On August 10, 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension made its first appearance in theatres the United States. The film did not do well in its initial box office release, but over the years it has amassed a cult following based on its subsequent releases on home video. In addition, the two graphic novels have been released to follow the story of its protagonist, Buckaroo Banzai.
In an article I published in World Watch One, a Buckaroo Banzai zine, earlier this year, I argued that one of the issues with the film is that it is so different from anything else, people who go in with any expectations (or even none), have a tendency to bounce off the film, wondering what it was, exactly that they had just watched. A second viewing, in which the basic outline of the film is known, however, allows the viewer to fully appreciate the weirdness which interlaces every moment of the film.
At one point in the film a thoroughly confused President Widmark (Ronald Lacey) comments, “Buckaroo, I don’t know what to say. Lectroids? Planet 10? Nuclear extortion? A girl named ‘John’?” which, I imagine, is how many viewers feel about the movie.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension opens with Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) preparing to test drive a Jet Car across the open desert. At the last minute, he veers off course and apparently drives the Jet Car through a mountain, although we later learn that he actually phased the car into the eighth dimension, coming back to our own dimension as he appeared to exit the mountain miles off course. Attached to the bottom of the jet car is a living organism from that other world. The device which allowed Banzai to drive through the mountain is his oscillation overthruster, invented by Banzai and his mentor, Professor Hikita (Robert Ito).
At this point, it should be noted that many of the things that happen in the film that may seem to be of great import, are actually non-sequitors, appearing in the film once, but never being explained or mentioned again. Most famous among these is the appearance of a watermelon in one scene that even one of the characters questions, only to be told an explanation would be forthcoming (it wasn’t, at least not in the film, in reality the watermelon was inserted to see if the studio executives were paying attention to the dailies…they weren’t and the watermelon stayed).
In addition to being a daredevil test driver, Banzai is a brilliant neurosurgeon, the leader of the band the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and the head of the Banzai Institute. His support team is comprised of Reno Nevada (Pepe Serna), Rawhide (Clancy Brown), Pinky Carruthers (Billy Vera), Mrs. Johnson (Laura Harrington), and new acquisition New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum). While this is his core team, he also has the Blue Blaze Irregulars, a fan club-cum-support group scattered across the country. And while the Hong Kong Cavaliers are performing at Artie’s Artery, a dance club, they pick up Penny Priddy (Ellen Burstein), a despondent woman on the verge of suicide who reminds Buckaroo of his dead wife, Peggy.
Of course, having this group of random, if colorful, characters hardly makes a movie, so there needs to be a plot, or at least some semblance of one, as well as villains. It turns out that long ago, the earth was invaded by red Lectroids, aliens, who want to get home to Planet 10. These creatures all have taken on the first name of John, so John Bigbooté (Christopher Lloyd) and John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli) are among the Lectroid’s leadership with Lord John Whorfin having taken over part of the mental capacity of the brilliant scientist Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow), who did early experiments with Professor Nikita and Masada Banzai (James Saito), Buckaroo’s father, whose scenes were cut from the final film.
The Lectroids are actually divided into two camps. The red Lectroids have invaded the Earth and the black Lectroids are in orbit above the planet, giving Buckaroo Banzai a chance to resolve issues with the red Lectroids before stepping in to handle it on their own with the understanding that the black Lectroids, while sympathetic to humans, won’t be quite as strategic in handling the problem of the red Lectroids as we might like.
While everyone does a great job in the film, Lithgow really steals the show playing the possessed Lizardo/John Whorfin hybrid. Lithgow does an excellent job playing two roles in a single character and he seems to have taken every scene stealing, over-the-top performance and combined them into one role, borrowing his thick Italian accent to deliver nonsensical lines from Roberto Terminelli, an Italian tailor he found on the studio lot.
The one place the movie doesn’t quite live up to its promise is its special effects, relying as it does on the state of the art from 1984 and a studio that wasn’t willing to put all the resources necessary behind the movie. The result is the movie’s climax, in which Buckaroo Banzai takes to the skies to attempt to shoot down the red Lectroid’s mother ship doesn’t have as much emotional heft as it might otherwise have since the special effects are so unsophisticated.
If you’re looking for a linear film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension is probably not the movie you’ll want to watch. If you want to see a gonzo pulp adventure that never takes itself too serious, that has wonderfully quotable lines and slogans, and strong performances by an all-star cast, you should give the film a chance, or possibly two, the first to try to understand what is happening in a narrative way, the second to simply appreciate what the film actually is.
And oddly, the credits scene, which simply has the cast walking through the Los Angeles River to a techno beat is riveting and leaves the viewer with a positive feeling.
On November 3, 2021 Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League, the sequel promised during the end credits, finally appeared, not as a film, but rather as a novel by the film’s original writer, Earl Mac Rauch.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Youtube, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, and AMC On Demand but must be purchased/rented on all of those services. DVDs and BluRay editions can be purchased.
Steven H Silver is a seventeen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology, Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings, was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.