Back in the 1980s, special effects were much simpler, more practically-bound things than they are today, imposing a kind of narrowness of scope on even the most ambitious of spectacles. Back then, you just didn’t see a lot of the superhero and kaiju and disaster and alien invasion movies that you see today because it was so, so, so much harder to make them convincingly. But that didn’t stop a bunch of people to go ahead and try to make the most whackadoodle genre mash-up ever made, a kind of science fiction, comic book, rock & roll, gonzo comedy, satire-but-not-really genre gumbo that is the avatar for the notion of something being so crazy, it just might work. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension.
The story—Christ, where do you even begin?—involves Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, world renowned martial artist, rock & roller, particle physicist, neurosurgeon and race car driver. Together with his kickass crew of sidekicks, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, they go around the world, playing awesome tunes to packed houses, driving rocket cars through dimensional rifts in space and time, and saving the planet often enough to know that when the President of the United States calls you on the phone, you don’t always have to pick it up. Shortly after Banzai learns that the dimensional barrier keeping a reptilian race of alien invaders is weakening—thanks in part to the half-assed machinations of the wildly insane Dr. Emilio Lizardo and a bunch of redneck alien minions he’s got running around arguing and generally making a hash of things—he meets a beautiful young woman who reminds him of an old flame, and who quickly gets mixed up in this alien business. There are kidnappings and chases before the Cavaliers activate the Blue Blazer Irregulars—a network of citizen soldiers loyal to Banzai and seemingly in every city, county and state in the Union—and lead an assault on the alien stronghold before the planet gets screwed up by nuclear war, alien invasion, or both.
Trying to figure out what this movie is trying to accomplish is a bit like trying to understand the entire ocean by sipping a handful of it. You just can’t. This movie somehow distills the entirety of noir pulp adventure, 1980s New Wave whatever-it-was and the energy of the most expansive comic book franchise that was never published all into a movie that isn’t even two hours long. It’s the kind of thing made from so many disparate parts that the only way you can fathom how they all come together is by not looking at any one part of it for too long. You just have to kind of wander into the middle of it, let your focus soften, and see everything from out of the corner of your eye. Then, maybe, you’ll hang on long enough to realize that this is a vision of pop culture genius, but one that is so frangible that it comes at you like a canister of confetti blasted out of a Civil War cannon. That is a compliment, by the way.
So much of this movie is a string of absurdities chained to each other in such a pell-mell fashion that you don’t really understand how these things connect. And they kind of don’t; that’s the point. In touching on so many different weird details of Buckaroo’s past, the deal with these aliens trying to invade from the 8th dimension, the romance with Penny Priddy, why the President is in traction, why a little kid runs the local Blue Blazers chapter,, the mania of Dr. Lizardo, the traveling schedule of the Hong Kong Cavaliers…it all suggests a world ten times bigger than the one we glimpse throughout the show. A lot of movies dazzle us with detailed world building and a rich, compelling backstory. Buckaroo Banzai gives us the barest details, as if to say that we couldn’t handle the whole story even it was given to us, so better to just take what we get and let our own imaginations fill in the rest. It works better than it ought to, and it helps to explain why so many weirdos have fallen in love with this movie over the decades since it first flopped at the theaters.
Not everybody will like or understand this movie, and that is too bad, because those who don’t are unable to walk through a doorway into a world where you can play two saxaphones at the same time, get away with being a cowboy named New Jersey, deliver important messages through electrified kisses, and listen to peevish aliens argue fight over how to pronounce each other’s names. If you can tune in to this wavelength, you are tuning into a frequency of the human brain that channels delight and wonder and madness and confusion in equal measures for a kind of experience like none other. If everyone in the world liked this movie, there would be no war, because nobody—absolutely nobody—can maintain hostilities after quoting along with, “Hey, hey, hey. Don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean. Because remember, no matter where you go…there you are.” Fact.
The moment of truth in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension comes during the final credits, in which we get something more movies should really do: a proper hero walk. As the infectious synthopop Buckaroo Banzai theme plays, Buckaroo strides purposefully toward the camera and one by one, each of our heroes joins him after getting one last high five between the audience and the screen. Then, the entire ensemble marches along in a riot of weird costumes and characters that promises to us that this movie might be over, but the adventures of Buckaroo Banzai will never be. Now that is how you end a movie.