Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Matinee: Buckaroo Banzai (1984)

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

The Trailer:

The P
lot: After failing to gain a foothold on Earth in the 1930s, aliens from an alternate dimension make another bid for invasion. Standing in their way is brain surgeon/rock star/scientist/adventurer Buckaroo Banzai and his team of Blue Blaze Irregulars. Banzai faces the evil Red Lectroids, as well as the more benevolent (though no less dangerous) Black Lectroids - who are willing to destroy the Earth to keep the Red Lectroids in check.

The Heritage: Buckaroo Banzai didn't generate much in the way of merchandise. The Marvel Comics movie adaptation (illustrated by Mark Texeira, who also drew the Swamp Thing movie adaptation for DC) was well received. There was also a strategy game released for personal computers, written by Questprobe's Scott Adams. But that was about it for Buckaroo.

The Response: Tepid. Critics didn't get it, and audiences turned a cold shoulder to it. The end of the film announced a pending sequel that never materialized and, for mainstream audiences, Buckaroo Banzai faded into oblivion. (If you pay attention to the dates, the 71% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes doesn't exactly reflect the consensus of critics in 1984.)
But the movie found a small, rabid fan base that has since generated its own memorabilia. Decades of patches, badges and fan fiction eventually lead to a comicbook series from Moonstone Books.
Other efforts to revive the characters on film have not been as successful. In 1998, Fox made an effort to develop the concept into a TV series, but it was not picked up. A few years later Frank Darabont began development of another Buckaroo Banzai show but it, too, failed.

The Film: Buckaroo Banzai has its charms. At its heart is a terrific idea - a post-modern Doc Savage who's equal parts Leonardo DaVinci, Indiana Jones and Adam Ant.
Unfortunately, the movie is not very good. There's a cheapness to the spectacle that often drags the story do

  • Why does an internationally famous rock star (who has his own comic book, no less) play to a sparse audience in some dingy New Jersey nightclub?
  • The press conference where Banzai first sees the the Lectroids for what they really are was obviously shot at a local hotel convention room that wouldn't have been big enough to hold the average comicbook convention.
  • The President of the United States, who deals with Banzai from a hospital bed, looks like he's being treated in a ramshackle VA hospital that should have been closed years ago.

All of this serves to undermine the "do it yourself" aesthetic of Banzai's science, which is all stitched together from left over garbage like bubble wrap and tin foil. Alone, it's an interesting concept. Dropped into the middle of a film that looks equally hodgepodge, though, and the aesthetic fades into the background.
But I want Buckaroo Banzai to work. Every few years I return to the film, always hoping that I'll connect with it the way the creators want me to. And every time I tune out about half way through the film and fall into a daze.

The Music: Pretty neat. I'm not a fan of using electrical instruments in film scores, though there are exceptions (Blade Runner comes immediately to mind.) But the soundtrack firmly anchors BB in its time without ever coming across as camp. The melodies are solid and the overall texture has a proper B-movie vibe that never falls into actual B-movie mediocrity. And who can forget the closing credits of the film with the cast walking down an abandoned drainage canal in step with the final cue?

BONUS: Here's a download link to an expanded (and unauthorized) version of the soundtrack, courtesy of The Inferno Music Vault.

The Cast: Amazing. I think this is the real reason the fans love Bucakroo Banzai. As the lead, Peter Weller plays Buckaroo with all the earnestness of Adam West and shows he understands the kind of film he's making. Ellen Barker, on the other hand, straddles genuine drama with "damsel in distress" antics and provides a bit of balance to the film. Add in a supporting cast that includes Clancy Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedeya and others and you've got a winning recipe.
The show stealer is, of course, John Lithgow as the deranged Dr. Lizardo. I've got no clue what his inspiration for the role was. At times Lizardo comes across like an Italian version of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. The rest of the time he's just batshit insane.
Not long after Buckaroo Banzai was released, Lithgow got to reprise Lizardo on an episode of Saturday Night Live. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any video of it available online.

End of Line: Buckaroo Banzai ought to work, but doesn't. It's as crazy a movie as you can imagine but falls into incoherency toward the end, and lacks a visual punch to differentiate it from the average television movie. There's a lot to love, but it never really gels.

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