Illustration: Adeline Pericart
There are nights when you look through your DVD collection and none of your favourite films float your boat – what you need is some serious Trash – the black sheep of your collection; something so bad that makes you feel good. Warning: to appreciate these films booze is recommended. And so over the next couple of weeks the Film Ireland collection of filmaholics shed their dignity, hide their shame and open their bins to reveal their trashiest films in the latest installment of…
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
‘… Buckaroo and his band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, must save the world from an alien race called the Red Lectoids, all of whom are named ‘John’ … ’
There’s an episode of the US cartoon comedy series Family Guy in which Peter Griffin, facing certain death along with his entire family, confesses that he did not care for The Godfather. Outraged, the Griffins demand he explain himself, to which he replies: ‘It insists upon itself.’
While The Godfather is hardly a good example, it is fair to say that some perfectly well made films are damaged by ‘insisting upon themselves’ – succumbing to the self-importance of filmmakers or the laboured subtext of writers. For a next-to-great film, insisting upon itself can be fatal.
The opposite is true when the film is actually dreadful. The trashiest of films can be lifted high by ‘insisting’ that they are something great; part of something bigger than just the reels of film. And there is no finer example of this phenomenon than The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a spoof sci-fi from 1984 that is, on paper, pure and utter nonsense.
The film opens practically in medias res following a brief Star Wars-ian title card that gives simultaneously too little and too much information. Buckaroo Banzai is the world’s greatest over-achiever; he’s a rocket scientist, neurosurgeon and sometime action hero. Plus he’s in a band! He also has a dramatic story of lost love that is never fully explained, only referenced when he falls in love with his lost love’s twin sister (yes, it is like we missed the first film in a trilogy).
So while testing a new rocket car (quite literally a car with rockety bits stuck on the back) Buckaroo achieves a speed that allows him to travel through the 8th Dimension, an other-wordly lightshow of a place. On returning to our world, he discovers an alien creature has attached itself to his rocket car. Shortly afterwards, this creature is never mentioned again.
A somewhat related plot begins in which Buckaroo and his band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, must save the world from an alien race called the Red Lectoids, all of whom are named ‘John’ (I swear to you I am not making this up). Further nonsense ensues.
Despite the fact that it juggles plot strands like knives and crams in additional sci-fi shenanigans when the film is reaching bursting point, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is inherently watchable. It doesn’t just commit to its silliness, it forces you to enjoy it.
The style is straight-up 1980s sci-fi action movie. The budget is surprisingly impressive for a film that could never have been a success; although the strings do show, especially in the scene where the heroine is ‘tortured’ by an alien creature that barely moves. But there are a few nifty sets, especially the spaceships, and the hologram sequence looks surprisingly good for 1984.
And then there’s the cast. Buckaroo is played in one of the most deadpan performances ever by Peter ‘RoboCop’ Weller. ‘Excuse me, is somebody out there not having a good time?’ he asks a crowd at a gig when one person fails to applaud his music – yet in some manner he’s almost threatening the audience of the film. Amongst his crew is a Jewish cowboy from New Jersey named New Jersey, who looks strangely like a young Jeff Goldbl- holy crap it’s Jeff Goldblum! He plays the role as he plays all his bit parts; blissfully unaware of the silliness around him or the fact he’s wearing a neckerchief. In addition to Christopher Lloyd as an evil henchman, the main villain is played by John Lithgow. Using an accent that ricochets wildly between Italian and Russian, he hams it up more than John Lithgow ever has – and if you’ve ever seen 3rd Rock From the Sun, you’ll know that’s a lot.
There’s simply no way of making it clear how bonkers this film is. At one point is seems to be implying that Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast was a real event, at another it appears to be stealing ideas from John Carpenter’s They Live, a film that hadn’t even been made yet!
Without a doubt however, the film’s greatest achievement is during its finale, when the entire cast assembles behind Buckaroo to march heroically – a sequence recycled by Wes Anderson in his 2004 movie The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which curiously also starred Jeff Goldblum…).
At the close, a title card reads ‘Buckaroo Banzai will return in Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.’ It never happened of course. But with its cult following growing by the day and most of the cast still going strong, there’s always hope that a film that seemed too silly to get made in the first place might get the sequel it probably doesn’t really deserve, but still should have.