If you're going to portray a brilliant neurosurgeon who got so bored fixing brains he traveled the world to master martial arts and particle physics, fronts a rock band of gun-toting scientists, and encounters alien life while driving into the eighth dimension, you kind of have to play it straight.
And Peter Weller does. His Buckaroo Banzai is as cool as an ice cold Jolt. In fact, the entire cast of the 1984 cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension — with the understandable exception of John Lithgow, who plays an alien-possessed Italian scientist — acts as if confronting an alien invasion and mastering inter-dimensional travel are just sort of what you do with your day. The aliens — the good Black Lectroids and bad Red Lectroids, both from Planet 10 — are all named John. And most of the movie takes place in New Jersey.
It is, in other words, the cinematic equivalent of a Daniel Pinkwater novel — offbeat, sharp, original. It opened in August 1984, near the end of the summer of Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It bombed at the box office.
But it found new life on VHS, then DVD, and now you can watch it on Amazon Prime or Hulu, rent it on most online video repositories, or probably check it out from your local library. It has a devoted cult following. And it deserves it.
To say that this film has everything isn't quite true. There's music — Buckaroo and his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, perform in a New Jersey club, and you'll have the old Skyliners hit "Since I Don't Have You" stuck in your head afterward — and gun fights, spaceships, lasers, unexplained jokes (Google "Buckaroo Banzai" and "watermelon"), Jeff Goldblum in a cowboy outfit, a hint of a love story, a long-lost twin, low-fi holograms, a car chase, and science. But there's no slick, covert, quasi-governmental agency with a gazillion-dollar black budget, and no nefarious government conspiracy. CGI wasn't an option in 1984, and the special effects are minimal for a sci-fi action adventure movie. The costumes and music are dated — the entire movie feels like inhaling a concentrated elixir of 1984 — though the story and acting feel fresh.
Buckaroo Banzai is also slightly disorienting. You're dropped into the middle of the movie, and it never waits for you to figure out exactly what's going on. There's no foreshadowing — you find out what's going on at the same time they do. All the characters feel fully realized and you never learn their backstories. Buckaroo Banzai is the star of his own comic book, he has a fan club that's like a well-armed version of Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars, a compound that's a science lab and also the headquarters for his band, and he has a direct line to the president.
The script, a long labor of love by Earl Mac Rauch, isn't full of holes, just untold stories. The movie is its own self-contained world, and the viewer is just along for the ride.
Buckaroo Banzai is, in many important ways, the polar opposite of today's Marvel blockbusters, the new measuring stick for all superhero or sci-fi franchises. For one thing, it isn't a franchise, despite promising a sequel — Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League — at the end of movie. But more importantly, Buckaroo Banzai is a human-scale story. Other than Buckaroo and the Lectroids, you could plausibly be any other member of the ensemble, in a way that you could never join SHIELD or the Guardians of the Galaxy. None of the heroes in Buckaroo Banzai have supernatural powers. The first time you see guns, it's a funny surprise, because the movie doesn't start out as that kind of action movie. The dialogue doesn't feel forced. The film isn't polished like a cut infinity stone. You watch Buckaroo Banzai, and every Marvel movie looks like it's trying too hard.
This is no dig at the Marvel Cinematic Universe — tens of millions of ticket-buyers aren't wrong — but sometimes it's nice not to be spoon-fed your adventure movies. Buckaroo Banzai doesn't make you work hard, but the more you think about the movie, the more you appreciate its quirky intricacies, it's quiet, wild ambition. In a world that's increasingly over-the-top and operatic in its sensibilities, it's nice to be reminded that no matter where you go, there you are.