Those yearning for a little streaming joy, I present to you The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, a blissfully hopeful experience readily available on Amazon Prime Video. The walls around you need not be impenetrable; escape exists in your television as easily as our hero penetrates the solid matter of a mountain.
1984. The closest thing we had to an MCU or any comic book cinematic universe was the tangential connection between Supergirl and the first three Superman films. Those that strained their imagination to their breaking points could conceive that the Earth that Kal-El fled to might also be the same residence of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. Hurm. Don’t push it.
Forty years earlier, on the Marvel front (or Timely, the brand that preceded Marvel Comics), a nearly unrecognizable Captain America puttered about in a serial, while the first three movies based on their characters (Howard the Duck, Red Sonja, and The Punisher) were still a few years away. Walt Disney’s main player in the superhero racket was the abysmal Condorman, although the desperate found ways to enjoy its particular delights.
Comic book geeks had to look elsewhere if they wanted to roam fully-formed realms of cinematic adventure. The appeal of connected characters eluded mainstream entertainment, and it would take decades of fan pleading before Freddy went against Jason and Predators scrapped with Aliens. The result being lukewarm drivel. Suits just didn’t get it.
Have no fear. We were blessed with the greatest comic book movie, as well as the greatest comic book universe never based on an actual comic book: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. Watching this singular film felt like picking up the 103rd issue of a monthly magazine, or diving into Episode V of Star Wars. Who the hell are these people? Where is Planet 10? What’s an oscillating overthruster? Why is there a watermelon there? I’ll tell you later. Or not.
The answers are less interesting than the questions themselves. They reveal a tapestry that extends well beyond the 102-minute runtime, where a Rock ‘n’ Roll neurosurgeon and physicist battles dimensional alien convicts on Tuesday, world crime leagues on Wednesday, ignorant G-men on Thursday, and hostile stage managers on Friday.
The film opens on Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller, never sexier) strapping himself into a jetcar, on the verge of completing a fantastic science experiment originally concocted by his mentor, Professor Ikita (Robert Ito), and tragically bungled by his parents (with Mama Banzai portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis during a deleted sequence). With government agents and news crews leering, the daredevil scientist propels himself at rocket speeds. When he flips the switch on his McGuffin (the aforementioned oscillating overthruster), Banzai passes through the solid matter of a mountain and accidentally releases a gang of villainous Red Lectroids from Planet 10.
Word of the fringe universe jailbreak quickly reaches the cosmos, and the Black Lectroids send John Parker (Carl Lumbly) to warn the humans of their inevitable destruction. Not by the Red Lectroids, but by the Black Lectroids, because they’ll nuke us from space rather than deal with the convicts they prefer forgotten. Buckaroo Banzai is left to save our rock while the president obtusely observes from his hospital bed and the suicidal, separated-at-birth twin sister (Ellen Barkin) of Banzai’s late wife pals around with his gang of Blue Blaze Irregulars.
Every character in Buckaroo Banzai’s band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, suggests spinoff possibilities. As with the X-Men or Avengers, where Wolverine and Iron Man can support their own solo titles, Perfect Tommy (Lewis Smith) and Reno Nevada (Pepe Serna) deserve a side quest or two, and if Doctor Doom can periodically get a monthly book devoted to his wretched self, then dammit, so can Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow). The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is but a chapter ripped from some epic tome, trapped in the mind of a madman never given enough money or respect to unleash the majority of its pulpy pages.
Earl Mac Rauch caught the attention of director W.D. Richter after a review of his debut novel, Dirty Pictures from the Prom, impressed Richter’s wife. The two became quick friends, and Richter encouraged Mac Rauch to join him in LA as a script reader for Warner Bros., and he would eventually see screenplays produced for Martin Scorsese (New York, New York) and Sean S. Cunningham (A Stranger is Watching). Mac Rauch originally conceived Banzai as Buckaroo Bandy, a brilliant ass-kicker who could hold his own against Doc Savage, Buck Rogers, James Bond, and Bruce Lee.
The hero refused to be contained in a tiny closet of Mac Rauch’s brain, demanding the whole mansion. Stories swarmed and grew. What began as Find the Jetcar, Said the President morphed into The Strange Case of Mr. Cigars (featuring a giant robot and a pack of cigars once belonging to Adolf Hitler) and ultimately crammed inside Lepers from Saturn.
When Richter and producer Neil Canton (who’s next gig would be Back to the Future) formed a production company, they picked Mac Rauch’s weirdo, sci-fi, B-movie bonanza as their first project. They somehow convinced MGM to back their gamble, and the Lepers changed to lizards and finally into Red and Black Lectroids. A writers strike stalled development for a year, and in that time studio head David Begelman fled MGM taking Mac Rauch’s screenplay with him. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai went to 20th Century Fox, giving its author another three drafts to tinker into perfection before the film went before cameras.
What we have here is not one movie; it’s a half dozen, if not more. The reason the film feels like the midway point of a comic book series is that it is! The sordid past of Buckaroo Banzai, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, and even Lord John Whorfin and his lackeys Bigbooty — it’s Bigbooté (Christopher Lloyd)! — and Gomez (Dan Hedaya) were passionately detailed by Mac Rauch in the previous iterations. The screenwriter was ready to go with sequel after sequel after sequel, and 20th Century Fox even had the confidence to allow a pre-credits title card instructing the audience to “Watch for the Next Adventure of Buckaroo Banzai… Against the World Crime League.”
Sadly, the butts never came to the seats, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai had to settle for cult status. Sequels would come but in the form of an extensive novelization written by Mac Rauch as well as several “real” comic book miniseries published by Moonstone Books in the mid-aughts. They’re fun and all, but they lack Peter Weller and the neon glaze of the 1980s. A confection is delicious, but it spoils with age.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is a marvel, a film so perfectly rooted in its time while also lavishly celebrating the genre that came before and comforting geeks hungry for a comic book future yet to come. Pressing play on Richter and Mac Rauch’s black sheep baby is a delirious dose of optimism where science and Rock ‘n’ Roll share equal footing, and another wannabe devotee is not some useless groupie but a steely plate in the team’s armor instead.
“Excuse me,” interrupts our protagonist, “is someone out there not having a good time? Is somebody crying out there in the darkness?”
Buck Banzai hears your pain. He understands the depths a sour soul can sink, and he’s here for you in your bleakest hour. When you need it most, Banzai halts his plan and makes you his mission. The Red Lectroids will be caught, that was never in question. He’s the kind of hero we all need in our corner, and he’ll pull the champion hiding within you and happily add your talents to the roster of his Hong Kong Cavaliers. Forge a decent singing voice, or fake it till you make it through keytar lessons; there’s a spot on the tour bus waiting.