There’s a scene in Ready Player One where the lead character Parzival is dressing for an online date (in his reality you have to dress to meet people online too) and having gone through a couple of outfits previously worn by Michael Jackson and Simon Le Bon he settles on the jacket, shirt and tie combo sported by Buckaroo Banzai on the poster to the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. It is one of the more obscure references in the movie even if it is one of the easiest to spot. So much so that along with Akira’s motorcycle, it is one of the few nods to other films that is actually named. Most of the icons of 80s and 90s cinema and gaming in the film pass by unmentioned but in the case of the Buckaroo Banzai costume the film goes to pains to mention that it is the Buckaroo Banzai costume.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is a strange little movie. Released in 1984 it tells of the escapades of Dr. Banzai, a crime fighter/scientist/neurosurgeon/rock star and his trusted group of allies known as the Hong Kong Cavaliers (basically the T-Birds with unconvincing PhDs). At the start of the film the multi skilled protagonist takes a heavily modified motor vehicle (that wants to be the BTTF DeLorean but looks more like the Grimswold’s overloaded station wagon) and drives it through half a mile of solid rock. It turns out the car was briefly transported to the eight dimension which raises the attention of some rubbery faced aliens from Planet 10 and lots of chasing, shooting, jumping over things and overacting ensues.
As you might gather from the synopsis the film is tongue in cheek but it doesn’t quite nail the tone as well as movies like Bill & Ted and The Princess Bride. There is a very fine line between funny and stupid and Buckaroo Banzai walks it like a tightrope never really putting a foot down in either. There is fun to be had here but few proper laughs. Legend has it that the cast of Star Wars feared they were making a turkey and if that was the case then the same must absolutely have been true here. The difference being though that in the case of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension they were right. The film died at the box office but has since attained enough of a cult status to provide wardrobe tips to the heroes in Steven Spielberg films.
Even if you don’t know Buckaroo Banzai though you’ll know the cast. The title character is gamely played by Peter Weller, three years before Robocop, and also features Jeff Goldblum two years before The Fly, Christopher Lloyd one year before Back to the Future and John Lithgow in the same year as Footloose. The female lead is taken by Ellen Barkin, two years before The Big Easy, but she is probably able to take the least pride in this early performance as all she does is cry, scream, kiss and get kidnapped. It is not a strong feminist role. Granted this was seven years before Thelma & Louise but it was four years after 9 to 5 and Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton must have felt like kidnapping someone themselves. (I’m sure they would have seen this.)
I liked the randomness of a lot of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. Parts of it are charming, like having the cast walking round that dry river base in LA (see Grease and Terminator 2) in time to the optimistic closing music. Ultimately though it is all largely forgettable which is no doubt why it has been largely forgotten. After this and The Last Starfighter, the search to find a diamond in the rough of lost 80s cinema continues.