As I said last week, I was a little worried that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai would go right over my head like it did when I was a kid, but I forged ahead, spurred on by the enthusiastic response that the film received during a recent screening at the New Beverly. The verdict? Not bad. It didn't go over my head, but it's a film that you have to pay keen attention to or else you can forget about being able to piece together the plot. One missed line of dialogue, and you might find yourself completely in the dark.
The film is overstuffed with ideas (and characters), and key information is sometimes tossed out in a mumbled line from actor Peter Weller, during moments that may not seem particularly important. In a funny way, that's almost part of Buckaroo Banzai's charm. Most films that aspire to feel like an instant cult classic will often beat you over the head with how wacky and offbeat they are. Banzai's off-the-cuff approach is like a sequel to a popular series that you're already familiar with. It assumes you know who Perfect Tommy is or what happened to Banzai's wife or why Banzai has a network of volunteer crimefighters.
The unfortunate thing is that director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch thought that audiences in 1984 would come along for the ride and jump in to a story that feels like you've already missed the beginning and the end. They didn't. The film was released during the same Summer as Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and was crushed at the box office, earning a measly $6 million.
I don't think it was just that stiff competition that kept audiences at bay. Buckaroo Banzai is not particularly hilarious for a comedy, nor is it very exciting for an action-adventure film. What it excels at is reveling in its own off-beat universe, and if the world of Buckaroo Banzai doesn't interest you, then the film is a complete bust. If you can immediately buy, with a completely straight face, that the hero of the film is a neurosurgeon and a theoretical physicist and a rock-and-roll frontman and a comic book star and the subject of an arcade game and the inspiration for a network of like-minded, hero-worshipping civilians...well, then you'll probably buy into the rest of it.
Earl Mac Rauch started several feature-length screenplays featuring a character named "Buckaroo Bandy" (Richter urged him to change the name to "Banzai"), and as the pile of discarded screenplays grew, so too did Buckaroo's cast of characters and universe. What ended up on the screen is a fast-paced, somewhat confusing, light-hearted sci-fi serial in the guise of a feature film comedy.
Are there too many characters?
Yes, if only because we don't ever get a real idea of who they all are. In the lead roles, we have Weller as Banzai, Ellen Barkin as Penny Priddy (the separated-at-birth twin sister of Banzai's deceased wife -- a plot point that never makes much sense), John Lithgow as Dr. Lizardo, transformed into Lord Whorfin, leader of the 8th Dimension's Red Lectroids, and John Bigboote, a Lectroid played by Christopher Lloyd.
The dual nature of the roles of Lithgow and Barkin already complicate the massive cast. Add to that Banzai's band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers (Perfect Tommy, Reno, and Rawhide), along with their new member New Jersey, Banzai's mentor Dr. Hikita, Black Lectroid John Parker, Blue Blaze Irregulars Scooter and Casper Lindley, and Red Lectroids John O'Connor and John Gomez, and you have more characters than the film can possibly bear.
Can a film with the character's name in the title still be an ensemble film? Buckaroo Banzai makes a stab at it for better or worse. With so many cast members, you can't expect to get to know them all very well, but by spreading the action around, you never really learn much about Banzai either. He's a man defined only by his own talents, and, apart from one scene where he interrupts a nightclub gig with an impromptu cover of "Since I Don't Have You", you rarely get a glimpse of his personality.
Can a filmmaker create a cult film intentionally, or does that defy the very definition of "cult"?
I can't guess what W.D. Richter's intent was; I can only judge the final film. There are definite signs that Buckaroo Banzai was aspiring to an immediate cult-cool status upon release. Inexplicable decisions within the film will either add to your viewing experience or remove you completely. Why do all the good Black Lectroids appear to be Jamaican? Why is Jeff Goldblum dressed like a dime store cowboy? Why is John Whorfin the only Lectroid who never appears as a Lectroid, even after Buckaroo gains the ability to see them in their true state. What exactly is the living ball that Banzai plucks from the underside of his jet car? Did a sequel really seem like an inevitability (the film ends with a title card for Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League)?
Here's a case of a film that seemed to be a mainstream studio stab at a cult audience, only to miss the mainstream target, and eventually gain that cult later, on home video. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is energetic and odd, but I'm more impressed by the overall creativity on display than I am with the film itself.
What did you think?
(You can view Peter Weller's Q & A from the New Beverly screening in three parts here -- Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3)