The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Starring: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Jonathan Banks, with a cameo from Yakov Smirnoff
Grade: C+

If you want to know how to bring a comic book to life in film, look no further than the pure chaos that ensues in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Funnily enough, it’s not even based on a comic book, but it’s style and outright spirit is exactly that.


Starting with a descriptive caption to open the film, we are told about the famous Buckaroo Banzai (Weller). Born to an American mother and Japanese father, Banzai became a brilliant neurosurgeon but became dissatisfied with a life devoted solely to medicine. To make up for this, he roamed the planet studying martial arts and particle physics. Over time and because of his adventures, he was able to collect a team of scientists and friends who are referred to as “The Hong Kong Cavaliers”. Now, with a jet car he helped make that is ready for a “bold assault on the dimension barrier”, Buckaroo Banzai faces the greatest challenge of his life. Unbeknownst to him and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, an alien spacecraft above Earth has been keeping an eye on their every move.

On some military base, everyone is preparing to test the jet car with an “oscillation overthruster”, including Buckaroo Banzai’s mentor Dr. Tohichi Hikita (Robert Ito). However, an officer tells another that Buckaroo Banzai is still at the hospital and accuse him of having cold feet to Secretary of Defense McKinley (Matt Clark). Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith) of the Hong Kong Cavaliers tells fellow member Reno (Pepe Serna) to go see what’s taking Banzai so long. At the hospital, Banzai is actually performing surgery alongside fellow doctor Sidney Zweibel (Goldblum). During the surgery, Banzai is giving Sidney advice on how to approach certain aspects of the procedure. Explained by another member of the Hong Kong Cavaliers in Rawhide (Clancy Brown), Banzai is using a laser to vaporize a pineal tumor without damaging the quadrigeminal plate. The subcutaneous microphone Rawhide is holding is going to allow the patient to transmit verbal instructions to his own brain. As this happens, Banzai suggests Sidney join his team full-time and Sidney is excited about this opportunity of a lifetime. Then, Banzai asks if he can sing. Sidney says, “a little”, but he can also dance.

Looks like we got another member of the Hong Kong Cavaliers.

Soon after, Buckaroo Banzai arrives to the testing site via helicopter. He goes straight into the jet car to test it. Before he puts on his helmet, he puts on this Japanese headband. Banzai goes about the test but veers off course on purpose while going at ridiculous speeds. As the car starts to smoke up and the control center is screaming at him to break, he shoots this laser from his car into the mountain range ahead. Next, he goes through the mountain and into the 8th Dimension, seeing a blue and white atmosphere and an unrealized reality of sorts with random, alien-like figures coming across his windshield. Quickly following this, he pops out of the dimension, back into the regular world, and out of the mountain on the other side. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief knowing he’s alive. Inspecting the car, Banzai notices a clear goo on his windshield. Seeing this, he checks under the car and finds a brain-like specimen attached to the vehicle that he brought back from the 8th Dimension. At the Trenton Home for the Criminally Insane, Dr. Emilio Lizardo (Lithgow) watches the Hong Kong Cavaliers and Hikita talk about the successful test and the oscillation overthruster on the news and is furious. As he grabs some device he made from his pigsty of a room, we hear the news report on the TV say they were able to break the dimension barrier. Buckaroo Banzai himself said that it was exactly like what Hikita experienced in 1938 through the overthruster he and Lizardo put together through spare parts in a laboratory at Princeton. Just then, Lizardo uses his device to shock himself and relive what happened in 1938.

This is where a young Lizardo and Hikita worked together on the overthruster with some help and set up a car to shoot Lizardo through the small circle they had made up for the opening of the dimension barrier. However, after toasting with their helpers, Lizardo jumps the gun and starts driving the mini-car along the track before everything is ready. He smashes into the small hole of the dimension but gets trapped halfway through. The upper half of his body makes it, but he’s attacked by aliens. At the same time, his legs are still in the regular world and are flailing for help. He’s rescued and the hole is closed, but Lizardo’s personality changes into a madman because of his exposure. He attacks the two underlings in front of Hikita and runs away.

Jumping out of the flashback, Lizardo gets some idea while in his dwelling of a room and writes something on the wall. A sarcastic guard (Banks) walks in and asks if he’s Albert Einstein today, but he replies that he’s “Lord John Whorfin”. The guard delivers a package of food to him and says he’s taking his TV because he’s been using too much power. Lizardo isn’t worried and says he’s going home tomorrow anyway, with his homemade overthruster. The guard just laughs it off. Elsewhere in the backstage of a club, Hikita tells Banzai that he’s done an analysis on the specimen he pulled off the car. Before they can talk any further, the promoter of the club demands they go and get on stage.

If you didn’t know, along with being a group of scientists and crimefighters, Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers are also rockstars.

They get on stage and start jamming out to an excited crowd, but Banzai abruptly stops the performance because he senses someone crying. He’s right, and it’s some random woman sitting down named Penny Priddy (Barkin). Banzai has Perfect Tommy give her a mic, and they put a spotlight on her as he converses with her from the stage. She says she’s lost every dollar she’s had and doesn’t have a place to live. He tries to console her and sings a somber song to her on the piano. The rest of the group is confused by Banzai’s actions. As this happens, Penny puts a gun to her head and is about to kill herself. At the same time, a waiter picks something up from the ground. When he gets up, he bumps her arm on accident and she shoots in the air, alerting everyone to her having a gun. She’s taken away as the Hong Kong Cavaliers draw their guns on her. Despite this, Banzai tries to get the guards to let her go. Back at the mental institution, Lizardo is out of his cell and tries to answer the phone. The guard asks him if he’s going to the moon, but he tells him “Planet 10” without hesitation. He tells the operator he wants to talk to John Bigbooté (Lloyd) at Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems in Grover’s Mill. Then, Lizardo tells the operator that it’s John Whorfin calling. The guard tries to get him off the phone, but Lizardo kills him. Unaware of the news, Bigbooté answers. Lizardo tells him Banzai and Hikita have figured out how to break the dimension barrier and to prepare for his return. He tells Bigbooté to meet him at the factory and to take their overthruster and Hikita too. Promising to get his own ride, Lizardo escapes the mental facility.

In the Hong Kong Cavaliers’ tour bus, the others agree that Penny looks eerily like Banzai’s ex-wife Peggy, though he doesn’t say anything as he’s practicing some samurai ritual in the corner of the bus. Rawhide enters the room and tells Banzai the news of Lizardo escaping the mental facility and how no one knows where he’s at. The group is then told of an electrostatic disturbance over Connecticut. Banzai deduces it could be above-ground atomic testing in China, or even sunspot activity, but he’s not sure. They show up to pick up Sidney, who’s dressed like a cowboy and waiting outside the New Brunswick Police Station. As Sidney gets off on the wrong foot with Reno and Perfect Tommy, Banzai goes in the station to see Penny in her jail cell. After conversing a little, Banzai clearly sees something in her and knows she’s no killer. He admits she reminds him of his lost love and guesses she’s from Cody, Wyoming. She was born there but doesn’t know much about her family because she was adopted. She also says she had a feeling that there was another part of her somewhere. Seeing how his instinctual response was true, he has her freed to the confusion of Perfect Tommy.

Secretary of Defense McKinley, Banzai, Penny, and the rest of the group hold a press conference. Banzai says that thirty years ago to this day, his parents and doctors Sandra and Masado Banzai, gave their lives to trying to figure out how to contact alien life forms. However, it’s not an alien planet. He thinks they’re here. As he talks, we cut back and forth to see aliens on a spacecraft above Earth listening to Banzai’s press conference. Banzai mentions how it could be in a mountain perhaps, referencing what he did to open the movie. Hikita talks about the creation of the oscillation overthruster and how it systematically reorders matter by annihilating electrons, positrons, etc. Out of nowhere, Penny pipes in and somehow has this moment where she realizes it consists of oppositely charged particles colliding and how they blow each other up in a burst of energy like a tiny “big bang”. Penny sees her outburst caused a mini-stir, so she talks herself down. Not shying away from this, Banzai encourages her by agreeing. Next, he talks about how you could technically crush the mountain down to sand particles to sift through what he travelled through, but they would never get the living organism that he brought back, proving their device works. He never actually went “through” the mountain. It was only a vessel to travel dimensions. Two guys in particular in the press conference are taking notice of Banzai and the overthruster. Just then, Banzai gets a call from President of the United States Widmark (Ronald Lacey) and has to exit the conference. On the way out, he tells Penny to hold onto the overthruster with a smile.

Banzai is taken to a telephone booth in the building but there’s no response on the other end of the phone. It’s actually the aliens in the spacecraft above Earth, not the President. They send a shock through the phone. As a result, Banzai is electrocuted. The other Cavaliers with him are shocked too when Banzai tries to touch them. Immediately, Banzai grabs a pen and writes an equation on his hand and yells for them to get back to the conference room. In space, the aliens send a pod to Earth, as Banzai enters the conference room frantically and calls out the two members of the press as aliens from the 8th Dimension. He’s the only one who can see how they truly look like. Once he outs them, the two run as Banzai refers to them as Lectroids. At the same time, a disguised Bigbooté puts a gun on Hikita, so Penny quickly grabs the overthruster. Bigbooté shoots Reno and escapes with Hikita as a hostage. Meanwhile, Banzai steals a motorcycle and chases after the Lectroids in a van. Elsewhere, two hunters are in a forest and see the alien pod in the sky and shoot it down. They go to investigate it. Inside the Lectroid van, Bigbooté drives the other two agents, and they are excited to finally get off of Earth now that they have Hikita. However, one of the agents notifies Bigbooté of the arrival of the other pod, so they know they’re in trouble and follow the coordinates to go after it. Still in pursuit, Banzai’s motorcycle is hit by their van, and he crashes in the forest.

Back with the hunters, they poke at the spacecraft in the tree with a branch, and it rolls down and almost hits them. An alien pops out, but he looks human to them, though he falls and hits his head on the ground. The alien dies and starts to reveal its true look to them. As they guess what planet he’s from and find the latest Buckaroo Banzai comic book by him, another human-looking alien sneaks out of the pod with a box and runs away. Recovering from his crash in the forest, Banzai reports back to Rawhide to check out everything they can on Yoyodyne Prepulsion Systems. Rawhide lets him know that the Lectroids have the professor and they both presume Lizardo was the one with the gun. They also note that the Lectroids have the overthruster. As a cop helps the two hunters with the alien body, the Lectroids pull up in their human forms to inspect the body and act as workers for Yoyodyne. They say they are John Bigbooté, John Gomez (Hedaya), and John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli). Banzai sneaks over and breaks into the van as this is going on. He breaks open the crate and finds Hikita. Hikita tries to hug him but Banzai shocks him and falls back. Meanwhile, Rawhide tells Perfect Tommy to go on the Marconi radio and see if they have any Blue Blaze operatives who can come in to help. Junior Blue Blaze and child Scooter Lindley (Damon Hines) answers the distress call, alerts his father Casper (Bill Henderson), and they head out. Back in the van, Banzai lets Hikita know about how he can see the aliens from the 8th Dimension, and it was given to him by the formula on his hand by that phony phone call from the President.

It gives off some electrochemical message that allows him to see who they truly are, “Lectroids from Planet 10 by way of the 8th Dimension”.

He tells Hikita to go back to the laboratory on his motorcycle and start working on the formula and synthesize it. Hikita asks for the formula, so Banzai gives him a copy by licking his hand and applying it directly to Hikita’s forehead. With electricity following the action, Hikita now has the power to see the Lectroids as well. The rest of the Hong Kong Cavaliers and Penny get back to base at the Banzai Institute. The Lectroids try to break into the pod, and the one alien inside is given the orders to kill himself from the spacecraft above Earth. The alien reports to them that the one guy died, but John Parker (Carl Lumbly) was able to escape and hopes he will get their message to Buckaroo Banzai. The cop tries to stop the Lectroids, but they spring into action and attack the cop and the two hunters. John O’Connor finds Banzai, but Banzai hits him with a low blow and books it. They all chase Banzai as the pod explodes. Thanfully, Banzai is saved just in time by a rope ladder attached to a helicopter piloted by Casper and Scooter.

Now, Buckaroo Banzai, Hikita, Penny, Scooter, Casper, and the Hong Kong Cavaliers work together to find out what they are up against with these aliens from Planet 10. Learning from the holographic message by Black Lectroid leader John Emdall (Rosalind Cash) delivered from the box from John Parker, they all learn that due to Banzai’s successful overthruster, they have unintentionally helped Lord John Whorfin, a Red Lectroid described as being as evil as Hitler. Whorfin and his followers were overthrown on Planet 10 and as punishment, they were trapped in the formless void of the 8th Dimension. Emdall says that if Whorfin (who took over the mind of Lizardo after the incident in 1938) were to steal his overthruster, they will have no choice but to disrupt worldwide electronic communications and fire a particle beam weapon from their airspace to Smolensk in the U.S.S.R. Basically, the Kremlin would interpret this as an American first strike and trigger a potential nuclear war. Emdall gives them the task of destroying Whorfin before sunset, or she will help the Earthlings destroy themselves. Now, Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers are the only hope the Black Lectroids have against the Red Lectroids. Additionally, they are Earth’s only hope as well. The key is stopping Lizardo/Whorfin and preventing him from stealing the overthruster because if he gets a hold of it and collects the remainder of the Red Lectroids from the 8th Dimension and heads back to Planet 10 for war, all hell will break loose for everyone involved.

My Thoughts:

Being a fan of kitschy and imaginative science fiction movies, bizarre attempts at creating worlds and inventing characters never before seen on film, and trying to do something so gonzo that you can confuse even the most attentive of viewers, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai succeeds in creating a viewing experience like no other. It’s one of those movies where there’s a lot wrong with it and it’s positively stupid at some points, but you want to show it to as many people as possible just because it’s so fucking crazy. This sci-fi extravaganza is the epitome of this type of crazy, and it needs to be seen to be believed, for better or worse.

Led by star Peter Weller as the titular character, the comic book-like Buckaroo Banzai may be the most talented individual ever written for the big screen. It truly felt like a child came up with the idea of our main character and the plot as a whole. A neurosurgeon, a rock star, a crimefighting hero badass, and being so intelligent that he has an ability to pick up any skill in an instant, Buckaroo Banzai is one of the wildest protagonists you may ever see. Just as good with a gun as he is with his surgeon tools (as evidenced by this wildly cool ambidextrous maneuver he showcased in the climax, firing his gun behind his back and switching hands while doing it), Banzai works day in and day out with his colorful team of wild nicknames and personalities as they change the world daily with a new invention/idea or because they have to stop some sort of evil afoot. Essentially, they become the world’s protectors but are well-liked, positive role models. Because of this, they are well-known celebrities who can pretty much do whatever they want because of their status and the name of Buckaroo Banzai being universally loved and respected by everyone. Apparently, this stretches to space too, as the Black Lectroids make it their mission to send their message to Banzai in search of his help.

Peter Weller is no stranger to weird movies. Starring in films like Robocop and Naked Lunch, Weller has become the poster child for being the actor you want to help translate the most outrageous of concepts to novice viewers. He has enough of a presence to lead a film as the star, but he does so by being this stoic, monotone man with understated intelligence, who is able to react normally and genuinely to ground even the most dizzying of ideas. In doing so, he can pull an audience into the most oddball of situations and make us buy in. This couldn’t be truer here with Buckaroo Banzai. On top of that, it has been said that with casting, director W.D. Richter wanted to find someone who “could both look heroic with grease all over his face, and project the kind of intelligence you would associate with a neurosurgeon and inventor”. Despite the difficulty in finding someone with these specific of traits in a landscape full of solid actors during this timeframe, this description is exactly Peter Weller. For the character they wanted to create, he emulated what they had written in this screenplay. He could be an action hero in one scene and fight aliens believably but also look credible as a genius who’s able to perform a myriad of incredibly difficult tasks only fit for a scientist. Being the chameleon he is, Weller can still look natural playing in his rock band and dressing like a samurai and performing a ritual just as well. He’s just one of those guys that can make anything they do seem natural, which is perfect for a character who can do pretty much anything. With Buckaroo Banzai, he is quite possibly the smartest and most well-travelled man on the planet. Weller gives off the energy needed to help Banzai resonate with the viewer, as he attracts with the magnetism of his voice and the confidence in which he carries himself.

If they cast this character wrong, the suspension of disbelief would be harder than it is already. However, Weller has this normalness, approachability, and subdued bravado about him to where these characters respect and feel safer around him just because he’s in the room. It’s a star-making performance. Even when he says nonsensical phrases like “No matter where you go, there you are”, it’s delivered with such an earnestness from the enlightened Banzai, that it almost feels holy, bordering on the divine. Despite the line being confusing, you sit there and nod your head because his delivery and belief in what he’s saying exudes wisdom beyond his years. It puts you at ease, and you don’t even know the character all that well. It’s very strange how well it’s pulled off. Even with all of these random details to make the character different and with how good Weller’s performance is, there’s still a lot left to be desired. Truthfully, we only get to know Banzai from the surface. We get to see him at work and when he’s having fun, but we never get to know the real Banzai in his private life, his feelings regarding the stresses of his job, or how he really feels about the people he interacts with. He just goes about things like its business as usual and just deals with everything in the moment. We want to know more about Banzai’s private personality, his early life and family, and what drove him to what he does now. Is Buckaroo Banzai his given name? We can only assume it’s his real name because of his parents but still. The opening caption gives us surface level details about him, and it’s touched on here and there, but they never go in-depth, as they want to focus everything on the main story.

This criticism of character depth and development reaches pretty much everyone in the movie too. It’s known that whoever joins the Hong Kong Cavaliers is given a new ridiculous nickname similar in the vein of their leader. However, we are given such little detail about everyone else, all we have are unanswered questions about them. With the exception of Sidney, who joins the team mid-movie, we are never let in on the characters’ real names, their backgrounds, or their role on the team. Are they all of equal intelligence? Do they all do the same job? I doubt it, but the only difference we see between each person is that they look a little different. I couldn’t tell you what Reno does, and Billy Travers (Michael Santoro) and Pinky Carruthers (Billy Vera) are so inconsequential, I couldn’t tell you right now what they sound, look, or dress like. The only reason Perfect Tommy is somewhat memorable is because he looks like he frequents German nightclubs in New York. We only remember Sidney because Jeff Goldblum plays him, and he dresses like a cowboy for some reason.

Well, there’s also the cool story detail with him tying Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast to their current situation with the Lectroids, but that’s it.

With such an intricate and complicated backstory involving the overthruster and all of the convoluted plot developments involving the aliens and the race war they seem to be having, there just wasn’t enough time devoted to differentiating each member of Banzai’s eclectic team to fully develop them. Actually, in general, there was just way too many characters to keep track of on both sides. This was Buckaroo Banzai‘s biggest problem. This is why we feel zero emotional weight in the “big” moments when Reno is shot or when Rawhide dies. Both moments could have been huge for the movie, but we just don’t give care. There was too much going on regarding the larger picture that it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Plus, with the Blue Blaze operatives being activated to add in two more names to try and remember, the team doesn’t feel affected at all when Reno and Rawhide go down. Speaking of which, the Blue Blaze guys were overkill. It seemed like the only reason they added Scooter and Casper was to see a kid holding a machine gun, and they wanted to make sense of it. Otherwise, they should have given the piloting stuff to one of the lower-level members of the Hong Kong Cavaliers to give them something to do. Considering how much they travel the world and how smart everyone is, it seems weird that they wouldn’t have a helicopter at the Banzai Institute already. They shouldn’t have to call in for extra help and from a child no less. Everyone should be fully capable of what comes to them if they are lucky enough to be a member of the Hong Kong Cavaliers. They are the elite of the elite. They should be fine.

Also, the nicknames of each individual member of the team are pretty awful and oddly unimaginative when taking the rest of the movie into account. So, despite the ultra-cool team name that may be on the list for “Best Ever”, they kind of suck as a whole when you think about it.

The one-dimensional descriptions of each member of our heroic team are very similar to that of a 1950s styled comic book. Honestly, the whole movie feels like a comic book come to life, arguably more than most superhero films. It’s like things were designed for a franchise and we would learn more about each member of the crew in a future “issue” down the road. Here, they just want to stick to the main story at hand and only let us in on enough detail regarding our characters to where it sticks with us, and we want more.

Oh, Penny has a twin sister named Peggy who was married to Banzai but didn’t know of her existence? Want to learn how this came to be? Do you want to know why Sidney dresses like a cowboy, despite being from New Jersey? Find out in the sequel, Buckaroo Banzai against the World Crime League!

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension thrives on this over-the-top madness, pushing the boundaries of a regular science fiction film to the brink of insanity. Some can appreciate it for what it is, a creative endeavor that doesn’t care how outrageous it’s being in the name of entertainment. Others don’t and see it as an 80s pop culture mess that goes too far into the deep end of campy and makes the whole sum of its parts downright idiotic. Personally, I’m stuck firmly in the middle of both arguments because I appreciate the film’s inventiveness and trying to go in a completely different direction when building this world, but there’s so many stupid moments, underdeveloped ideas, and poor quality in writing and production that it takes me out of the experience at the same time. It bothers me even more because if the screenplay were taken just a bit more seriously, you could have had a franchise on your hands.

This may not be as important to some, but when you are trying to create an all-time pop culture hero, the costume design of the character is vital to making things work. Sometimes, it’s just as important as the performance. Buckaroo Banzai’s regular attire should’ve been the one from the poster. The loose but colorful tie, mixed with the sport jacket and jeans, is exactly the in-between look of the action hero/rock star/surgeon Banzai is supposed to be. He should have some style to him while also looking professional. The frustrating thing is that Banzai spends most of the movie dressed like Bill Nye, complete with a bowtie look that veers towards the “nerdy” end of things a little too much. He deserved to look a lot cooler and that look from the poster was it. Bowties rarely work, especially for a main character. Watch the end credits sequence right now and tell me he doesn’t look like Pee-wee Herman.

The other biggest issue of Buckaroo Banzai is its refusal to choose what it wants to be as a movie. It can never decide whether it’s trying to be campy, whether it’s trying to be a parody, when it’s trying to be serious, or when it’s trying to be funny. The tone is never discernible, so you can’t really tell when they’re messing around or not. Because of this, key moments that are supposed to be serious or emotional come off as cheesy, stupid, or amusing in a so-bad-it’s-good type of way. In other moments, they completely miss out on golden opportunities for jokes like when Banzai and John Parker try to explain John Emdall’s mission to them in a nutshell to President Widmark. How do you miss the very simple, yet hilarious opportunity it would have been to have Widmark get this overload of information and saying something along the lines of, “What in the blue hell did you just say Banzai?”. Their refusal to pick a tone and stick with it just becomes increasingly frustrating because they miss out on key moments for all three. When they try and get things back on track or try to go in a certain direction, the intent never matches how it’s handled onscreen. It could have worked if the movie was more of a relatively serious action comedy and there was a sense of realism rooted underneath the craziness, but John Lithgow’s performance makes this virtually impossible. It’s over-the-top to the extreme in a style similar to some campy mad scientist role from a 1950s “B Movie”. It’s just a tad too much for the rest of movie, and that’s saying something. The accent doesn’t sound natural at all and borders on Transylvanian, and you can never tell when he’s trying to be funny or if the moment in question is unintentionally funny. When faced with such a strait-laced hero in Banzai, Lithgow’s Lizardo/Whorfin looks even more out of place with every scene.

Cartoon-like stuff this ruins the potential of the film. As I mentioned before, if the screenplay was taken seriously, this could have been something great and on the level of the other mainstream films of its time that rightfully blew this one out of the water. Instead, the movie’s legacy has been built around the fact that it’s a forgotten favorite of pop culture enthusiasts who like to flex their knowledge of useless information at Comic-Con every year and like to argue on Reddit.

There’s a difference between comedy, corniness, and campy. Buckaroo Banzai tries its hand at all three but tries to get serious too. It never flows correctly.

  1. Inexplicably, they see a watermelon in the kitchen of the Banzai Institute, and Sidney asks why. He’s told, “I’ll tell you later” and there’s never a follow-up to it. That’s comedy.
  2. Christopher Lloyd’s character is named John Bigbooté, and it’s constantly mispronounced as “Big Booty”, so he gets angry. That’s corny.
  3. Almost everything involving Lizardo. That’s campy.

The 1938 flashback sequence was a key scene in setting the tone and showing us the gravity of the situation. Sadly, they fumbled this pivotal sequence because of director W.D. Richter’s inability to take the material and its horrific consequences as seriously as it warranted. The terror of being stuck halfway between two worlds and being brutally attacked by aliens is one of the most nightmarish and life-changing experiences anyone could ever face. It makes sense why it forever changed Lizardo into this maniac villain who lost his mind, but the tone of this crucial scene was too silly in the way it was presented. It was begging to be more serious and devasting, especially because we know what Lizardo turned into. Richter should have believed in the material more. If it can be avoided, a filmmaker should stray away from camp at all costs. There are countless moments in this film that could have aided the screenplay if it was treated as more of an entertaining action comedy rather than their actual approach of “Let’s make things as stupid as possible in the name of fun”. If this specific scene was darker and treated as the momentous break of Lizardo as he descended into madness, this could have been the tone-setter in showing us what our heroes are up against. It would have been massive from the villain side of things. Also, If John Whorfin is close to Earth’s Hitler, according to Black Lectroid leader John Emdall, he needed to be “eviler” in the traditional sense. Lithgow’s lunatic energy and rambling was too cheesy for an interdimensional villain capable of leading a revolution. He doesn’t seem as evil or as smart as the character is written to be. Because of this, we never get the suspension of disbelief that the antagonist may win.

For instance, I still have no idea why he just gave up on the idea for Banzai’s overthruster in the climax in favor of his own, knowing his own is untested and everyone is fairly positive it won’t work. If this was his backup plan anyway, why did they go through all this madness to begin with? They could’ve tried his overthruster as soon as he left the mental hospital, and they could have taken their time with it. Then again, if they know Whorfin’s overthruster doesn’t work, then it makes no sense for him to chicken out of the final fight to try and attempt a jump to the 8th Dimension because Banzai’s overthruster is the only way he can succeed. For a genius, his actions don’t make any sense. If this character is evil and highly intelligent as he is written to be, he would have had a last stand against Banzai and his group to at least attempt to get the device from him, especially since he has all of his armed followers in the same building as him. Once he decides to give up on Banzai’s overthruster, you know he doesn’t have a shot in hell at pulling this off. Even his own guys start getting mad with him like John Bigbooté. Regardless, Whorfin needed to be a vile, despicable man, seething with a constant rage boiling beneath his surface to the point where characters should be frightened to be in the same room with him. Lithgow never really got where he needed to be in the role. He just read the basic description of “Italian psychopath scientist with bad teeth” and went with that. If Lithgow’s take on the character was similar to his role as Earl Talbot Blake in Ricochet, only tuned up slightly in the direction of this take, this would have been the sweet spot in making Lizardo/Whorfin the villain he should have been.

As detailed as this screenplay is in terms of explaining the intricacies of the main story, there’s still so many “regular” happenings in the script that are without explanation. As I’ve said before, we know nothing about the personalities of anyone from the Hong Kong Cavaliers, other than Sidney and obviously Banzai. On top of that, President Widmark has this serious back injury that has him confined to a bed and conversing with Banzai via video messaging. What’s the extent of the injury? Does the public know about this? What happened? Is Widmark even a good President? We know nothing. They just give us this strange detail and refuse to follow through on any question we have. Nothing is really known about Penny either, despite being the love interest. In fact, we are told more about her dead twin sister’s past than Penny herself. Is she supposed to be secretly smart? She blurts out a bunch of random scientific explanations regarding the overthruster that even seemed to surprise her, but it’s never followed up on. Was her family full of geniuses or something? Was her sister just as smart as Banzai? Hell, we don’t even know if the other members of the Hong Kong Cavaliers even liked her twin sister Peggy! Also, Penny was suicidal in the first act. You would think they would delve a little deeper here to get us more attached to her, but the lack of depth about this important part to her backstory is maddening. They are lucky Ellen Barkin is fine as hell. Otherwise, I would be even more annoyed than I already am.

Props to Penny for going through that much torture without giving into the bad guys though. Those aliens put her through absolute hell in the third act. I would’ve told them everything they wanted to know about the overthruster once those ants were brought in.

Going along with the lack of sense or explanation, one of the biggest and most important chase scenes in the movie happen within the Banzai Institue as everyone tries to elude the Red Lectroids, so the overthruster isn’t stolen. However, multiple times they are stuck in these rooms or can’t open certain doors, allowing for the bad guys to get away with Penny and the overthruster. They own this facility though. It’s the base of their operations. Why are there so many places inside that they can’t or don’t know how to open? You would think they would try a little harder since the fate of the universe is in their hands! However, we get scenes like Banzai giving up after not being able to work the doorhandle in time, despite losing the one thing they were told not to lose, AND after one of their beloved team members dies. After all this, he just calmly tells them they’ll get it back and it comes off as comical.

Certain elements just needed to tighten up a bit. There was too much going on, but not enough time devoted to each fun and innovative idea. This is where the disconnect is. The rock star stuff should have been dropped (it never fit the story they were trying to tell) and there needed to be way more action. The title and plot are screaming for it! This is why the third act is so disappointing. It’s clear as day that there needed to be at least a one-on-one fight between Banzai and Lizardo, a shootout between them and others, and a more satisfying finish to the climax. I liked Banzai and John Parker sneaking into the pod and the switch-around chair invention (though the insulating liquid looked like semen), but the standoff between the ships in the biggest moment of the film was over in seconds. It was almost shocking. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was a lot of fun, the character and concept is interesting as hell, and Peter Weller did a great job in making this movie unforgettable in many ways, but this should’ve been pure, madcap excitement from start to finish. The imagination was there, but a script polisher was needed to make sense of all the ideas, characters, and moments that screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch came up with. It would take a lot of fixing, a serious trimming of the fat, more dedication given to character development of the team and the exploration of certain concepts, and John Lithgow toning it down 75% and acting a bit more grounded to make this movie what it could have been, which is potentially one of the most innovative and craziest film franchises of all time.

With the way things turned out to be, this material would have worked much better as a book or television series rather than a movie.

For now, Buckaroo Banzai will have to be content with being The Rocky Horror Picture Show of the 1980s. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s frustrating because it could have been so much more. It just needed to be developed and managed by much more delicate hands.

Note to self: don’t promise a sequel as soon as the credits roll. Make sure the movie at hand is a success first.

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