the Ubermench must save the planet and his dead wife’s twin sister from
a possessed Italian scientist and his alien minions from Planet Ten by way
of the Eighth Dimension.
Weller is Buckaroo Banzai, the eponymous neurosurgeon / physicist / rock
star / test pilot / samurai / cowboy / adventurer.
Clearly playing an updated Doc Savage, Weller was a departure from
the physical giant that might be expected, presumably on the theory that
speed and a disciplined, wiry strength should be sufficient these days.
Buckaroo is also supposed to be half-Japanese, so Weller’s facial
structure seems more appropriate than, say, Ahnuld’s.
He treats the character as just another guy who knows how to do a
lot of stuff; unassuming, un-smug, but capable and comfortable in his own
skin. Way more natural than
Dalton’s Bond, and therefore, it’s a better acting job.
Lithgow is the evil Lord John Whorfin, the evil alien Red Lectroid
commander who had been trapped in the Eighth Dimension, but possessed the
body of Dr. Emilio Lizardo back in the 1930s, and who has been doing
crimes ever since, like murder, kidnapping, ordering sushi and not paying,
that kind of thing. Lithgow manages to be both menacing and hilarious at the same
time, and I think it was this role that really led to a successful career
of playing maniacs and/or aliens. Unless
he really is a maniac, or an alien. Hmmm.
Christopher Lloyd is
the evil John Bigbooté, evil Lectroid chief lieutenant of Whorfin, who
hates it when you don’t put the stress on the last syllable. Since nearly everybody calls him “John Big Booty” or
“John Big Boot,” he ends up being pretty cranky the whole movie.
He and his evil Lectroid minions are actually there physically, as
opposed to Whorfin’s possession trick, having come across in a huge
inter-dimensional accident on Halloween night in Grover’s Mill, New
Jersey, back in ’39 or so. They
were so evil, they messed with Orson Welles’s brain to… well, you get
the idea. Did I mention
they’re evil? That is a
point that can’t be stressed enough.
Barkin is Penny Priddy, a woman at the end of her rope who meets up with
Buckaroo and gang more or less by total accident.
Then it turns out that she’s a dead ringer for Buckaroo’s dead
wife, Peggy, and later we find out she’s got some kind of conceptual
understanding of high-energy dimensional physics, and a tendency toward
being a kidnap victim. At
least she puts on a show of bravery, rather than just screaming and
cowering like so many movie females.
But what else would you expect of the widely underrated Barkin?
Goldblum is Dr. Sydney Zweibel, soon nicknamed New Jersey, the newest
recruit into Buckaroo’s circle of companions, the Hong Kong Cavaliers.
Typical tall gawky guy, but there are points where he goes out of
his way to seem even more fish-out-of-water.
For Goldblum, though, it works, like it always does.
the list goes on and on. Clancy
Brown as Rawhide, Vincent Schiavelli as John O’Connor, Dan Hedaya as
John Gomez, Lewis Smith as Perfect Tommy, Pepe Serna as Reno Nevada (yes,
it’s a jolly pirate club with jolly pirate nicknames), Laura Harrington
as Mrs. Johnson, Ronald Lacey as the President (“President of what?”
“President of the United States.”
“Oh.”), Matt Clark as the Secretary of Defense, and Yakov
Smirnoff as… well, himself, with a job as a Presidential advisor.
of these names are familiar, no doubt, and not all of them from B-movies,
though most of the actors here have done their time.
This was shot during a period where many of these folks were on a
high point in their careers. Either
the creators, W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch, knew a lot of folks and
called in favors, or the script just looked like so much fun, people just
signed up for the chance at a part. And
given the ambitious plot, who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?
to begin? Particularly since
this is more Joe’s format than my own.
But the film demanded I put limits on myself.
I’m not on Jabootu, after all.
Regardless, let’s plunge in.
movie is so detailed, and parts of it seem almost random and pointlessly
layered at the same time, that the sheer
volume of data in the film confuses some people.
Personally, I like it, because I notice new things every time,
whether it’s deciphering background comments or finally realizing what
they’re talking about in one of the announcements in the Lectroid-run
Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems factory. Of course, I have the distinct advantage of having the
novelization of the film, a book which is apparently as rare as the
laserdisc of the movie. In
it, many things are explained. The
goals and organization of the Banzai Institute.
The physiology and culture of the Lectroids, both Red and Black,
and why they “eat” electricity. Buckaroo’s
background, and why everybody is suspicious of Penny Priddy, particularly
when they realize she’s the twin of Buckaroo’s dead wife.
Everything is described as if the book is merely part of a longer
series of books, much like the chronicles of Doc Savage’s adventures.
But even though they make other references, the author is not silly
enough to leave such references unexplained.
It’s not like the other books actually exist or anything, after
me, I can understand why people would get a little put off by it, if they
didn’t know what to expect. In
the opening scenes, everybody’s waiting around for Buckaroo to show up
for this test drive of his new jet car design, but he was called away in
the middle of the night to perform some emergency neurosurgery.
Some folks just can’t get behind the idea that one person could
be a highly trained doctor AND a particle physicist AND a popular musician
AND everything else, basically. Well,
sure, it’s unlikely, but that’s the nature of genius, for one thing,
and for another, it’s not intended to be realistic.
I mean, the character is an updated Doc Savage, for goodness sake.
course, some folks have reported falling asleep before Buckaroo even
drives through solid matter. I
mean, sure, it’s a little slow-moving at the start, but hardly as much
as, say, The
After the first ten minutes, you’ve got people driving through
mountains, you’ve got John Lithgow electrocuting himself, you’ve got
aliens running a major defense contractor, you’ve got classic lines like
“Laugh while you can, monkey boy!” or “It looks like one of our
thermal pods… but it’s a very bad design.”
Or the much-copied “Wherever you go, there you are.”
And you’ve got basically non-stop activity.
I won’t say non-stop action, because my standards of action
movies have been altered by the popularization of HK movies.
Still, there’s always stuff unfolding.
than try to describe the plot, which would take up one of my usual-length
articles by itself, and would tempt me too much to give away some of the
best bits, let me instead try to explain some of the confusing elements
with data gleaned from the book.
one thing, you have to realize that in the world of the movie, Buckaroo
Banzai and his loyal Hong Kong Cavaliers are a cultural phenomenon. Buckaroo is a singular individual, and he attracts similar
friends. He founded a
non-profit research institute, which supports itself and the
groundbreaking research of its members through a percentage of the patent
profits, the support of well-wishers, etc.
Buckaroo regularly engages in heroics, often on a global scale, and
his media coverage is excellent. He
has a Saturday morning TV show that attempts to teach kids such moral
truths as respect for others and yourself (one presumes that it’s much
more effective and entertaining than similar projects these days).
He has a comic book series, a line of true-adventure novels, and a
number of films based on his life. He
has founded, and trains with,
a paramilitary community-aid organization called the Blue Blaze
Irregulars, similar to the Boy Scouts but open to members of any age or
gender. He’s the
President’s personal physician, and he regularly tops the rock-and-roll
he’s the Nietchiean ubermench, but with the ability to be an inspiration
to the mere human, rather than a reminder of his or her inadequacy, as was
originally envisioned. Perhaps
he’s more like Ozymandius from Alan Moore’s Watchmen,
an ordinary man who pushes himself to extraordinary achievement.
Perhaps this brand of character doesn’t have an easy counterpart
outside of the pulp novels of yesteryear.
Regardless, Buckaroo’s main gig is that he’s a warrior of the
modern age, doing everything he can to make the world a better place, and
that includes using all formats available to him.
origin of the Lectroids on this planet is decently explained in the movie,
more or less. A couple of
physiological points: their bodies exist in part on electricity, and if
they take more than necessary, it’s pleasurable, much like humans and
sugar, so when you see them holding batteries or whatever, they’re
probably snacking. Similarly,
when John Whorfin/Dr. Lizardo utilizes that nifty little self-electrocutor,
it’s because the alien part of him still likes the current, even though
he’s sort of melded with a human, due to the accident that brought him
here. Also, they have these
little symbiotic spider-like things that they spit at high velocity, which
dig into the flesh and poison the target.
It’s an evolutionary advantage of some sort, but it’s not
really explained much in the book, and not explained at all in the movie.
speaking, the Red Lectroids were the bloodthirsty warrior caste on Planet
Ten, which is where the Lectroids come from (it may not be Planet Ten of
this solar system). Long ago,
the oppressed Black Lectroids overthrew the evil, Nazi-like regime of Lord
Whorfin, and exiled the whole kit and kaboodle to the Eighth Dimension,
which exists only between the particles of atoms inside solid matter
(Dimension Eight, or D8 for short, from here out), where they remained
trapped until the
1930s, our time, when Whorfin got out through Dr. Lizardo, and shortly
thereafter helped his cohorts get free, and they’ve laid low until
recently, when Buckaroo’s jet car test brought them out.
it turns out, the only way to get into D8 is with the help of an
Oscillation Overthruster, and the Red Lectroids really want to get back.
Apparently, you can find a way to maneuver from one part of D8
(say, from inside your computer monitor) to another (say, the shower head
of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders locker room) and exit there, without
even a webcam. This would
allow the Red Lectroids to return to Planet Ten and return to power.
In theory, at least. So
when Buckaroo develops the Overthruster, they go after it like rabid
dingoes after an unguarded baby. Mmm…
baby. Anyway, that’s when
the Black Lectroids appear; they have an information network that employs
the difficult-to-manufacture component, Deus Ex Machina.
Basically, they know what they need to know to drive the plot,
which, given that you’re dealing with aliens of unknown technological
capabilities who just plain don’t think like us (that’s one of the
things that makes them alien, after all), is not such a difficult concept
was I? Dingoes? No, wait. Black
So they know Buckaroo’s develped an Overthruster, they figure
that Whorfin and his soldiers will try to take it, and so they send what
help they can, but they’re not going to risk failure.
Which brings them to their ultimatum (and also allows Perfect Tommy
to spout the most stilted and artificial line in the whole film; go
figure). Some of this is
fairly obvious in the unfolding of the film, but there’s so much to
distract, it’s sometimes easy to lose track.
The Overthruster is what drives the film, and if you forget that,
you lose sight of why people are doing what they’re doing.
more note: it’s never explained in the movie, but it’s definitely
pointed out as one of the things that makes the Lectroids strange: the Lectroids
have a unisex honorific, equivalent to our “Mr.” or “Ms.”, that
sounds roughly like the human name “John.”
When they picked human names for their cover identities, back in
the ‘30s, they kept their names if they were pronounceable by human
mouths (“Ya-ya”), and if it wasn’t, they either translated the
pictographic image of their names (“Small Berries”), or picked a name
at random out of the phone book (“Gomez”). However, they all kept their honorific. And remember, it’s unisex.
have no explanation as to why some Lectroids have accents, and some
don’t. The Reds have been
living in New Jersey for fifty years or so, so their accents make sense,
but I just don’t get the Blacks, unless they were just suiting their
actors, and trying to blend it all in as a species thing.
I hesitate to bring up racism, since they’re pretty good about
that in other sections of the movie, so I tend to think there was some
other reason behind it than, say, a Phantom
Menace-style playing to stereotypes.
see, is there anything else that is confusing?
Well, once you know about Buckaroo’s prominence in the world,
that explains part of the political and social attention he gets, and once
you know a bit about the Lectroids (easily the most under-explained part
of the film), then you aren’t as confused by them.
Oh, speaking of the Lectroids, they have a camouflage system
that’s also biological. One
of the things that was brought out in the book was that it has individual
effects on individual viewers, but, naturally, it’s impossible to really
do that in film, so they dispensed with that whole angle on it.
They do, however, explain roughly how it works, if you pay
really a major watch-word for this film.
You have to pay attention, or you can get lost easily. For me, with my tastes, the sheer oddity of the proceedings
kept me interested, and the small points (alien body language, Cavalier
banter) kept rewarding my attention.
Plus, when you have people like Lithgow and Lloyd chewing the
scenery, you can only win.
this a movie for everyone? I
would say no, though I wish I could say yes.
It enjoys its niche market as a cult favorite, but there’s just
too much background required, too many intuitive leaps you have to make,
and too many violations of the modern expectation of heroic characters.
It’s no longer acceptable to be the absolute “everyman” that
Savage and Banzai attempt to be. We
like our heroes
flawed, like Snake Plissken, or highly skilled in a particular area of
kicking butt, like Schwarzenegger. But
if you’re retro enough, you can get behind the whole vibe of the thing.
And by “retro,” I’m including being able to tolerate early-
to mid-‘80s “cool” fashion. Everybody’s
got their hot buttons, and while mine is the clothing of the ‘70s, I can
see how some people might start to tremble and have their heads explode
when faced with the kind of thing that Corey Feldman probably still thinks
I can’t imagine how Hoff could affect the movie
for better or worse, but it would be nice to see him in there.
A talking car would fit in, right next to the one that drives
through walls and breaks the sound barrier, while the beach influence is
probably the only thing this movie lacks.
And Jersey having such a wonderful shore (medical waste excluded);
shame, gentlemen. Such an
oversight! And though none
can overshadow the musical talents of Buckaroo Banzai, it’s entirely
possible that he would sing a duet with the esteemed Hasselhoff. Or Julio Iglesias, whichever came along first.
-- Copyright © 2001 by E. Mark Mitchell