In some alternate universe, Peter Weller is the biggest star in Hollywood. This is due to two unquestionably cool sci-fi characters he played in the ’80s: RoboCop and Buckaroo Banzai. Both speak with a flat affect and are the best there is at what they do. Both are saviors forged in the dork tower of science. Both exude intelligence and flickers of kindness. (“Don’t be mean,” Buckaroo chides a nightclub crowd. “We don’t have to be mean.”) RoboCop, however, spawned two sequels and myriad other media followups, whereas The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension famously promised a sequel (Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League) that never materialized.
I’ve often wondered if a sequel really would’ve been a good idea. (The screenwriter, Earl Mac Rauch, and director, W.D. Richter, collaborated on a three-issue comic book, Buckaroo Banzai in Return of the Screw, in 2007. More comics, as I write this, are slated to follow.) Part of me would’ve loved to see that World Crime League movie, but the mere idea of it sparks the imagination in a way that an actual sequel never could. In a way, it’s good that Buckaroo Banzai never got franchised, never popped out a part two or three or four, getting worse with each new film. The way it is now, aside from the comics and the internet worship, the film stands alone, pristine in its own goofy-ass way.
The thing about Buckaroo Banzai is that, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it requires a precise mood — you really have to be in a Banzai or a Brazil frame of mind, and when you need these films, you really need them; no other films will do. Try watching them without the specific yen to revisit them, and they come off cluttered and strained. They tend to accumulate charm and depth in one’s memory — they become bigger in memory than they are when you’re actually watching them. Banzai and Brazil, two kinda-sorta-futuristic fantasias that absolutely could only have been made in the ’80s, always surprise you scene for scene no matter how many times you’ve seen them before, because aside from their quotable dialogue they’re too diffuse, too jammed with ideas and events, to be recollected with any sharpness. They’re very consciously midnight movies, made to be assimilated by a sleep-addled or sleep-deprived mind, weaving themselves into your mental movie database as vivid blurs. You attend these parties for the atmosphere and the company, not for the narrative.
Buckaroo and his eccentric team are here pitted against the Red Lectroids, a band of evil aliens from the 8th dimension, which exists between the quarks and atoms of solid matter. A Lectroid has invaded the mind of scientist Emilio Lizardo (a gleefully hammy John Lithgow), who had tried and failed to cross into the 8th dimension before Buckaroo finally succeeded. Orson Welles is name-checked, and the U.S. president here (Ronald Lacey) is made up to look like him. Buckaroo’s team picks up a despondent young woman named Penny Priddy, played by Ellen Barkin, an actress noted for radiating sexuality without trying to. Barkin is somewhat adrift in this sexless boys’ club, where Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers retire to a side room to confer — no girls allowed.
Part of the weirdness of the film is that, confronted with all manners of extraterrestrial wackiness, hardly anyone even seems surprised, much less awed. Aside from Penny, there aren’t many civilians in the movie; everyone has dealt with high mystical scientific phenomena before. Buckaroo Banzai coasts on its hip deadpan (the movie’s best-known line, and its possible epigram, is Buckaroo’s “No matter where you go … there you are”); it’s as if Jim Jarmusch had made a sci-fi comedy. (Lewis Smith, as Team Banzai member Perfect Tommy, bears some resemblance to Jarmusch.) The damn thing is immaculately cast, making it a gallery of actors who were willing to hop on for this blithely surreal ride. Jeff Goldblum has the ideal Jeff Goldblum role as a neurosurgeon who wants desperately to dress like a cowboy and be called New Jersey, and he natters on cheerfully in his highly imitable distracted manner — it’s great fun to watch him put the pieces together in regards to the connection between all the Johns and Grover’s Mill. The gruff triumvirate of Christopher Lloyd (“John Bigbootay! Tay!”), Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya turn up as Lectroids.
Then there’s Peter Weller, who, I am informed by Wikipedia, patterned his performance on “Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Adam Ant.” Probably only Adam Ant shows up in the final result, but that’s okay. Weller provides a stable, unflappable anchor for the proceedings, and the movie seems to take off from his post-New Wave demeanor. Buckaroo Banzai is like decades of escapist pulp filtered through the skeptic’s shrug of the mid-’80s. Yet of Weller’s two Reagan-era heroes, Buckaroo Banzai is by far the least ironic. Go figure.