This film is one of the most incomprehensible science fiction films since Zardoz—and that’s a recommendation, in a weird way. It features Peter Weller in one of his first major film roles, as Dr Buckaroo Banzai, who is a neurosurgeon, physicist, test pilot, rock musician and star of his own comic book. And yes, all of these capabilities have a role in the plot. Weller’s portrayal was based on combining Adam Ant, Einstein and Jacques Clouseau.
He plays against a great 1980s cast that includes John Lithgow during the period in which he played a lot of villains, with his Lord John Whorfin here the most over-the-top of these. Christopher Lloyd, Ellen Barkin, and Jeff Goldblum also appear. What could go wrong? Well, for what in theory should have been a fairly mainstream if a bit quirky film—it was intended as a big blockbuster to the extent that the director prematurely announced a sequel (Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League) in the end credits—it suffers from an overload of information. While your first experience of the film is a fun romp, only on second or third viewings do you really understand what’s actually going on. There are too many plot points, too many characters, and such fast-paced sequences that you, like the film, may lose the plot.
Which is a great argument for Arrow’s new Blu-Ray release, which will allow multiple viewings and has some excellent extra features.
The first half of the film presents a dizzying amount of information, an unusual, unique and almost experimental way of presenting what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward science-fiction plot. There is a sub-plot featuring Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, tons of little references to Thomas Pynchon (for example, the firm Yoyodyne is a nod to The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, as is another sub-plot involving V2 missiles). Indeed, it has a lot in common with Pynchon’s work (including the recent film Inherent Vice), in that the best strategy is to just go with the ride, as you’ve get there eventually.
The original cinematographer was Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Blade Runner, but the studio sacked him during filming and replaced him with an old-timer with a different kind of style. As a result, the second half of the film has a more “flat” style and it suffers from this change.
Buckeroo Banzai is also one of the first “geek films,” before geek culture became mainstream. It has a scientist as the heroic lead and there are lots of references to sci-fi books and films. It’s no wonder that on this disk there’s a Q&A hosted by uber-geek Kevin Smith (the fact that the film is set in New Jersey no doubt also had resonance for Smith). The disk also includes about 20 minutes of deleted scene and newly filmed interviews with Peter Weller and John Lithgow. Both of them speak quite fondly of their involvement with Buckeroo Banzai—and both of whom admit that they really didn’t understand what the hell was gong on during filming. The “making of” feature from the old US DVD makes a reappearance here, and there is a visual essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, who also wrote The Wes Anderson Collection. And speaking of Wes Anderson, there is a homage to the ending of Buckaroo Banzai in The Life Aquatic.
For one of the most unique films of the ‘80s, this special edition Blu-Ray is a great release. Buckeroo Banzai still feels ahead of its time, a unique film that is worth picking up if you’ve never seen it before, and worth seeing again.