This movie is one of the great unknown left field wonders of all time. People who love this movie are my friends, people who don’t, have something wrong with them. If you are lucky enough not to have seen this yet, search it out but make sure that you sit down in the mood to pay attention because it is a weird ride. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension came out in 1984 near the end of Summer in August. I don’t think there was a great deal of confidence in the movie because the release was relatively small. Last night at the podcast that we attended, someone threw out the number $600,000. I am not sure if that was for opening weekend or the full run. Actually I checked, that was just the first weekend, and it was from under 300 theaters. Once it was finished in theaters it had brought in about six million by December (remember, in those days a movie might stay on screen for several months, not just a couple of weeks.)
I saw this with my friend Dan Hasegawa on opening weekend and the next weekend, I took my wife. Both of them enjoyed it nearly as much as I did, and that says something because they do not have very similar taste. From your opening moments, you know that something about this movie is just different. The music is a little different, and the lighting of the film seems natural but maybe a little over saturated at times. There is nothing particularly distinctive about the camera work, if feels flat and static for most of the movie. When we get a chance to see anything that could charitably be described as a “special effect”, it is so basic and down to earth it is hard to imagine. Compared to all the CGI effects that you see in even the cheapest of movies today, Buckaroo looks primitive, and that is one of the reasons it is loved by those of us who drink the Kool Aid for this movie. The flying saucers of the aliens seem to be sea shells, and the internal layout of both Buckaroos campus and Yoyodyne Propulsion, the headquarters for the rouge Red Lectroids, appear to be an endless series of hallways and tunnels, most of which were likely part of a DWP facility in the Valley. Duct tape and heating and cooling conduit pipes are used to make the environment otherworldly. The set decorator for this movie must have had a budget equal to an early episode of Trading Spaces.
So if the movie is shot in a non-dynamic manner, and the effects are chintzy, and the music is off, what is the attraction? THE SCRIPT!!!. This is one of the most logically off the wall concepts ever committed to film. The dialogue is a hoot and it is filled with memorable one sentence jokes and comments that stick in your head for no particular reason. “It’s not my goddamn planet. Understand, monkey boy?”, who writes stuff like that? “Lithium is no longer available on credit.” Someone was warped and saw that if you can get people to pay attention to the actors and the dialogue, the crappy sets don’t really matter. There was no way they were going to compete with the sci-fy extravaganzas of the day. Even the Star Trek Movies which were done on modest budgets were going to make this look like a weak attempt, so they shoot off in a different direction altogether. These are not visitors not just from another planet but from another dimension. Their presence here was covered up by Orson Wells with the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Buckaroo is a neurosurgeon, zen master, rock star with his own fan clubs and comic books. The movie seems to be one of a series of stories that have been told with these characters and they are just dropped whole into the story without much background. Peter Weller is so dry, you could pour water on him and steam would come up. His delivery rarely sounds stressed or excited. Everyone else is over the top and playing with stereotypes.
Oh, and speaking of over the top, this movie has the greatest mad scientist, evil villain, John Lithgow performance ever. His look is insane, his accent is ridiculous, and his eyes will haunt you with how crazy good he can be with his facial expressions. I was laughing every time he was on screen. He says some of the most arcane insults and orders to everyone around in such a way that he cant help being the center of attention. He chews the scenery, then does a handstand and waves his arms over his head to say “Look at me!”. And he sells every single minute of it. This was a comic performance for the ages. Credit the dialogue, make up and costumes, but don’t ever forget the actor who was possessed by Lord John Whorfin.
The event we attended was also a live podcast featuring stand-up and quick-draw improv comic Greg Proops. I found his material before the show to be very entertaining although he wanders off on tangents so often that it would be easy to lose interest. After the movie he riffed on the film even more, however it did take a negative political turn and you could feel the wind come out of his sails. No matter how much louder he got or how emphatic his language was, he strayed away from the funny over to the political at a substantial cost to the audience and the event. The event was not up yet but it should appear at his site on i tunes “The Smartest Man in the World” . Lots of F-bombs and a load of bombast toward the end, but 80% entertaining.