The pantheon of heroic scientists contains some of the greatest names in science fiction; Professor Bernard Quatermass, Professor Henry Jones II, The Doctor and many more. But there’s one in particular who has strode across the world for twenty five years, a man whose genius is matched only by his compassion and musical ability; Doctor Buckaroo Banzai, who celebrates his 25th anniversary this year.
Written by Earl Mac Rauch, directed by WD Richter and starring some of the iconic names of the ‘80s and earl y ‘90s, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension was released in 1984 and gradually acquired cult status. It’s the story of Buckaroo Banzai, an orphaned genius, scientist, musician and martial artist who splits his time between performing high end brain surgery, developing a way of passing through solid matter and playing slightly seedy clubs in New Jersey with his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers.
As the film opens, Buckaroo has perfected the Oscillation Overthruster, a device that allows him to move through the invisible dimensions contained within solid matter. But even as he celebrates his success, an age old war is about to reignite on Earth, a war that connects the Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast with a spaceship orbiting high over the Earth and Buckaroo’s Oscillation Overthruster. Years ago, something awful arrived from the Eighth Dimension and now it wants to go back…
Buckaroo Banzai presents the absurd with an absolutely straight face, filtering the standard 1950s ‘Two fisted scientist’ through Miami Vice and the start of the cult of personality to create something genuinely unique. Buckaroo is a superhero whose costume is a sharp ‘80s suit, a man for whom medicine comes as easily as physics, martial arts and aeronautics. He’s utterly deadpan, utterly driven and played with absolutely perfection by Weller. His deep, sonorous voice combines with Mac Rauch’s script to present a man who is both incredibly clever and at the same time slightly distanced. In the hands of a lesser, or at least less eccentric, writer this would turn him into the absolutely standard tortured genius of science fiction, able to take his place along side Quatermass as a man who is never allowed and never allows himself to enjoy his achievements.
But Rauch and Weller have different plans for the good doctor. Instead, he becomes a genuinely admirable figure; a smart, competent, compassionate man able to face the almost lunatic dangers of his world safe in the knowledge that there’s very little he can’t out think, out build, out sing or if needed out fight. He’s the Doctor with a regular circle of friends, Quatermass in a better suit. He’s arguably the best of all the heroic scientists and is certainly the best dressed.
The Hong Kong Cavaliers are a vital part of both Buckaroo’s success and that of the film. A near roll call of some of the best character actors of the last thirty years, they include Clancy Brown as the unflappable Rawhide, Jeff Goldblum as the oddly cowboy-clad New Jersey, Lewis Smith as the impossibly good looking Perfect Tommy and Pepe Serna as the relentlessly cheerful Reno Nevada and they all get a chance not just to register but to shine. Goldblum’s nervous doctor who can sing and ‘dance a little’ is particularly good fun, a man desperate to fit in and somehow managing to do so whilst never quite taking off the cowboy outfit. Smith’s platinum blonde, Billy Idol-a-like and Brown’s relaxed, informal scientist/commando are equally as likeable. There’s an air of Doc Savage and his friends to the way they interact, combined with an offhand, relaxed humour years ahead of its time. These men are the forerunners of Buffy’s Scooby gang, the crew of the Serenity and the command staff of the reimagined Galactica, a group of people so comfortable with each other you have no problem accepting the idea of hard rocking scientists with guns and their own volunteer army.
The rest of the cast are as impressive, especially Ellen Barkin as the improbably named Penny Priddy and John Lithgow as Doctor Emilio Lizardo and John Whorfin, the Lectroid dictator who takes over his body. Lithgow in particular throws himself around the set with maniacal glee, a bulky Peter Lorre with an appalling Italian accent and a fondness for referring to humans as ‘monkey boy’ and his maniacal performance is a great counterpoint to Weller’s relentlessly calm Banzai. However it’s Carl Lumbly who steals the show as John Parker, an envoy from the Black Lectroids who is endlessly compassionate, slightly inept and wildly eccentric. Lumbly, like several other cast members, is adept at stealing a scene by doing almost nothing and he’s on top form here.
The cast, combined with Richter’s direction and Mac Rauch’s script turn the film into something truly wonderful. From the moment Buckaroo activates the Oscillation Overthruster to the final scenes on the Hong Kong Cavaliers tour bus you feel as though you’re looking through a window into a different world. It’s escapism in the purist sense, a look at a world which is both infinitely more dangerous and somehow far more appealing, watched over and defended by a genius and his best friends, all of whom put their trousers on one leg at a time.
There’s a sense of barely contained glee at getting away with producing something so odd that suffuses the entire film, especially the end credits that see Buckaroo and friends marching in time across the Sepulveda Basin. It’s a perfect summation of what’s gone before, as we see the world’s best dressed genius joined by friends both human and alien, alive and dead. As he leads them across the basin it becomes clear this is the reason why Buckaroo wins, the reason why he’s such an enduring figure even now. On his own he’s incredible, but with his friends, he’s exceptional.
So happy anniversary Doctor Banzai. You don’t just keep the world safe, you make it much more interesting. And remember, wherever you go, there you are.