It’s been 30 years since moviegoers first watched Buckaroo Banzai, famed neurosurgeon, particle physicist, test-pilot, comic-book hero, and lead singer of a hard-rocking band of scientists called the Hong Kong Cavaliers, save the Earth from the evil Doctor Lizardo/Lord John Whorfan and the Red Lectroids from the 8th Dimension. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension received mostly mixed to positive reviews since it’s release on August 15, 1984, and has remained a much-loved film that has quickly attained cult status. But trying to explain the plot is an exercise in patience.
If you’re new to Team Banzai, it goes a little something like this. Multi-talented Buckaroo Banzai tests a new device called an oscillation overthruster that will break the dimensional wall. The overthruster works and Banzai indeed travels to the 8th Dimension. Doctor Emilio Lizardo, who is confined in an asylum in New Jersey, hears of Banzai’s success and breaks out, intent on getting Banzai’s device.
After a similar experiment in 1938, Lizardo broke the wall and was stuck there long enough to have his mind taken over by Lord John Whorfin, leader of a race of alien reptiles called Red Lectroids who were banished to the 8th Dimension by the Black Lectroids after a war on Planet 10.
Now, Lizardo wants the overthruster to free his banished people to wage a final war on Planet 10 and the Black Lectroids. Humorously enough, humans see the Red Lectroids as white men in suits, while the Black Lectroids appear as Rastafarians. The Red Lectroids landed on Earth in 1938, using Orson Welles’ Halloween War of the Worlds broadcast as cover, while they used Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems as a means to devise a way to free their comrades from imprisonment. And it’s up to Buckaroo and the Hong Kong Cavaliers to stop Lizardo and save the day.
Based on the book by Earl MacRauch, Buckaroo Banzai easily rode the wave of revitalized 80s science-fiction to success, and still has that New Wave vibe and still just radiates coolness. And the film is such a hodgepodge of science fiction, satire, Cold War paranoia, trans-dimensional aliens who are all named John, an experimental watermelon, and race relations that it’s like a movie version of a Jackson Pollock painting. And therein, one might suppose, lies its charm. It’s packed to the seams with an ’80s ensemble cast, consisting of Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, and Ellen Barkin. Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli are hilarious as Lizardo’s Red Lectroid heavies who bicker like a married couple, and Ronald Lacey, who played the villain Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, plays a United States president strapped in a gyroscope.
One has to throw a shout-out to the costume and effects departments: kudos for everything from Jeff Goldblum’s spaghetti western togs, to the coral-themed coolness of the alien ships. Krypton Radio’s own president and station manager Gene Turnbow had the opportunity to work on some of the props.
“I was working for Modern Props at the time, which was (and still is) a prop company in Los Angeles that specializes in futuristic and fantasy props,” Turnbow said. “We had the contract to make several props for Buckaroo Banzai, and my project was a sort of techno-punk cell-phone-like thing in a yellow anvil case. It looks something like a cross between an antique cell phone and a suitcase detonator. It appears in one shot about a third of the way through the film, as an incidental prop sitting open on the floor. My job as the display electronics guy was to build all the flashy blinky lights for the devices we built and rented out.”
So, is the film for everyone? No. Its unabashed and unapologetic zaniness will likely elicit no end of “Huh?” and plenty of face-palming and head-scratching. But it has a cornucopia of great one-liners, and one of the best closing credit sequences in any film ever. For some films, a densely-packed, nigh-impenetrable plot like Buckaroo Banzai‘s would have been akin to lining up for a firing squad. But in this case, it merely served to elevate Buckaroo Banzai onto a high place on science-fiction fandom’s mantle.