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  • Ravi Swami

"The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension", Dir: W.D Richter, 1984

Apple TV's search function includes a list of other titles at the bottom of the screen once you have settled on a film, very often with a very tenuous connection to your choice guided by genre or actors featured, or your previous viewing choices.

After having idly scanned what is available and not finding anything I wanted to watch particularly, I somehow ended up with a choice of either "Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow" (2005) or "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension" (1984), which for the sake of brevity going forward I will call simply "Buckaroo Banzai".

Both films are favourites for various reasons, mostly because they refer back to older film serials like "Flash Gordon" etc, though "Buckaroo Banzai" is very much rooted in 80's pop culture rather than being especially "retro".

In this curious face-off of films - I sat for a while chewing over which film to watch before making a decision - "Buckaroo Banzai" came out the winner only because I fancied seeing something light, or at least that was my impression of a film that I had probably last watched on a VHS cassette when it came out in the mid-1980's.

I remember enjoying it and it's no exaggeration to say that it influenced a lot of ideas that I have had for stories since, along with other films from the period like John Carpenter's "Big Trouble In Little China" - something so utterly 'out-there" that it defies classification or breaks new ground in various ways.

"Buckaroo Banzai" is definitely very odd - the titular character played by Peter Weller is of mixed American Japanese heritage (immediately interesting!), is a brain surgeon and an all-round genius who has developed a jet car with the aid of a Japanese scientist, Dr Hikita, that can pierce the veil of our reality and enter "The 8th Dimension" of space time. He has a dedicated bunch of followers called the "Hong Kong Cavaliers" who also a double up as a very 80's style rock band, complete with trendy hair styles and sharp suits with padded shoulders, with Banzai as lead singer.

The plot concerns Dr Hikita's former associate and co-developer of the "oscillation overthruster", Dr Emilio Lizardo - and played in a totally over the top fashion by John Lithgow - at the start of the film interned in a lunatic asylum following an experiment where the device plunged him briefly into the 8th dimension and driving him insane in the process, and Lizardo's attempts to get his hands on the device to allow hostile aliens from "Planet 10" called "Red Lectroids" to enter our universe.

Coming to the aid of Banzai in his mission to keep the device out of Lizardo's hands and averting an alien invasion are "Black Lectroids", also from Planet 10 and who park their enormous ship in Earth's orbit in order to despatch "John Parker", a Black Lectroid who assumes the form of a dreadlock-wearing black man, to act as their agent on Earth.

The Red and Black Lectroids have been at war for generations and having defeated the Red Lectroids and subsequently banishing them to the 8th dimension, the Black Lectroids are eager to stop them in their tracks. There is clearly a very obvious subtext here about conflicts between races here on Earth and this is one the interesting aspects of the film, especially since in the middle is Banzai, someone of mixed race heritage.

Aside from Weller as Banzai, the cast is made up of a roll-call of both younger and more experienced 80's actors like John Lithgow,Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown and Ellen Barkin, actors who never seemed to be out of work during that fertile period in a succession of iconic films that also helped define the 1980's cinematic landscape.

As the crazy plot unfurled at a breakneck pace I have to admit that I soon found it difficult to follow since I think one of the films' weaknesses is in trying to shoehorn in as many references to what now, from the perspective of the 21st Century, might be considered borderline scientific speculation and conspiracy theories - multiverses, quantum theory, reptilian aliens from another dimension, secret scientific "Black Projects" and so on - all well and good but the writer/s of the film pour it on and as a viewer you are assailed by these from every direction, whereas a more sensible approach would have been to focus on one idea, eg the "8th Dimension", and leave it there.

As the first film in an intended series (the last image in the slideshow is a poster for the un-made sequel announced during the end credits) - very much de rigueur in the 80's following on from the success of "Star Wars" before it - there are many instances of visual gags such as "Buckaroo Banzai" comics and even a video game that suggest that in the world of the film, Banzai is at the heart of a multi-million dollar spinning enterprise that enables him to pursue his scientific interests without government interference.

Similarly, his oddball gang of helpers, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, are free to conduct their activities in aiding Banzai, and while individually interesting as characters, it soon becomes difficult to focus on the plot when all these viewpoints are thrown into the mix and you try and remember who is who or even if they have any pivotal role to play beyond possibly being subjects for an action-figure range should the film prove to be a huge enough success.

That said, I like the films' crazy level of ambition and what is more impressive is how actors of colour have equal weight and importance in a way that was very unusual for a commercial "popcorn" film of the period - in fact it's this very aspect that may have determined its' box-office success or failure, especially in America.

In many ways it is a film ahead of the curve on many levels even if it fails to hit the mark completely. The visual effects are as good as anything similar of the period and since my personal preoccupations at the time hinged on visual effects I was very likely drawn to the film for that reason and prepared to overlook any flaws in the narrative that now seem very obvious, especially in the context of my recent broader viewing choices.

Some glaring weaknesses have to do with the cast and performances - everyone looks like they are having fun and perhaps a little too much - Lithgow's supposed Italian accent veers between cartoon Russian villain and something unidentifiable, for example, alongside channeling "Rotwang" from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", complete with a shock of unruly hair - and for the rest they reel off lines in an almost mechanical way.

Having watched it again it seems very clear that the writers were referencing an earlier template, (besides the stated intention of being inspired by Asian martial arts fantasy films,though martial arts as such is absent in the film)) - that of "Doc Savage", a pulp adventurer who appeared in several popular novelizations in the 1930' and 40's and was a template for "Indiana Jones" - often depicted on pulp paperback covers with a shirt in tatters that could barely contain his toned and muscular physique, and sporting a severe blonde haircut suggestive of a Nazi "Übermensch".

The Doc Savage stories - later turned into film by George Pal entitled "Doc Savage - Man of Bronze" - detailed the adventures of a similar scientific genius and polymath who had a bunch of followers called "The Fabulous Five" who accompanied him on his adventures of derring-do and it makes you wonder if, rather in the way that George Lucas was denied the film rights to "Flash Gordon" that inspired him to write "Star Wars", the writers of "Buckaroo Banzai" were doing the same thing, which in itself is no bad thing.

In their version, any dubious references to supermen is replaced by someone of mixed race ,Caucasian and Asiatic, as the central hero, added to a multicultural cast that makes it very different to anything that was being made at the time.

Buckaroo Banzai, in typical 80's fashion, like hairstyles and padded shoulders, takes these ideas to the next level, perhaps even into the fictional "8th Dimension", not stopping at the "Fabulous Five" but going even further, as can be seen in the closing moments of the film where we hear the "Buckaroo Banzai March", a jaunty piece of electronica that has made the film memorable if not for its' convoluted plot, as he is joined by an expanding number of quirky cohorts in a triumphant walk across the iconic Sepulveda Dam in the San Fernando Valley.


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