By Nevin Martell with Pat McGuire on August 13, 2010
Never has a movie this bad been so good. Defying most cinematic norms and all traditional reason, 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! is a movie that polarizes audiences like few films do—you either love it or hate it. Period. And the reasons for such divisiveness are many. For starters, unlike most watchable films, Buckaroo contains a tenuous plotline at best; a story about a multi-talented man who attempts to save the world from a group of inter-dimensional aliens from Planet 10. Secondly, the film’s protagonist, Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, is an anti-hero of sorts, tromping over time and space not as a buffed-up superhero, but as a smarty-pants scientist/surgeon/musician—a quasi-mythical character who resists strict characterizations. (As one character in the film remarks, “He thinks he’s Einstein, James Bond and Batman all rolled into one!”) Or perhaps, maybe these sci-fi adventures attract such heated criticism and undying adoration simply because on many levels, Buckaroo Banzai just doesn’t make any sense at all. Period.
Featuring aliens that look like Rastafarians, a band of scientists-turned-rock and rollers (the Hong Kong Cavaliers) and a bevy of fortune cookie Zen-like quotes (“No matter where you go, there you are”, “Nothing is ever what it seems, but everything is exactly what it is”), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was not a film necessarily intended to be a classic blockbuster. Writer Earl Mac Rauch (who also penned Scorsese’s New York, New York) teamed up with director W.D. Richter to create a bizarre, sci-fi satire that would push the envelope and not pander to the masses. It certainly triumphed on that point: the film grossed little over $6 million at the box office.
Despite Buckaroo Banzai’s lack of financial success, over time it has earned a cult following that continues to flourish in a line of comic books, even as it earns numerous pop references in everything from Star Trek episodes to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Much of this fandom comes from appreciation of its all-star ensemble cast, which includes Peter Weller (Robocop, Mighty Aphrodite, Naked Lunch) in the title role, John Lithgow as a mad scientist possessed by an extraterrestrial overlord, Christopher Lloyd as an evil alien, Jeff Goldblum as a surgeon/gunslinger, Jamie Lee Curtis as Buckaroo’s mother (her role was cut out of the theatrical version, but she returns in the prologue of the special edition DVD) and Ellen Barkin as Penny Priddy, the dame. Though all of these actors went on to bigger and perhaps more nuanced roles, it’s apparent from any Internet search that their involvement in the mythology of Buckaroo Banzai has not been forgotten.
Watching the movie today, two things are clear: that yesteryear sci-fi special effects don’t dazzle like they used to, and over the last 24 years, we as a species have not gained any more understanding with which to approach this movie as those who watched it for the first time. But what does translate to modern audiences is the film’s acute sense of mystifyingly off-kilter hilarity. In fact, the actors got such a kick out of it all, that there are a couple of instances in the film when someone visibly breaks down into giggles—including even the principal actor (“Lloyd was standing behind Lithgow, just out of frame, eating Doritos through his alien suit!” Weller explains). But more than just some silly slack-off flick, the film is laden with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, biting social satire and philosophical nods that near a certain kind of inner peace—call it Western sci-fi with the ideals of a kung fu master.
Director W.D. Richter (who went on to write Stealth and adapt Big Trouble in Little China) relied on visual gags and physical humor to complement the audacious script, which gives Buckaroo Banzai the feeling of Airplane!, for joke upon joke is piled into each scene so that repeated viewings are required in order to catch them all. Thankfully, the special edition DVD released in 2002 came with a number of commentaries and featurettes, helping to explain the many inside jokes and references that litter the film (including why there’s a random watermelon inserted willy-nilly into one particular sequence).
To say that they don’t make movies like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! anymore would imply that there was a time when films like this were regularly made. To quote another sci-fi classic: “There can be only one.” Sometimes the universe produces things that go against nature, but perhaps that just means that they’re so ingenious, it’s impossible to ever truly understand them. Here we gather the film’s stars, Peter Weller and John Lithgow, to bring some order to the chaos. Now, onward to the Eighth Dimension!
If He's Not One Thing, He's Another:
A Conversation with the Galvanizing Peter Weller
Let’s talk about Buckaroo, man, because maybe you could explain it to me. You can start off the interview by saying that—I’m asking you to explain it to me.
Well, I was only five years old when the movie came out.
You were? Fuck you! [Laughs]
But watching it again after all these years, I get the sense that there’s a great collision of ideas in the film. All these cut-and-dry comic book characters with these very abstract social and political ideas…
A month after we finished shooting, while the film was in post-production, one of the top guns of 21st Century marketing asked me, “What genre is this film?” And at that time, I still thought it was an off-beat action movie, but my editor friend who saw the screening said, “Look, this movie’s going to go nowhere. It’s just too dense.” To which the marketing rep said, “Well, you’re meant to get a big joke out of this.” And so there I am, the star of the film, and this buddy of mine has to explain to me that it’s a comedy. And that’s what it is—a comedy.
But its humor is so broad. It’s got the slap-stick, the dry witticisms, the dark humor…
Yeah, it’s hard to say what it’s about. People were explaining the movie to us. There are Buckaroo freaks who know more about the movie than I do. I still don’t quite know what the movie is about. There’s a Zen-ness to it in that there’s an otherness to the film. There’s no particular niche you can stuff that film into. And it was written by one of the most madcap individuals I’ve ever met, Earl Mac Rauch.
Talk about a guy who’s hard to find.
Do you know where he is?
No clue. Do you?
Uh-uh. He’s one of the more esoteric and brilliant guys I’ve ever come across, man. He wrote New York, New York. He wrote a bunch of stuff. He was an amazing writer. Drove around a big, black Dodge Ram truck with this big, beautiful golden retriever in the back; he wore salmon marine pants and a t-shirt and had a buzz cut. He was from Texas. But I think he went to M.I.T. He was a funny guy, and anything could come out of his mouth. So much so that he was told to keep out of meetings with all the mucky-mucks—like with the Hunt Brothers, who owned the company that produced the movie and owned the studio. I think Rauch was a guy who just loved mixing it up. I mean, come on—it’s Buckaroo!
One of the most special things about Buckaroo is its cast—the names are unbelievable. How did they get you and the others to do such a bizarre movie?
W.D. Richter took me to some restaurant in L.A. right off La Brea and San Vincente. I didn’t want to do some wacky comedy; I wanted to do a serious film that was going to affect the world. And he asked me, “When else do you get to play a rock star/neurosurgeon/astrophysicist?” And, I was like, “O.K.,” but I couldn’t get through the script!
So how did you prepare to play this never-before-seen superhero who’s also very human?
Well, it was intense physical preparation. I lost 20 pounds. I was running every day. And I did all the gun stunts myself. I read a whole lot of Jacques Cousteau and how he ran his shit. I studied Adam Ant. Goldblum and I met with a neurosurgeon. And that was it! The rest of it I had to wing. I did all that for a sense of knowledge, so I’d know what the hell I was talking about.
Looking back, is your character out to stop evil?
I don’t think so. I think he’s just plunging ahead for science. He’s out to relieve suffering through as many works as he can muster. And I can only say that in retrospect. That’s all he’s about to do, to make the world a better place. Essentially, that’s the worth of most science: to further progress. It’s the old 19th century ideology of positivism.
It seems that the cast had a lot of chemistry. Was it sort of like going to work every day with your best friends?
Yeah. I knew Lithgow from theater, and I knew Lloyd the best—he’s one of my dearest friends. Goldblum, too. I met Jeff the night he lost his virginity. He was acting in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and I went to the opening night party, and he said that’s the night he lost it. I felt so honored.
Where does Buckaroo rank among your memories of working in film?
While directing me in my second film, Just Tell Me What You Want, Sidney Lumet [Serpico, Network] told me, “Do not let the experience of the film be invalidated by the business of it.” Because when a movie comes out and gets panned, it doesn’t get any business. But if you had a great time making that movie, that’s all you can say. It was smart advice to give. My first film was with Richard Lester—Butch and Sundance: The Early Days—and it came out and tanked. So, in my meeting with Sidney, he said, “Don’t apologize for that. Don’t do that. Did you have a good time making that?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Then that’s what the film is to you; the experience. Don’t ever apologize for what the critics say.” I had a remarkable time with Buckaroo.
How old were you when you played Buckaroo?
I was 36. It was the last of my party days—when L.A. was wide open. I had a lot of friends out here and we’d gather at someone’s house for the weekend…half-stoned.
So the party days end when you turn 36, huh?
Yes they do. Those were the last of the party days for L.A., I think. Belushi died after that. A.I.D.S. became a major factor in partying. Physical abuse, which I wasn’t really into—drugs and drinking—but that level of party-time became obscure because of the huge danger it presented to the movie and music industry. I think ’83 was a seminal year. But I don’t know anybody my age who continued doing all that stuff and survived. I turned to discipline. I was running six miles a day, which I started doing for Buckaroo.
It’s interesting that you bring up drugs and music, because in the film, you essentially have a band of guys who are literally driving around on a tour bus. You’re hanging out in the backstage laboratory, but you’re doing science experiments instead of drugs. Is there a sense of patronization in this?
No. The Hong Kong Cavaliers were very noble, very contributive people. That was all Mac. On the surface, they have a rock and roll band, but behind the scenes, they’re all scientists. That’s one of my favorite scenes—we’re in the bar, playing the song, and as soon as Penny Priddy makes a false move, everybody in the band comes out with their MAC-10s. It’s a whole military unit!
As an actor, do you find that you learn things from the characters—whether it’s the one you’re playing or those with whom you are interacting? Do you apply what you learn from your preparation to your actual life?
Yeah. That movie changed my life. I connected to his Zen-ness. He was a real renaissance man. I have a thirst—a layman’s thirst—for knowledge. I’m doing a Ph.D. at U.C.L.A. in Italian Renaissance Art History with a minor in Late Republican Rome/Late Roman Art. I’m not a great scholar, but I’m kind of a wannabe know-it-all. Russell Crowe said he never met the guy he played in A Beautiful Mind; he didn’t care. But I care. The more you know, the more you can make up. If you’re doing a Harold Pinter play, there’s no background at all; you can make up whatever the hell you want. In Shakespeare, you’re given a whole scheme of history to own before you say your words. I like to own this history. Uta Hagen, my mentor—a great actress and teacher—said, “Why do you have to know your grandfather? Well, you don’t. But, if you know who your grandfather is, it’s just more food for you.” So, yeah. I like to know all that stuff. If someone just hands me the script and says, “Start making it up,” I could. But, the more I know, the more I can make up.
Otherwise it’s just another gig. And this same philosophy was applied to Buckaroo?
I have to say that I was going into Buckaroo blind. I kept asking myself, “What in the hell is this movie about?” In the old method rule, in a sentence, or in very few words, you ask yourself what the writer has in mind. Say in A Streetcar Named Desire you’re playing Stanley Kowalski. What is this about? O.K., it’s the survival of your house being threatened by some megalomaniacal sister. What is Buckaroo about besides Buckaroo? Saving the world? Understanding the interplanetary reaction of racism? [Laughs] I don’t know man, the movie has everything. It has politics, the central adjustments of racism; a whole extraterrestrial look at what’s good and evil. Socialism, man. I don’t know what the hell it’s about, but it’s a comedy for sure.
What is it about the science fiction genre that makes fans write this back story fiction about the characters? You don’t see people doing that for Stanley Kowalski, detailing his early years as a monkey trainer or whatever.
Science fiction is the frontier of invention. It’s the literary frontier of make-believe. But science fiction is even more compelling for that sort of ilk because it’s based on science. All of H.G. Wells has come true. Jules Verne has come true. So, people go nuts. I’m not a big science fiction guy. I get thrown into science fiction because of Robocop and Buckaroo.
Do you find that people get fixated on certain movies, like Robocop and Buckaroo, because those films refuse to only entertain? They demand a close viewing from the audience. Buckaroo always offers more each time you watch it.
Yes, most people want a rock and roll concert. But some movies are like Miles Davis; you have to really go to them. Look at the films of post-war Italy. You have to go to those movies. You have to invest something in them. They’re not going to come out and smack you in the face. One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen is Remains of the Day. You think, “Where is this movie going?” There’s no galvanizing epiphany at all. There’s not a galvanizing end to Buckaroo, either. The film’s final line is, “So what? Big deal.”
So then, what is the big deal? How, ultimately, has this film affected your life?
First, I had never done a film—or anything—that took so much physical discipline. I was 20 pounds overweight before that film. It also got me reading and sent me on some scholastic channel that I’m still on. It showed me that you cannot let the results of the movie interfere with those experiences you had making it. That was one of the greatest times of my life.
Whatever may be lacking in the film also showed me that a film has to have certain things in order to please the public. I take from the film all of those spiritual and mental inputs and explorations. That said, I still don’t know what Buckaroo Banzai is about. I know that it’s a miracle. Somehow, there’s a spirituality that is untouchable. It’s a not a tangible thing. There’s a magic in it. Whatever you may say about the film, it’s one-of-a-kind. There’s no comparison.
— Interview by Pat McGuire
Laugh While You Can,
Lord John Lithgow
Revisits the Eighth Dimension
Whatever happened to the proposed sequel, Buckaroo Banzai: Against the World Crime League?
There just wasn’t enough interest. It was not a hit film by any stretch of the imagination. Though, it did manage to resonate strongly with some small fraction of the population. Trust me, if there had been true public interest in a sequel, we would have made one.
If you were approached today about finally making a sequel, would you reprise your role as Dr. Emilio Lizardo / Lord John Whorfin?
Sure. Lizardo may have disappeared into the Eighth Dimension at the end of the film, but that’s the great thing about sci-fi: You can always find a way around things like that.
You’ve had a long and successful career since Buckaroo. But do fans still remember you for that role?
I still have people yelling, “Laugh while you can, monkey boy!” at me from across the street. And when I talk to people at parties, whenever they say, “You know what I really liked you in…” with a sort of half-embarrassed look on their face, I know they’re always going to say Buckaroo Banzai.
Years later, you did Third Rock From the Sun, which was a huge show for you. Did you ever worry that you’d be pigeonholed as a sci-fi actor and that you might have to work the ComiCon circuit?
I’ve never done a sci-fi convention in my life. I’m a character guy. And as long as people keep calling me to do characters, I don’t worry much about it.
What originally attracted you to the role?
Well, I originally rejected it outright. I thought it was just too out there. But then I went to lunch with W. D. Richter at Hamburger Hamlet and he was just such a sweet guy that I took the role.
What is your take on Buckaroo Banzai, as someone who was in the midst of the madness?
It was supposed to be a satirical take on a Saturday serial adventure, but taken to the furthest degree possible. I thought it was the funniest, smartest movie out there, but I wasn’t sure anyone would get the joke.
How did you get in character for the role?
I figured that since he fed on electricity, all his hair would stand upright and his teeth would have completely disintegrated. The accent came from a costume designer on the film. I would spend time in wardrobe with him and he would read my lines and I would tape them. We ultimately got him a credit as a dialect coach. I’m sure it was his first and only credit he got for dialect coaching. Lord John Whorfin’s way of carrying himself was based on Mussolini. The way I stuck out my chin during my big speech was pure El Duce.
What are you memories of filming?
I have wonderful memories of the shoot. We laughed our asses off. Unfortunately, I decided that Lord John Whorfin would wear two of everything—two jackets, two shirts, etc.—because we had this idea that he was always cold. It was damn hot though.
Do you still keep in touch with anyone in the cast?
I ran into Peter Weller a little while ago walking down the street in New York. It had been years since I’d seen him and it was absolutely great to run into him.
If given the chance, would you ever go to the Eighth Dimension?
I’m just trying to do the best I can in this one. F
This article is from FILTER Issue 29