No matter where you go, there you are.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension could either be the name for a clever film or a cheap low-budget piece of trash. Luckily, it’s the former, as this cult film is a pleasure to re-watch.
The film’s trailer makes it seem like a quirky sci-fi film, but there’s not a lot to go on. A group of well dressed individuals, including a man in a cowboy suit, walk in unison to a synthesized score, while shots of a jet car, aliens and alien spacecraft are intercut. The only exchange of dialogue is a man telling Buckaroo that the President is on the phone and getting confused when Buckaroo provides his instructions. What the trailer does do, along with the title, is create an intriguing question: just what is this film about?
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), the son of an American mother and a Japanese father, is a brilliant neurosurgeon, physicist, martial arts expert, and leader of the rock band known as the Hong Kong Cavaliers. He tests out his new jet car, suddenly veering off the course towards a mountain range. His car is equipped with the oscillation overthruster, a device that he designed with Professor Hikita (Robert Ito), a colleague of his father, which allows him to travel through the matter in the mountain. He sees strange creatures on his trip and exits with a red organic orb attached to his car.
At a mental institution, Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) has a flashback to a similar experiment in 1938 where he tried to breach solid matter. Instead he got stuck in a concrete wall and was attacked by the same aliens Buckaroo saw. When he emerged he was possessed by John Whorfin, a red lectroid from Planet Ten. Seeing the news that Banzai has successfully gotten his experiment to work, he breaks out of the hospital and heads to Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems. At one of Buckaroo’s concerts, a young woman named Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), who happens to be the spitting image of Buckaroo’s dead wife, tries to shoot herself. He visits her in the jail the next morning, and against his team’s recommendations has her released into his custody.
At a press conference about the jet car experiment, Buckaroo receives a call ostensibly from the President, but it is in fact from a group of black lectroids who are in orbit above the Earth. They shock him with an electrochemical message allowing him to see the red lectroids that are masquerading as humans, John Bigbooté, John O’Conner, and John Gomez (Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Dan Hedaya). The black lectroids, led by John Emdall (Rosalind Cash), send an emissary, John Parker (Carl Lumbly), with a message: Buckaroo needs to stop John Whorfin and the red lectroids from returning to Planet Ten, or the black lectroids will start a nuclear war with Russia. Buckaroo contacts President Widmark (Ronald Lacey) about the situation to warn him.
Penny is captured by the red lectroids along with the oscillation overthruster and taken to Yoyodyne Propulsion to be tortured. In the fight at the Banzai Institute where Penny was captured, Rawhide (Clancy Brown) is injured. Buckaroo’s newest team member, Dr. Sidney Zweibel aka New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) realizes that all the employees of Yoyodyne are red lectroids that arrived in Grover’s Mill, NJ on Halloween night, 1938–the same night as Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
Buckaroo allows himself and the jet car to be captured to possibly stop Whorfin. The Hong Kong Cavaliers, led by Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith) and Reno (Pepe Serna), lead an attack on Yoyodyne to rescue Buckaroo and Penny. They are joined by some members of the Blue Blaze Irregulars, father and son, Casper and Scooter Lindley (Bill Henderson and Damon Hines), as well as the US Secretary of Defense (Matt Clark) who is perplexed why Yoyodyne is not building the bombers they paid for. John Whorfin readies a strange organic looking spaceship which using the overthruster should allow him and the other aliens to return to Planet Ten.
Buckaroo escapes from the shock tower where he was being tortured and with the help of John Parker, commandeers a thermopod and destroys Whorfins ship before it can return home. President Widmark, who was concerned that a nuclear response was necessary, stands down. Unfortunately Penny succumbs to her wounds from the torture she endured and dies. Buckaroo visits with her body and a small electrical shock, a residual piece of the message from the black lectroids, revives her. The black lectroids stand down as well, and everyone returns to their normal lives. The film ends by advertising Buckaroo’s return in “Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.”
“Why is there a watermelon there?” – New Jersey
History in the Making
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, hereafter just known as Buckaroo Banzai, is a crazy turning point in the sci-fi genre of the 1980s. It’s both looking forward and backwards at the same time, mashing up a very retro-style plot with new ideas and modern special effects to create a cult film that still entertains today. With its tongue firmly planted in cheek, the film manages to walk the very fine line between parody and disaster. Other similar films with lower budgets have attempted to make enduring sci-fi films but flopped. The key to Buckaroo Banzai is that it knows how outlandish it is, yet the performances all seem very grounded and committed to the story, merging the bizarre with the awesome, creating a film that allows the audience to be part of the process. It has the feel of the 1966 Batman TV series along with the 1975 Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze adventure film without ever feeling too campy.
Buckaroo Banzai is the best known screenplay from writer Earl Mac Rauch and the best of two films directed by WD Richter, who was also the writer of the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1979 Dracula, and Big Trouble In Little China (more on this particular film later). The complexity and back stories of the characters are attributed to the length of the development process as Rauch started over a dozen scripts, trying out different plot lines and character arcs. In the end, he created a script that was infused with retro and futuristic elements, a combination of Western and Eastern design elements, and a serious yet comical tone.
The premise for the action hero and his entourage comes from the pulp heroes of the 30s and 40s, such as The Shadow and Doc Savage. While The Shadow was more of a supernatural sort of character, whose operatives worked within the real world at his behest, Doc Savage stands as more the archetype for these adventures. Like Buckaroo, Savage is a doctor, a scientist and an adventurer who consorts with a team of specialists that have nicknames like Ham, Monk, and Long Tom. The adventures had by that team were action oriented, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or King Solomon’s Mines; stories that were more grounded in reality. What the team behind Buckaroo Banzai did was to take this action style and combine it with a science-fiction premise (a conspiratorial take on a famous radio play), to create a new and interesting fusion.
To date, science-fiction films had all existed in their own reality, barring any sequels to existing franchises like The Planet of the Apes or Star Trek. That reality, while sometimes a contemporary reflection of the audience’s reality, never made reference to other genre pictures. That is, in a sci-fi film, the fiction of other sci-fi films does not exist. This is very much like characters in a horror film who have never seen a horror film and don’t understand the conventions of horror films. The 1980s helped to change these conventions for both sci-fi and horror. As an example, Dreamscape makes reference to Darth Vader, meaning that the world which those characters live in contains Star Wars. But it probably doesn’t contain Scanners, The Dead Zone, Brainstorm, or films of a similar theme to the subject film. And as such, alien invasion films don’t usually have characters overtly mention other alien invasion films–until Buckaroo Banzai.
The conceit of Buckaroo Banzai is that the famous radio play of The War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, which presented itself as a contemporary news broadcast about Martians invading the New Jersey town of Grover’s Mill, was itself a cover-up. While there was real outcry and concern that an invasion had occurred in 1938 by listeners, Orson Welles and CBS Radio had made numerous press releases touting the fictional content of their show. Buckaroo Banzai takes those facts and spins them in a way, indicating that Welles was hypnotized into saying that it was a cover-up and in fact a large group of red lectroids did land in Grover’s Mill, NJ that Halloween night. This sets the stage for the film and explains why John Whorfin has such a large number of followers to help him get back home.
An alien invasion from another dimension was also something relatively new in sci-fi film. Most aliens came from outer space trying to conquer the Earth from that aspect. The film also presents the aliens as not too scary. They’re bumbling, argumentative creatures that seemingly are unable to work together well to pull off their plans. This is played for more laughs than normal alien invasion type films and led to the general levity of the story. Not only do the aliens come from another dimension but their technology is all organic in nature, rather than the sleek, angular, futuristic looking things. The arachnoid and arthropod nature of the arachtoid (paralyzing projectile) and the thermopod (the pod-like vehicles used by both lectorid species) had designs reminiscent of a David Cronenberg film. Making the gadgetry appear truly alien was a great choice that led to more perceived weirdness in the film.
While Buckaroo Banzai is primarily an action and adventure type of story set within a science-fiction framework, it does present a little bit societal commentary about fears at the time, especially nuclear war between the United States and Russia. This is done by both showing the nuclear fears between the two nations as well as allegorically with the two types of alien beings. In order to stop the bloodthirsty warlord John Whorfin (at one point compared to Earth’s Hitler, by John Emdall), the black lectroids are prepared to launch a first strike at the USSR which will precipitate a nuclear counterstrike against the United States. The threat of nuclear fears were growing larger in 1984 as the rhetoric between the US and USSR amped up. TV movies like The Day After, theatrical releases like WarGames, or sci-fi films like Dreamscape, and next week’s film The Terminator all had strong elements of the dangers and fear that a nuclear war was how the world was going to end.
The film also makes a similar divide by comparing the two warring alien races by the color of their skin, the red vs black lectroids. Coincidentally the black lectroids appear as black humans, much as last week’s film The Brother From Another Planet showed. The red lectroids would probably be considered the stand-ins for the Russians (by color alone) while the black lectroids partner up with the United States. Even though they have threatened America if John Whorfin is not stopped, sending John Parker to assist Buckaroo and his team shows that they can be allies. It’s definitely not as political as the tensions between the two superpowers, but more of shorthand to describe the relationships between the two alien races.
Buckaroo Banzai also is filled with a philosophical flair of armchair aphorisms, the most famous one being Buckaroo’s statement that “We don’t have to be mean, cos, remember no matter where you go there you are.” His style and attitude does not seem to be like the normal sort of action hero of the time, who comes out with guns blazing. Buckaroo takes charge, but he’s also thoughtful and kind about the action he takes. He has the ability to sense that Penny is sad during his concert. He leads his team by example letting them know that he too shares the risks. It’s a different kind of personification of what a hero can be, as Buckaroo is both intelligent and compassionate, as well as a good leader. This is the complete antithesis of John Whorfin, who mangles his quotes, speaks with a thick Italian-like accent and does not respect his followers enough to even pronounce their name correctly (as with John Bigbooté).
The Science in The Fiction
The film contains some interesting science regarding the oscillation overthruster, and Buckaroo’s ability to apparently pass through solid matter. When the beam from the overthruster hits the mountain it appears to soften the matter allowing the jet car to pass through into another dimension. The 8th Dimension to be exact. He explains later that the mountain could be taken apart and sifted and the strange orb that attached to his car would never be found. His point being that he didn’t actually travel through the mountain, but took a shortcut through another dimension, which allowed him to seemingly pass through the mountain. This dimension, where the black lectroids had imprisoned John Whorfin and his followers, was where Emilio Lizardo got stuck with his 1938 experiment, which allowed Whorfin to somehow inhabit his body. An entirely different method that he appears human, compared to the other lectroids.
Another alien aspect of the film is that for whatever reason, the lectroid gives off a pheromone that creates a sort of “electric biochemical brainwashing” signal that makes humans see the aliens as also human. The black lectroid commander provides Buckaroo with an electrical stimulant, via the telephone, which breaks that connection and allows him to see the aliens for what they truly are. Later both Buckaroo and Hikita develop a rebreather that helps the rest of the Hong Kong Cavaliers purge this pheromone from their systems so they too can see the aliens as aliens. While nothing like this exists in nature, it does seem reminiscent of animals that can see different wavelengths of light. While human vision is limited to the color spectrum, other creatures can see into the infrared or the ultraviolet wavelengths creating different looks for animals and bugs than as humans actually see them.
The Final Frontier
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a smart and funny film that started the careers of many actors, and contains tons of familiar character actors. This film launched Peter Weller’s career before it was cemented for his work in Robocop. He had only made a small handful of films prior to this and it was his first leading role. The lectroid crew played by Christopher Lloyd (Taxi & Star Trek III), Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple, and later Cheers), and Vincent Schiavelli (numerous TV appearances, plus One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) all were recognizable actors, even if you don’t know their names. Obviously some of them, like John Lithgow and Lloyd would go on to greater heights. The Hong Kong Cavaliers also included many recognizable faces like Clancy Brown (one of his first movies, but who would appear in Highlander & Starship Troopers), Lewis Smith (The Heavenly Kid), and of course Jeff Goldblum who had previously been in the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff, but would go on to bigger things with a remake of The Fly and Jurassic Park.
The film advertises a sequel that as of this writing has never materialized. It is currently advertised as a book coming in October 2021 from Dark Horse Books, and will tell the story of Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. Maybe there will even be an explanation for why there was a watermelon on the middle of the film! There was even talk at one point that Big Trouble in Little China was a reworked version of this sequel but that has been debunked. The story probably happened due to WD Richter’s involvement in writing that film, or adapting the previous story which features an asian antagonist. At the very least it is the spiritual successor to Buckaroo Banzai.
Buckaroo Banzai is a charming and fun adventure that has a ton of elements to see on subsequent viewings. There’s a rich backstory hinted at with various elements, and yet at no time does it feel like the audience is missing anything (except maybe what the watermelon is really for). The cast compliments the production as an ensemble, all seemingly getting the tone and cadence that the writer and director were looking to achieve. It still stands as a high point in the 80s influx of science-fiction due to these qualities. So what. Big deal.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.