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I tell you, if it ain't one thing, it's another

There's a certain logic in a studio or wealthy individual investing in a movie with elements that have delivered the goods in the past. You couldn't go wrong throwing dollars at pre-Oscar conscious Spielberg. The two Toms haven't exactly disappointed. The 'elements' (as they are known in Hollywood) are the chips most likely to settle themselves on winning numbers. If Goldman's dictum "nobody knows anything" can be questioned, it's with hindsight. People can claim to know something. If Spielberg and Cruise unite their core fan bases and add to them, whoever invests is almost bound to make a return (considering the vast, powerful marketing army behind these elements, it may be as close to a sure fire thing Hollywood ever gets). There is logic in all of this. Anything happens (a movie may make money from simple word of mouth, for example) that is outside this logic is known as a non-recurring phenomenon (in other words a fluke the suits cannot build in to any fiscal projection). No one can apply science to the movies themselves. They are all by definition prototypes. Sometimes a movie comes along like some cosmic accident or planet realignment, a movie you just can't believe ever got made (and yet you are so thankful it did).

Slarek gleefully questions how anyone would want to invest in, for example, David Cronenberg's Spider (but thank God someone did). Despite elements in place (Cronenberg himself and actor Ralph Fiennes) and with all respect, this duo are not as worthy as insurance against financial under-performance as Spielberg and Cruise (outsiders breathe sighs of relief). If there are always Red Rums then we're here to notice what the miniature Shetlands do. Often they do it better. According to the director, MGM's David Begelman saw the script of Buckaroo Banzai and said "this is something special, go make it…" It gives me hope that some of 'us' are in with 'them'. That was written before listening to the commentary. I'll let it stand for now but read on.

So what have we here? A movie that was released the year the Macintosh came out (1984) and it's the oddest, most idiosyncratic, most surreal, 'Hollywood' movie I think I've ever seen. A synopsis would take three pages. Even its title, originally just Buckaroo Banzai, was changed into something even odder and (one would think) even more un-commercial. The studios insisted, according to W.D. Richter's commentary, that those simple two words would confuse people and actually keep them away from the cinemas. So they changed it to (I cannot help but smile) The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. That ought to have packed them in except that it didn't. A fancy Region 1 DVD release means that there is some money somewhere bet on the miniature Shetland (or rather some hope that there are enough odd folks out there that would purchase such an oddity) Based on VHS popularity, I'd say the number crunchers got it right. I'll have a go at some sort of sum up. Please note that if the assembled cast of this movie would now come together for a sequel, before a frame was shot, the production would be about $150 million in the hole. There are some very famous and expensive actors in this piece. Whatever happened to Ellen Barkin?

Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is the head of a group of extraordinary men. As well, as being a neurosurgeon and a rock star, Banzai is a scientist who discovers an '8th dimension' contained in the molecular 'space' in solid objects after driving through a rock face. Inside this new dimension live Lectroids (smooth reptilian humanoid aliens originally from Planet 10). In the 30s, under cover of Orson Welles's infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a group of renegade Lectroids headed by John Big Booty (or Booté) played by Christopher Lloyd, took over a scientific institute, Yoyodyne, to create a device to enable them to get off the Earth. Enter the bizarre but wonderful John Lithgow as a half human, half Lectroid (Lizardo/Whorfin respectively), all-weirdo who escapes from his lunatic asylum in truly gleeful fashion. The way he dispatches the hospital guard while still on the phone is a highlight as is his going back into his own memories via some curious makeshift electrical devices. Lithgow will go as far as any director wishes and strain to go further. He is never less than gloriously entertaining. Back to the plot. Good Lectroids (in orbit and all Rastafarian – why? No one knows! Joy!) enable Buckaroo to recognize the bad Lectroids. The two teams battle to find the device that will enable both teams to complete their opposing mission, the oscillation overthruster.

That's the straightest line I can draw. Woven and spun around that line are many, many subplots and incidents, some of them hilarious. Walking through a tense situation, Jeff Goldblum follows Pepe Serna. Goldblum sees something incongruous on an experiment table. "Why is there a water melon there?" he asks. Pepe answers "I'll tell ya later." Buckaroo is so full of moments like that, that the plot sometimes uncurls via those little script nuggets, gems you think are there because they are funny and tangential. Incidentally, the watermelon was placed into the set as a directorial power play. To ascertain that MGM exec (the afore mentioned David Begelman) was still watching rushes, W.D. Richter just inserted the watermelon (something which had nothing to do with anything). If Begelman was still riding the production, he would have been all over the director for taking the piss. And yet in the context of Buckaroo's existence, it makes a sort of perverse sense.

The production design (ably abetted by prop master Erik Nelson) is suitably out there in some odd dimension only known to the art crew. Good, black Lectroids sit on impossibly high seats in their coral-inspired craft and when I first caught Buckaroo, that image stayed in my head for long after the theatrical run had become a nice memory. Props are funky, funny and fit the milieu like some lost pieces of a giant jigsaw that suddenly turn up. My favourite has to be the "Presidential Emergency Action Documents; Declaration of War (The Short Form in case of emergency only)." Priceless.

Weller, more famous for his Robocop role, plays Banzai absolutely straight which is just as well. If he lurched into parody or histrionics, the eight wheeled bizarro-pic of Buckaroo would tip and crash onto its side. Richter was smart to keep Weller on the straight and narrow. He is an engaging and oddly plausible Buckaroo. The team are all cast well, with a special nod to tough guy Clancy Brown who's credited by the director as being the heart and soul of the Hong Kong Cavaliers. Jeff Goldblum replays his mannerisms in the guise of a neurosurgeon this time. Make no mistake, he's entertaining but his Goldblumminess (could that ever be a word?) has hold of him here big time. He's indistinguishable from playing James Watson in the BBC's (or rather director Mick Jackson's) Life Story – renamed The Race for the Double Helix for US consumption. Of all people, Welsh actor Ronald Lacey plays the President (after a back operation – or even a rectal one as mooted by 'Reno' on the commentary) suspended in a wire convalescent device. Lacey is playing Orson Welles circa 1940 and does a good job except for the voice which was subsequently overdubbed – another one of executive producer David Begelman's decisions (see notes on the Commentary in the Extras, below).

The effects were not bad at all given the year and the budget. Ships fly convincingly despite the absence of any computer technology. At this point in history (pre-Mac), computer screens are green on black and computer graphics are thin yellow lines that approximate real objects the way that Gerald Scarfe's caricatures approximate real people. The science fiction and comedy elements tend to overwhelm any sense of menace or real drama but that's unimportant in Banzai's case. The movie is a self-confessed oddity, a real space oddity so to speak with a nod to Mr. Bowie. But it's hugely engaging and when was the last time you heard a movie torturer suggest adding more honey? Charming!

Nothing like movie characters going out in style. Over the end credits, the stars return (even the dead one), marching to the very 80s rock drum beat in the L.A. storm drains. For some reason this mini-sequence is utterly enchanting (paid for by the exec.) and the only hic-cough is the brazen announcement of the sequel that never would be. A pity.

sound and vision

The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is clean, colourful and sharp. The deleted scenes are copies from domestic tape so they are drained of colour and scratched. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is also clean and there are few migrations the sub-woofer has to handle but overall, the separation is fine and the rear speakers (though acoustically present) are rarely emphasized. There are no stand-out scenes making use of the rear speakers. The main mix is mostly quietly replicated from the rear for additional atmosphere.

extra features

Alternate Version. This really means the addition of the home movie sequence at the start, a scene that shows a defining moment in Buckaroo's past. With Jamie Leigh Curtis playing Buckaroo's mother (the actress loved what Richter was doing and wanted in), she and Buckaroo's father are killed when the experimental jet car they are piloting explodes.

The Commentary by director W.D. Richter and (if you heard only the commentary) a member of the real Buckaroo's Team, Reno Nevada, is a scream. Nevada, of course, is the writer Earl Mac Rauch, something spoiled by the humourless, literal sleeve notes. Buckaroo Banzai created an alternate world that both director and writer (sorry, Reno) acknowledge as real all throughout their commentary. I don't think I've known a DVD to maintain that kind of pretence as well as these two.

Commentary highlights indicate that the 'factual book' upon which the docu-drama Buckaroo was based was full of stuff not included (something true about the novelisation too according to the user's comments on the IMDb). Apparently Lectroids were at the last supper. The movie's most famous line (I won't repeat it) elicited this comment from the director; "That line needs to be out there…" The best insight to why Buckaroo lived on (on VHS/DVD) is the idea that one fantasises about working in and for a team like Banzai's. To get up each morning to join a team you felt you belonged to, to do good work. Isn't that what we all wish for? Slarek need not answer that question. But I believe that that insight has some broad merit. It was definitely the glue that held Buffy together, that sense of team.

Richter has a last word on his initial champion and then whip cracking exec David Begelman. In an exchange near the end, Banzai originally says the words "I don't know," in a situation of jeopardy. According to the Movie Execs' Bible, heroes are not indecisive in dangerous moments. Richter adds, dripping with sarcasm: "Don't let any idiosyncratic humanity sneak into this thing, crank it out."

Pinky Carruthers' Unknown Facts. Subtitles fire up every now and again, a witty fact filled trough of Banzai trivia apparently maintaining the illusion about the existence of the real Buckaroo Banzai and his institute (where the choice of the 47,000 facts come from).

Alternate Opening With Jamie Leigh Curtis. See ‘extended cut'.

Buckaroo Banzai Declassified (Making of Documentary). A cast and crew background interview snippet show (everyone having a great time) but the most interesting aspect is the longer interview (or presentation) by the director W.D. Richter. He maintains the silly but lovely illusion that Buckaroo Banzai is for real and acts accordingly (props are the real thing etc.) For any other movie this may have come across as tiresome nonsense but here? It's a lot of fun.

Deleted Scenes. 14 deleted scenes, nice and shabby from the original tapes of the cutting copy.

New Jet Car Trailer. A CG rendering of a Banzai Jet Car escaping enemy craft by travelling through an iceberg, and using itself as a rescue craft for a front undercarriageless Space Shuttle.
Enhanced NUON Features. Pretty sure Slarek can help with this. I couldn't get them to play on my non NUON enhanced DVD Player. [A little research suggests that this is a gag extra – it would seem only Buckaroo himself has a NUON enhanced DVD player – Slarek]
Teaser Trailer. Predominantly a re-cut of the storm drain ending intercut with some of the more bizarre images of the film. I would have been in line on day one.
Personal/Character Profiles. As it says.
Jet Car All Access. Info and graphics on one of the significant props in the movie.
Photo Gallery. As that says also. A solid group, not too effusive, not too measly.
Banzai Institute Archives. A whole slew of articles and pictures that maintain the central conceit of this DVD (if it weren't for the packaging giving everything away in three words – the real identity of Reno Nevada).


Great movie, seriously weird and a lovely DVD conceit (the movie actually being a drama-documentary). If you like your movies seriously out there, go for Buckaroo.

Slarek note: If you are a fan of the film (and if you're on this site then there's a good chance you are) then go for this region 1 release over the UK region 2 disk every time. Though the picture and sound are sturdy enough, the UK version is, trailer aside, completely lacking in extras.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

USA 1984
103 mins
W.D. Richter
starring .
Peter Weller
John Lithgow
Ellen Barkin
Jeff Goldblum
Christopher Lloyd
Ronald Lacey

DVD details
region 1
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby Digital 5.1
Director and actor commentary
Making-of documentary
Deleted scenes
New trailer
Teaser trailer
Graphics and props
Photo gallery
Banzai institute archives
review posted
6 March 2005

See all of Camus's reviews