I’ve been fortunate to have become a regular columnist for new U.K. print mag Geeky Monkey, whose third issue is now on the shelves. What follows is the text of the submitted draft of the Retro Review column for second issue, about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. To read the final version as edited by Miles Guttery please buy Issue 2 of the magazine.
If there was one major problem with most heroes Hollywood offered geeks in the eighties, it’s that too many of them were musclebound lunkheads full of brawn but no brains, only low animal cunning. Which is why when one came along who was everything we could possibly want to be, he quickly became one of THE geek icons of that decade, up there with Indiana Jones, Snake Plissken, Ripley and the Ghostbusters. That man was Buckaroo Banzai: scientist, test pilot, brain surgeon, rock star and samurai.
Banzai was the brainchild of writer Earl Mac Rauch, whose previous screenplays included Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Sean “Friday the 13th” S. Cunningham’s Mary Higgins Clark adaptation A Stranger Is Watching. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eight Dimension was one of those unexpected true studio originals they no longer make, but in 1984 could still be produced and released thanks to old-school attitudes no longer in fashion. Screenwriter W.D. Richter, then best known for the excellent 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here got his shot at directing, although he had to fight for his vision throughout the production (often with late MGM producer David Begelman) and didn’t always win (e.g. losing Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenwerth). Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lloyd, and Ellen Barkin had all yet to have the hits that would make them geek household names (respectively Robocop, The Fly, Highlander, Back to the Future and Sea of Love), while opposing aliens John Lithgow, Dan Hedaya and Carl Lumbly were recognisable character faces but by no means stars. In short, the film is a wonderful collection of talent exploding in all directions, as much an experimental rocket car as the one they actually built for the opening scenes (yes, those are real rockets you see firing off – how cool is that?!). It’s a true cult classic to this day.
Explaining the plot is a classic geek litmus test. Following an unsuccessful 1938 attempt at breaking into the 8th dimension using an oscillator overthruster by scientist Dr. Emilio Lizardo, he ends up fused with alien Lord John Whorfin from Planet 10 and stuck in an insane asylum for fifty years. In the present day, Buckaroo Banzai, whose Japanese father and American mother worked on similar experiments with Dr. Hikita from Lizardo’s team, finally makes a successful flight through a mountain and the 8th dimension. Whorfin breaks out and joins up with other members of his race, the Red Lectroids, to steal Banzai’s working oscillator overthruster for the spacecraft they have been building through their own company Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems (they’ve survived since 1938 by becoming defence contractors, their original arrival covered up by the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast!), in order to retake Planet 10 from the Black Lectroids. The latter come to Earth and blackmail Buckaroo Banzai and his team of scientists/engineers/bandmates The Hong Kong Cavaliers (by threatening to start World War III) into helping them defeat the Red Lectroids after giving Banzai the ability to see through the Lectroid disguises. Adventure ensues!
Throw in a blooming romance with the long-lost twin sister of Banzai’s dead wife, brain surgery, a nightclub gig, the coolest tour bus ever (it doubles as Mission Control!), arch wit, political satire, the ultimate “bunkhouse” (the home/lab/operations base every geek wishes they had) filled with the most loyal bunch of gun-toting rock-and-roll scientists and engineers you wish were your best friends, plus an ace score from Grammy-winner Michael Boddicker, and you have a recipe for big-screen craziness of the best kind. This is thirties’ pulp gussied up in eighties’ fashions, a hero in the Doc Savage mould but for the sixties counter-culture generation. Despite being a huge flop on release, home video made it the cult it is today (just like Richter’s next film as writer, the similarly-toned Big Trouble In Little China), with new comics keeping his adventures going. With the promised sequel still yet unmade we Banzai geeks at least have Arrow’s amazing 2015 blu-ray to enjoy; it’s the perfect 30th Anniversary Edition in all but name.