Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
The year 1984 was a great year for movies. The summer of 1984, especially, gave us the classics Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles, and Gremlins. Even the lesser Star Trek III, Conan the Destroyer, Purple Rain, Red Dawn, The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, Top Secret, and Karate Kid have their fans. Two of them were so “popular” that they’ve already been remade (Karate Kid and Red Dawn), with another one hitting the reimagining button this year (Ghostbusters). There is, however, another cult film from that summer that doesn’t get quite the same love or word of mouth that the other movies do. I’m here to rectify that and give you the glory of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Buckaroo had a hard time that summer, fighting for some valuable screen real estate in the theaters with a plot and sensibility that didn’t allow for easy pigeonholing by the marketing department at 20th Century Fox. Is it a sci-fi action film, a comedy, a satire, or a romance? The good thing is that it’s all of the above.
The plot makes more sense the more times you watch it, but it’s not easily conveyed in a quick synopsis. Buckaroo Banzai is a neurosurgeon, rock star, physicist, and weapons expert who has his home base in New Jersey. He’s surrounded by the Hong Kong Cavaliers, a group of like-minded individuals who all contribute to fighting crime, exploring science, and rocking out. With names like Perfect Tommy, New Jersey, Rawhide, Reno, Pinky Caruthers, and Pecos, they do everything—and they’re just the main team members. Buckaroo also has a network of fans that are his support system, from rug cleaners to the president of the United States. In the film, Buckaroo has just created a device that allows a car to drive through solid matter. Of course, this attracts the attention of an evil red Lectroid by the name of John Whorfin, who has taken over the body of the famous physicist Dr. Emilio Lizardo—who looks a little bit like John Lithgow. Whorfin wants the device so he and his followers can wage war against the peaceful black Lectroids of Planet 10. Sounds simple, except you have the black Lectroids threatening to destroy the earth unless Buckaroo can stop Whorfin. Did I mention there’s also Penny Priddy, who looks exactly like Buckaroo’s late wife, and he has to rescue her so they can hopefully develop a relationship? Phew. I’m tuckered out. This film really has everything your 12-year-old self would have loved—a supersonic car, aliens, spaceships, rock and roll, bubble-wrap glasses, fights, slugs (of both the gun and alien varieties), and a watermelon experiment.
If you haven’t read my previous columns, you might not know my proclivity for character actors getting to take lead roles. I make it known now, and this film has a ton of them. John Lithgow does a weird monkey/crab walk with a thick Italian-type accent for the evil John Whorfin, and you can tell he’s just having a blast in every scene. His sidekicks include Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Dan Hedaya. I should mention at this point that all the aliens are named John, but they have different surnames. Lloyd is tasked with the enviable name John Bigbooté.
Peter Weller does a great job as Buckaroo, walking a fine line between all the comedic, serious, and action elements. With all the craziness going on around him, it would be easy for an actor to fall into the back seat, but Weller keeps Buckaroo front and center. His team includes Clancy Brown as Rawhide, Jeff Goldblum as New Jersey (wearing a cowboy outfit), and Lewis Smith as Perfect Tommy. Ellen Barkin is also fun as Penny Priddy, but she’s primarily relegated to the role of female bait—it was the ’80s—although she has some moments to shine (the press conference being an example). If the movie had been successful, I think she would have gotten more to do in sequels.
At this point, I feel like you are either dying to see the movie or have already written it off as not for you, which is okay. I want to share one scene with you if you might still be on the fence. After performing brain surgery, Buckaroo and the Cavaliers are playing a gig. During a song, Buck stops the band because he senses that someone in the audience is not happy. This unhappy audience member turns out to be Penny. Buckaroo serenades her with a sad love song (his choice, not mine); she proceeds to pull out a gun because she is so depressed and wants to end her life, but the gun accidentally goes off before she can. At that moment, every member of the band has a gun out to protect Buck. It’s a rocking, moving, funny scene that perfectly captures the tone of the film.
I’ve always told people this is a movie you will either love or hate. I recently showed it to a friend and, fitting for this movie, she fell right in the middle. It’s not a film for everyone, but you geeks should love it.
If you need a little more visual representation, here are the end credits, where the gang just struts their stuff. PS: I’ve had the music in my head for two weeks now.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.