Some love “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension” and some only want to love it very much. I, sadly, fall into the latter category. Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin and John Lithgow (channelling a “Holy Grail”-era John Cleese) in an unauthorized reimagining of “Doc Savage: Man of Bronze”?? It could not go wrong – and yet … well … I had to purchase the DVD just to hear the commentary and discover how it went wrong.
The pitiless irony, of course, is that young Ms. DuPont is as much a revered musician, prize-winning physicist, sports car enthusiast, board-certified physician and fearless fighter of crime as the fictional Buckaroo. Unlike Mr. Banzai, she’s also a world-class geneticist, script doctor, Greenpeace organizer, fashion model and appraiser of digital video discs.
Thanks as always to The DVD Journal for the regular loan of the comely (and versatile!) Alexandra's fabulous Sunday-night reviews!
Thanks as always to The DVD Journal for the regular loan of the comely (and versatile!) Alexandra's fabulous Sunday-night reviews!
Review by Alexandra DuPont
"Buckaroo studied bujitsu and particle physics. His skill with a six-shooter is reputed to eclipse that of Wyatt Earp. He speaks a dozen languages and has written songs in each of them. His band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, is one of the most popular, hard-rocking bar bands in east Texas. The band's popularity is somewhat surprising, considering its members. Instead of professional musicians, the band is made up of cartographers and botanists, linguists and propellant engineers, an entomologist and an epidemiologist. These experts and their odd fields of interest were drawn to Buckaroo, and each of them came and went like the wind on the prairie (Rawhide, Reno, the Swede, Perfect Tommy, Big Norse, Red River Daddy, the Seminole Kid and Pecos, to name but a few)."
— From the "Personal Profile" of Dr. Buckaroo
Banzai — one of the many amusingly overcooked,
text-driven extras on the Buckaroo Banzai DVD.
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I. Introduction: The fans get what they want.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension is one of those movies where, to abuse the clichÃ©, if you're the sort of person who really likes this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you're really going to like.
A flawed, low-budget puree of Doc Savage, science fiction, absurd comedy, '80s-synth/barroom rock, and cheesy action — most of it played with conviction and without much explanation — Banzai has developed a small cult following since its 1984 box-office belly-flop. Said cult is made up of more or less the same people (including this reviewer, truth be told) who fetishize the spoof-fantasy subgenre — a growing field that includes the long-running British sci-fi comedy series "Red Dwarf," Big Trouble in Little China (co-written by Banzai's director, W.D. Richter), the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels, and the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman angels-and-demons farce Good Omens (currently being developed for the big screen by Terry Gilliam).
Banzai fans, as it happens, are also a pretty vocal lot — in fact, their howls of protest are the reason the Banzai DVD release was delayed throughout 2001. MGM Home Entertainment used the extra time to jam-pack the disc with fan-appeasing extras. The result is a marvelous, surprising platter that, unlike most DVDs, extends the movie's fiction rather than deconstructing it. (The DVD finally arrived on Jan. 1, 2002.)
Allow me to explain. It's kind of a no-duh that most extras-packed DVDs pick apart a movie's constructed fiction with making-of documentaries, director commentaries, and assorted behind-the-scenes glimpses. While there's plenty of this sort of material on the Banzai disc, the creators of Buckaroo Banzai have also adopted a thematic conceit for their extras, which they carry off with surprising consistency:
Buckaroo Banzai actually exists, and the Buckaroo Banzai movie was a "docudrama" chronicling his real-life exploits.
Ridiculous? Absolutely. But it's also courageous — and pretty much unprecedented on DVD. Banzai director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch (playing "Reno Nevada," the fictional chronicler of the "Banzai Institute") rush headlong into the idea, gleefully making fools of themselves among the disc's many extras. The end result isn't for everyone — but if you're willing to play along, you'll find that the myriad extras (listed in excruciating detail below) act as a sort of footnotes to the movie, expanding its universe tenfold and ultimately transforming a love-it-or-hate-it flick into a vastly richer multimedia experience.
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II. What's the story?
As excerpted from the back of screenwriter Rauch's extraordinary novelization of the film, recently re-issued by Pocket Books:
"Buckaroo Banzai [Peter Weller]. A strange, elusive figure, his name whispered in barrooms and boardrooms, his advice sought by pashas and presidents, his exploits recounted in movies, novels, and comic books that seem somehow more real than life itself.... First and foremost an extraordinary brain surgeon. In his spare time designer and driver of the electrifying Jet Car, a speed machine faster than sound!.... Join Team Banzai on their two-fisted, action-packed assault against the evil red Lectroids from the Planet 10! Experience the horrors of the Shock Tower and the Pitt deep within the walls of Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems as Buckaroo Banzai fights against impossible odds to rescue Penny Priddy [Ellen Barkin] from the clutches of Dr. Emilio Lizardo [John Lithgow], the diabolically alien dictator. Pray that Buckaroo will succeed, knowing only too well that if he fails the Earth itself will be blown to dust!"
The movie details all the above — and finds time to show Dr. Banzai playing piano, guitar and trumpet in a Huey Lewis and the News-ish rock band between exploits.
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III. Praise and criticism.
To its credit, Richter's film is nowhere near as wacky as the above description would lead you to believe. The movie drops you immediately into Banzai's goofy world — with no lumbering exposition explaining, for example, why all the aliens are named John, or why Buckaroo's scientist bandmates are all carrying semiautomatic weapons onstage, or why the "good-guy" aliens in human disguise all look and speak like Rastafarians, or why the President of the United States (Ronald Lacey) is the mirror image of Charles Foster Kane and spends the entire movie in a rotating hospital bed (according to Richter on the commentary track, POTUS has just had a painful rectal surgery). I actually think this willful leaving-out of exposition is the reason the movie developed such a rabid cluster of fans; geeks (including, again, this reviewer) thrilled at filling in the blanks themselves, or in reading Rauch's novelization to flesh out the Banzai universe.
Richter's production designers and effects technicians further this approach to the material, filling the screen with visual jokes and weird little details. One personal favorite is the effects shot of our heroes taking command of a "thermopod" as they do battle with the airborne Dr. Lizardo; the spaceship is funky and elegant, clearly modeled on seashell forms — but the pod itself is hovering above an industrial district in urban New Jersey. It's a dryly funny juxtaposition, a weird little grace note, and indicative of the larger approach to Rauch's script.
The actors are equally unapologetic. Barkin, Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Lewis Smith and the rest of Team Banzai all play their characters utterly straight-faced — even when they're uttering dialogue like "The deuce you say!" and wearing costumes that look like what might result if Adam Ant's and Merle Haggard's tour buses crashed into one another in 1982. Meanwhile, the evil "Lectroid" aliens — played by extreme character actors Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli — snarl with moronic relish, and are led by an utterly insane John Lithgow, who invests his alien dictator with a corny Italian accent that meshes perfectly with his Mussolini-esque rantings ("History is-a made at night! Character is-a what you are in the dark!" and so forth).
Still, there are many, many valid criticisms to be made of Buckaroo Banzai. The most valid is probably that the filmmakers seem to have deliberately set out to make a "cult classic" — which, if you're one of those people who thinks "cult classics" are only made by accident, means the entire enterprise is sort of artistically bankrupt from the get-go. Also, there's never any real sense of danger or suspense — partly a result of the flat staging, and also a natural casualty of the movie's too-studied "offbeat" vibe.
In the end, it's entirely possible that most of the people who revere Banzai to this day are more in love with the idea of the movie — with the universe it hints at — than they are with the movie itself. I know that's certainly the case with me; In fact, I'm such a huge fan of Rauch's novelization — written from the point of view of Team Banzai member Reno Nevada, and rich in footnotes, digressions, silly, earnest detail and tongue-in-cheek sentences — that I've come to see the movie as a partially successful adaptation of its own novelization, if that makes any sense.
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IV. So how about those extras?
Well, if you're part of BB's small but rabid fan base, this DVD's burgeoning supplements play like the Buckaroo Banzai Rosetta Stone — a sprawling, tongue-in-cheek, frequently text-driven guide to the movie's universe. Again, all the extras play/read as if Buckaroo Banzai actually exists, with the movie itself being a sort of a middle-of-the-road docudrama chronicling his exploits. Whether you find this conceit charming or tiresome is, of course, purely subjective. I found it kind of quietly hilarious — a perfect companion to the novelization.
First up is a commentary track featuring director W.D. Richter and "Reno" — "Reno" being a member of Team Banzai in the film and the fictional narrator of the Banzai novelization; on the commentary track, Reno's pretty obviously Earl Mac Rauch in disguise.
Because of the disc's Banzai-actually-exists conceit, this track becomes a sort of labored role-playing — with Richter and the muttering, grunting "Reno" referring to the film as a "docudrama" and repeatedly insisting that the actors are mimicking real-life members of the Banzai Institute and the duo making up elaborate legal explanations as to why Rauch's name appears on the byline of the novelization when "in fact" it was written by Reno, and so on ad nauseam. As performed by two non-actors, this all comes off as kind of silly — but if you're willing to roll with it, there are a few treasures to be had.
Rauch — er, "Reno" — is pretty much useless, grunting infrequently and almost monosyllabically at times; given the florid prose that appears in the book and throughout the written extras, all of it written by Rauch, this is actually pretty disappointing. Fortunately, Richter is more than game, and several behind-the-scenes tidbits emerge. We learn for example that Lewis Smith, the actor who plays Perfect Tommy, is a colorful, ambivalent chap who now runs a motel, and that producer David Begelman was a colorful, incendiary figure who thought he was producing a much more straightforward action film. (According to Richter, who sounds simultaneously bemused and bitter, Begelman threatened to shut down the film over Dr. Banzai's bright-red eyeglasses, saying that action heroes don't sport nimby-pimby eyewear.) We also learn that the film's semi-infamous "watermelon" gag — in which two characters in the middle of an action scene stop and discuss a mysteriously placed melon in a laboratory — came about because Richter wanted to see if his producer/enemy was even watching the dailies any more.
For my money, the best way to enjoy the commentary is to watch it with the special subtitle track, "Pinky Carruther's Unknown Facts," turned on — the effect is a bit like watching "Mystery Science Theater 3000" with a joke-packed CNN tickertape scrolling underneath. The "Unknown Facts" are essentially fictional, pseudoscience-packed footnotes for the movie — rectifying differences between the movie and novelization and expanding on character biographies. We learn here, for example, that Dr. Banzai took Einstein's brain with him in a briefcase during his opening Jet Car ride; that Jeff Goldblum's ridiculous cowboy outfit is inherited from his grandfather, a silent-movie actor; that the good-guy aliens all look like Rastafarians because they only landed on Jamaica while researching the planet; that Buckaroo Banzai packs a pair of vintage Navy Colt pistols; and that you can submit annual poetry-contest entries to the official Banzai Institute Web site (which is, by the way, marvelously detailed and well worth a visit).
Moving on to the other extras, we find an "Alternate Opening with Jamie Lee Curtis," which is also viewable appended to the main feature. Featuring expository narration by Rawhide (Clancy Brown), this is fake home-movie footage of young Buckaroo with his parents (one of them played by Curtis in a fright wig) that climaxes with an explosive assassination that orphans our hero.
Then there's "Buckaroo Banzai Declassified," a 22-minute "documentary" that splices 1984 Electronic Press Kit interviews and model-shop visits with brand-new footage of W.D. Richter, looking tweedy and well-preserved, talking about making the "docudrama" and showcasing movie props "on loan" from the "real" Banzai Institute, from which he says this new interview is being conducted. I know, I know. Still, it's amusing to watch Weller, Lithgow, and Barkin try to explain (in 1984) what the hell the movie's going to be about.
Next up (and we're maybe halfway through the extras at this point) are 14 deleted scenes taken from an old workprint, most of them extended cuts of final scenes, viewable separately or all in a lump. For the sake of expediency, I'm just going to throw plot points and character names out here without explanation:
1. "Backstage with the Cavaliers" features the Hong Kong Cavaliers doing a "spectrographic analysis" on the creature Buckaroo found attached to his Jet Car after flying through the mountain; the joke here is that they're doing it while strapping on guitars for their rock-n-roll gig at Artie's Artery. There's also some jokey business with a nudie picture sneaked into the spectro-analyzer;
2. "Penny's Troubles" features an extended cut of Barkin in the nightclub during the just-interrupted concert, sobbing and telling Buckaroo how she just lost her room at the Y;
3. "The Conference Begins" is a needless intro to the overthruster press conference — featuring people milling around and just generally showcasing how bereft of much-needed extras the scene was to begin with;
4. "'Dr. Lizardo?'" also takes place during the press conference, and features Dr. Banzai cattily referring to the just-escaped Lizardo as an "old ugly snoot";
5. "'Give Me A Fix!'" features the evil Lectroid trio sucking on a battery in their van, with John BigbootÃ© refusing a hit, saying "No thanks, I'm driving";
6. "A Little Down" features, in a failed comic counterpoint, our heroes lounging around the press-conference room, waiting for Dr. Banzai to return from chasing the Lectroids who kidnapped Dr. Hikita;
7. "'Therma-what?'" is about five seconds of extra chit-chat as the Lectroid trio discusses the crashed alien spacecraft found by the hunters;
8. "New Jersey Meets the Cavaliers" features Goldblum's character meeting everyone in the Bunkhouse — Team Banzai's upstairs nerve center — as our heroes try to hack into Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems' database computer (nice touch: One of the guys in the Bunkhouse asks, "Laying down some background vocals tonight?" as our heroes enter the room);
9. "John Emdall" features Rosalind Cash's glamorous alien queen responding directly to Perfect Tommy as Team Banzai views what was previously thought to be a "recording" of her threatening to blow up the planet;
10. "'Hanoi Xan?'" is a quiet moment between Banzai and Penny in which he reveals that Xan — an arch-villain Priddy thought only existed in Banzai comic books — exists in real life, and furthermore killed Buckaroo's wife, Penny's twin sister;
11. "Penny Confronts Dr. Lizardo" features Penny mistakenly assuming that Dr. Lizardo is Hanoi Xan, to Lizardo's (and, if the scene has made final cut, the audience's) confusion;
12. "'Solve These Equations!'" is an extended cut of Lizardo interrogating Dr. Banzai in the Shock Tower — followed by an absolutely terrible bit in which Secretary of Defense McKinley (Matt Clark) screams bug-eyed at Team Banzai and commandeers their bus;
13. "'A Piece of Cake'" contains some gun-exchanging business between New Jersey, Buckaroo, and Perfect Tommy as they rescue Penny Priddy from the "torture cradle";
14. And "Illegal Aliens" features Reno telling Buckaroo after the climactic battle that they should imprison the remaining Lectroids as illegal immigrants — with Buckaroo responding, "And let the American taxpayers foot the bill? No way, JosÃ©!"
All of the above scenes were cut for sound reasons, by the way.
Next up is the "New Jet Car Trailer" (2:24), created in late 1998 by Foundation Imaging to help pitch a "Buckaroo Banzai" TV series. It's a swift bit of computer-generated mayhem — featuring a radio-station tower shooting electricity into the heavens, alien ships chasing the Jet Car over snowy terrain, and the Jet Car literally acting as nose landing gear for a damaged Space Shuttle as it makes an emergency landing in the desert. According to Richter on the commentary track, the shifting ownership of the "Banzai" property put this TV project in development hell; perhaps this DVD's copious, imaginative extras (and, one hopes, its strong sales) will give the series another shot.
Moving along, we find some "Enhanced NUON Features" and a "Teaser Trailer" — the latter playing up both the film's wacky comedy and its oh-so-'80s end-credit shots of Team Banzai walking around in the reservoir (with a special emphasis for some reason on crotch shots of Goldblum and Weller). There's also a "Photo Gallery" divided into 10 sections: "1930s," "1950s," "Behind the Scenes," "Buckaroo," "Hong Kong Cavaliers," "Jet Car," "Lectroids," "Penny," "Scenes," and "Villains."
Sick of this disc yet? We're just getting to the interesting parts — the text-driven supplements, presumably written by Rauch, a few of them lifted from the novelization, that explain the world of the Banzai Institute in deadpan, obsessive, excruciating, and — if you warm to Rauch's particular tongue-in-cheek style — hilarious detail.
Allow me to showcase a few examples.
First up, there's the "Buckaroo Banzai Personal Profiles" menu, which showcases a mini-biography of Banzai in five parts: "The Musician," "The Lover," "The Scientist," "The Man," and "The Adventurer." Text from "The Adventurer" section kicked off this review; here's text from "The Lover":
"The principles by which B. Banzai lives are known as the Five Stresses, the Four Beauties and the Three Loves. Things to be stresses are decorum, courtesy, public health, discipline and morals. The Four Beauties are the beauties of mind, language, behavior and environment. The Three Loves are love of others, love of justice and love of freedom."
Uh-huh. And that's just the opening salvo in an overwhelming outpouring of pulpy imaginative text. Rauch goes on in the next section, "Buckaroo Banzai Character Profiles," to offer mini-biographies of Banzai (again) and 13 other characters — Reno Nevada, New Jersey, Dr. Emilio Lizardo, Lord John Whorfin, Rawhide, Penny Priddy, Perfect Tommy, Pinky Carruthers (played in the movie, I might add, by Billy Vera of Billy & The Beaters), John Parker, Lo Pep, Hanoi Xan ("a.k.a. The Scourge of Burma, The Spawn of Hell, The Face That Is No Face"), Lectroids, and Toichi Hikita. A couple of these characters don't even appear in the movie (though they do show up in the book) — which leads me to believe the bios were probably pulled from the TV-series pitch materials.
From the profile of Buckaroo Banzai in this section:
"... Dr. Banzai became dissatisfied with a life devoted exclusively to medicine and perfected a wide range of skills. It was quite by chance that he became involved in scientific investigation, first studying the psychology of crime. Although he was born in London while his parents were visiting England, he spent his early days on the vast ranges of Colorado and Arizona and was taught how to ride and shoot by the redskinned Sioux warriors, who strangely seemed to enjoy showing an Amerasian boy their tricks. Until he was fourteen he went to school in Denver, and later continued his education in Massachusetts, Texas and England, taking his medical degree from Harvard. In this way a love of travel and the craving for excitement and danger were stimulated in him from childhood."
And here's my personal favorite, Rauch's profile of Perfect Tommy:
"Upon his introduction into the Hong Kong Cavaliers (at a surprisingly young age), this accomplished guitarist and Institute fellow who would one day design the amazing Jet Car was nicknamed by Buckaroo, 'Perfect Tommy, Knight of the Lesser Boulevards.' A native of Lincoln County, New Mexico (Billy the Kid territory), and the son of a Scotch emigrant, Tommy is related on his mother's side to the historian Robertson, and to Lord Brougham.
"His youth evinced neither capacity nor application, but was passed in telling stories, hunting, and in fiddling. Having failed as a store-keeper, he was admitted to the State Bar after six weeks of study, with an admonition from the court to overcome his ignorance of the law. Only in matters affecting the Bill of Rights, and as a jury lawyer, was he roused to the exhibition of talent; and the traditions of his eloquence far surpass the impressions made by reading such of his speeches as the labor of his friends at the Banzai Archives has preserved."
The only drawback to these particular supplements is that you wish more of this stuff had actually made it into the movie.
Next up is "Jet Car All Access" — more reams of obsessively detailed text, supposedly from a newly declassified Auto Enthusiast magazine article, about the inner workings of Dr. Banzai's mountain-piercing pickup. Subsections include "Statistics," "Jet Engine," "Cockpit," "Overthruster" (which comprises further subsections containing 23 pages worth of "Designs/Drawings" and "Mathematics") and, finally, "Design."
Finally — finally — we reach the "Banzai Institute Archives," containing the following subsections:
• "Technical Data," including schematics [read: production-design drawings] of the Hong Kong Cavaliers tour bus and Complex 88;
• "Movie Archive," featuring "Movie Tie-Ins," "Film Locations," and "Movie Reviews" from the New York Times and Hollywood Reporter (the latter a mixed-to-negative writeup);
• "Hong Kong Cavaliers CD Covers," featuring such album titles as "Your Place or Mayan?" and "Progress Over Protocol" (a record on which, according to the album's song list, Stephen Hawking contributes guest vocals);
• And "Historical Archives," including a "Buckaroo Banzai Interview" ported over from the official Web site; a 10-minute "Banzai Radio" broadcast in which Terry "Silver Fox" Erdman is interviewed by Denise "Catnip" Okuda about promoting the film, among other issues; an "Institute History" taken largely from the novelization; a "Badges" section featuring three security/backstage tags; and "Hikita's Diary," which rounds out the DVD with an obsessive, multiple-page collection of anecdotes about Banzai's parents and the events leading up to their murder.
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V. Any Easter Eggs?
I found five, though there may be more:
• In the main menu, highlight the center Jet Car on the top of the screen; you'll access a menu of "Quotes" from Dr. Banzai and, yes, Aristotle;
• Also in the main menu, highlight the upper-left console button to view 36 stills of alternate DVD menu screens;
• On the first page of the deleted-scenes menu, highlight the watermelon; you'll access a faux newspaper article titled "Food From the Skies?" about the Banzai Institute's efforts to develop air-droppable watermelons;
• Then there's an Easter Egg inside an Easter Egg: Highlight the "BB" logo on page two of the watermelon article, and you access a short interview clip (titled "Why?") in which Richter discusses New Jersey's recipe for "Chicken in a Watermelon";
• And finally, highlight the "BB" logo on the "Banzai Institute Archives" page to access alternate DVD cover designs, all of which are less lurid than the one they actually used.
That is all. Good Lord, it should be plenty.
— Alexandra DuPont
• Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (French)
• French and Spanish subtitles
• Commentary track featuring director W.D. Richter and "Reno" (i.e., screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch)
• Subtitle track: "Pinky Carruther's Unknown Facts"
• Alternate opening sequence
• Making-of documentary: "Buckaroo Banzai Declassified"
• 14 deleted scenes
• "New Jet Car Trailer" for proposed Banzai TV series
• Enhanced NUON features
• Teaser trailer
• Buckaroo Banzai "Personal Profiles"
• Character profiles
• "Jet Car All Access" article
• Photo gallery
• "Banzai Institute Archives," featuring technical data, Hong Kong Cavaliers CD covers, interviews, reviews, and much more
• Five Easter eggs