The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai

Director: W. D. Richter

USA - 1984

    Hoff! Hoff!


For the benefit of those with a short attention span...

Where to begin?

Buckaroo 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.

The Guilty Party

Where to begin?

Peter 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.

John 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.

Ellen 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?

Jeff 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.

And 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.

Many 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?  

My "thoughts" on the film. Thinking! Ha!

Where 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.

This 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 all.

Believe 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.

Of 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 Stepford Wives. "Through careful scientific analysis, I've determined this as 'ooky'." 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.  Sleep.  Feh.

Rather 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.

For 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 Acting!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 charts.

Basically, 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.

The 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.

Culturally 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 th"You'd tell me if I looked stupid, right?"e 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.

As 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 to take.

Where was I?  Dingoes?  No, wait.  Black Lectroids.  Right.  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.

One 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 LeIs that alien wearing a sash?ctroids 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.

I 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.

Let’s 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 attention.

That’s 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.

Is 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 heroesBuckaroo takes a moment to explain the special effects featured in Forever Evil 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 is cool.

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.


These are the times of which to cherish...

Where to begin?

- Lord Whorfin’s inspirational speeches.  I guess you have to be Lectroid to really get them, but the accent helps.  I particularly enjoy the call-and-respond sections.

- The Black Lectroid diplomat who comes to help Buckaroo, John Parker (Carl Lumbly).  He does such wonderful alien mannerisms, and he’s such a strapping, handsome man, but it all goes away when he is revealed in his true form.  Well, that makeup is limiting, to be sure.

- Buckaroo himself.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like him, and this was before he had been invented!  But since there’s only so much room in medical school, and the physics courses really got in the way of my sleeping until noon, I have to resort to hero worship.

- The announcements in the Yoyodyne facility, and in the alien ship.  In fact, all throughout the movie.  They’re just great!



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-- Copyright © 2001 by E. Mark Mitchell




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