dress up like a cowboy if he’s from New Jersey?” but instead, “what exactly is the watermelon doing there?” To those not yet in the know, this query refers to the point in the movie where alien John Bigboote has infiltrated the Banzai Institute to try to re-kidnap Professor Hikita and obtain the overthruster, and Buckaroo and the Hong Kong Cavaliers are prowling the corridors looking for him. As they pass through one lab area, New Jersey asks Reno why there is a large watermelon lodged in an industrial vice. “I’ll tell you later,” promises the senior Cavalier, but he never gets around to it.
No one ever wonders about the fact that, in the very same sequence, Buckaroo passes a fire that’s inexplicably burning in a file cabinet and makes no comment—he simply shuts it with his foot, not even bothering to put out the flames. Nobody asks “what exactly is that spinning plastic musical elephant carousel doing in the middle of a hallway in Yoyodyne corporation?” There are lots of unanswered questions in Buckaroo Banzai—why does Lizardo shock himself on the tongue? Why do good aliens appear as Rastafarians?—but people focus on the watermelon because that’s the point at which the movie draws attention to its own background craziness and pledges to answer one single absurdity. Of course, it never delivers the promised resolution, because this is a case of Buckaroo‘s script explicitly tipping you off to the entire story’s shaggy dog nature. Pressed by fans, director W.D. Richter later concocted an explanation which involved the Banzai Institute working to create a watermelon with a super-hard shell so that the fruit could be clandestinely dropped from airplanes into starvation-plagued regions of third world dictatorships without shattering. A likely explanation; but I have my own little theory about the watermelon, which I’ll provide later in the review.
It’s fruitless to obsess about the watermelon, because large swaths of Buckaroo Banzai make little sense. If you’re not hopelessly confused half an hour into this picture, then you haven’t been paying attention. The script seems to have been edited down from something about three times as long, with subplots that are hinted at but not followed up on and characters who are mentioned but never appear. There’s simply not enough time in the 100 minutes allotted to flesh out all the ideas Richter and Rauch are anxious to get on the page, so the plot rushes by with a heedless recklessness that sweeps you along. Buckaroo has a love interest in the charming person of Penny Priddy, who by a freak coincidence happens to be the spitting image of his dead wife, but he’s so busy dealing with subplots and shootouts he barely has time to romance her between abductions. We never get time to draw a bead on any of Buckaroo’s boon companions and backing band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. They have names like Reno Nevada and Rawhide, but few distinguishing characteristics beyond uncanny competence and killer chops (both instrumental and karate). Of the Cavaliers, Lewis Smith makes the biggest impression as “Perfect Tommy,” but that’s largely because of his improbably blond mane of hair. With all of these guys standing around in the background just waiting for their moment in the sun, Buckaroo goes out and recruits yet another sidekick who demands his share of screen time, in the person of fellow neurosurgeon named New Jersey, who dresses inconspicuously in a cowboy hat, bright scarlet shirt and shaggy llama-hair chaps. There’s also a helpful Jamaican alien who joins the fray, and a father-son pair of Buckaroo Banzai Irregulars who chip in to put the beatdown on evil. And as if this weren’t enough, the characters reference other characters who never made it into the final script, like Cavalier Pecos (who we’re told is in Tibet).
This colorful army of good guys is opposed by an even more colorful gang of alien miscreants. (Keep in mind that the good aliens are Black Lectroids, and they come from Planet Ten and say “hey mon,” while the bad aliens are Red Lectroids who hail from the Eighth Dimension and carry guns that shoot spiders—got it?) A pair of fine character actors in Dan Hedaya and the angular Vincent Schiavelli are bumbling, none-too-bright foot soldiers in the alien army. The Red Lectroids’ chief lieutenant, John Bigboote (pronounced, he is anxious to remind everyone, “Bigboo-tay,” not “Big-booty”) is memorably portrayed by the great Christopher Lloyd (fresh off his stint as Reverend Jim on “Taxi”). But it’s John Lithgow as Dr. Lizardo (who, we figure out after multiple viewings, is possessed by the spirit of a Red Lectroid named John Whorfin) who steals the show. With bad teeth and an even worse Italian accent, Lizardo is prone to rambling lines like “we’re home free… home is where you wear your hat… I feel so break up, I want to go home!” and “laugh-a while you can, monkey boy!” Lithgow rants like Chico Marx with a God complex and slinks around like Ygor in a Frankenstein movie. Lithgow’s performance throws both good taste and sanity out the window, and he gets more into the spirit of the material than anyone else involved in the production.
Peter Weller, by comparison, is totally deadpan, and to me this is the movie’s greatest flaw. His coolness certainly contrasts with Lithgow’s craziness, but for a guy who’s a combination secret agent and rock star, he shows little charisma, just a bland handsomeness. Weller’s restrained, somewhat arrogant persona is perfect for Robocop, or for the emotionally shut-down writer William Lee in Naked Lunch, but he lacks the spark to portray a larger than life character like Buckaroo. We’ll never know how the film would have played out with a more vigorous Banzai—maybe it would have pumped the movie up too much, to the point where it exploded—but I would have loved to see what would have happened had Weller and Jeff Goldblum’s roles been switched. Goldblum is underutilized as a gimmicky sidekick, and it seems the lead role could have benefited from the nervous energy he brings to the screen.
Halfway through the movie, Banzai recaps the plot thus far for the President of the United States. The Prez’ bemused reaction speaks for the audience: “Buckaroo, I don’t know what to say. Lectroids, Planet 10, nuclear extortion, a girl named John…” There’s another quote near the beginning of the movie that’s even more to the point, considering this venue. Buckaroo has just performed neurosurgery and penetrated solid matter by accessing the Eighth Dimension. He caps off the evening by headlining at a nightclub, soloing on electric guitar, trumpet and piano. He stops in the middle of a rollicking blues number, having psychically sensed that someone in the audience isn’t having a good time. In fact, the stick in the mud is a depressed woman who’s “down to her last nickel in this lousy town.” Buckaroo tries to cheer her up by putting a spotlight on her, advising her that “wherever you go, there you are,” and launching into a cover version of that comforting ballad “Since I Don’t Have You.” As Buckaroo sits at the piano and croons, “I don’t have plans or schemes, I don’t have hopes or dreams” to the sobbing suicidal gal with smeared mascara, one of the backup saxophonists turns to another and says, “This is weird.” To which his companion says, “Sure is.” To which I would have responded, “You’re just noticing that now?”
By the way, the reason that they put a watermelon in the vice is because a grape wouldn’t have shown up on camera.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…Richter doesn’t bring out the baroque lunacy of the material—a kind of fermented parody of M*A*S*H, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the TV series ‘The A-Team’—but though the characters don’t develop and the laughs don’t build or come together, the film’s uninflected deadpan tone is somehow likable.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)
“…like coming into the middle chapters of some hilariously overplotted, spaced-out 1930’s adventure serial, neither the beginning nor the end of which ever comes into sight. At its best, which it frequently is, it’s a lunatic ball…pure, nutty fun.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“Some movies become cult classics by being bad in a charming and/or entertaining way, some by being transgressive in ways mainstream society isn’t prepared to deal with, others by just being flat-out weird. I submit, with great fondness, that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, belongs to the latter category.”–Danny Bowes, Tor.com (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: MGMs Official Site for the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai – Basically, a one-page ad to buy the film with a trailer, synopsis, cast list and some stills. Of course, most movies this old aren’t given even that much attention by major studios.
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
BANZAI INSTITUTE – This repository of news items and trivia is written in a style similar enough to the DVD supplemental material (e.g., referring to the movie as a “docudrama”) that you halfway suspect director Richter and/or writer Rauch is behind the site
Banzai Institute – Facebook – From the makers of the above site, now conveniently on Facebook for more frequent updates
World Watch Online: The Buckaroo Banzai Mailing List – Another Buckaroo Banzai fan site. There’s a wealth of archived material here for fans to plow through, including downloadable newsletters dating back to 1985!
NYFF: Buckaroo Banzai Intro + Q&A – Complete question and answer session with Peter Weller and John Lithgow, hosted by Kevin Smith at the 2011 New York Film Festival (this YouTube video is over an hour long)
Buckaroo Banzai Frequently Asked Questions – Almost all the Buckaroo minutiae that you would ever want can be found in this online FAQ
Yoyodyne.com – A fake website for the fake corporation in Buckaroo Banzai. Why? The Banzai fan base is just that thorough. You may use this site to email John Bigboote, should you wish.
Rotten Tomatoes Show: Top 5 Aborted Franchises – The Rotten Tomatoes Show names Buckaroo Banzai the top aborted franchise of all time, explaining that it was “a tad to weird for America”
Buckaroo Banzai: Across The 8th Dimension, The Adventures of Easter Eggs – information on accessing the hidden features on the Buckaroo Banzai DVD
“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension: The Novel”– Scriptwriter Earl Mac Rauch’s 1984 novelization of the movie, which adds much-needed backstory and supplemental material to flesh out the legend
“Buckaroo Banzai: Return Of The Screw” – A 2007 Rauch-penned graphic novel continuing Buckaroo’s adventures
DVD INFO: MGM’s 2002 Special Edition of Banzai (buy) did this cult classic right and thrilled even the movie’s demanding fan base. The commentary track features Richter and Rauch, with the director pretending the film is a biopic of a real life figure and Rauch pretending to be one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers. An optional subtitle track serves up additional tidbits of information about the Banzai universe. Many deleted scenes are included, most notably one where Jamie Lee Curtis plays Buckaroo’s mom in a flashback. There’s a 22-minute featurette called “Buckaroo Banzai Declassified” with Richter which, like the commentary track, stays in character, pretending Buckaroo is real. Character profiles provide even more background information on the Banzai mythology, and photo galleries, promotional materials and the original trailer round out a treasury of special features.
Banzai is also the weirdest offering on MGM’s 3 disc “Astronomy 101” collection (buy), which also contains the mildly weird Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Mel Brooks’ not-so-weird (but inexplicably popular) Star Wars spoof Spaceballs.
Buckaroo Banzai is not yet available on Blu-ray, though it seems like a likely candidate for an upgrade. It is available on Video-on-Demand, for rental only (rent on demand).
(This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)