A couple of days ago my wonderful wife surprised me by watching Avengers: Infinity War with me. She’s not a fan of superhero movies and rarely ever watches that general type of colorful, bombastic spectacles. From the MCU she only watched Guardians of the Galaxy (because raccon) and Thor movies (because Thor). But she sat through the entirety of it (well, okay, she napped for about 20 minutes), quickly caught up on some more confusing parts of it (“Why is Sherlock Smaug a wizard in New York now?”) with only minimal inputs from me (“Hey, two Sherlocks are arguing!”) and ended up liking it quite a lot. This proves that if a piece of larger franchise is put together well enough it can still be entertaining to a newcomer even 10 years and 20 movies in.
With that in mind I finally sat down to watch the 1984 cult Sci-Fi movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The all-essential-80s-star cast (John Lithgow! Ellen Barkin! Peter “Robocop” Weller! Christopher “Doc Brown” Lloyd! Ronald “That nazi from Raiders” Lacey as the President of USA, no less! Clancy “Kevin Inman from Lost” Brown! Jeff “Whoa it’s Jeff Goldblum” Goldblum!) and the synthesizer score (so terrible…) are only the first selling points of this crazy adventure that masterfully sells the whole extensive universe of Buckaroo Banzai – a brilliant half-American half-Japanese surgeon/particle physicist/rock star/martial artist who travels the world in his tour bus playing sweet tunes and saving the world along with his equally versatile band called The Hong Kong Cavaliers – while telling its own self-contained story. The movie makes many nods to the whole franchise, from big themes (Banzai’s late wife and her mysterious twin sister) through cameos (the Rug Suckers make their appearance!) and surprising omissions (Big Norse is nowhere to be seen, probably off to her own solo mission somewhere, like Ant-Man was during the Infinity War) to small references (the watermelon!) that you don’t have to know about for it to work.
Funny thing, though: there is no franchise! It’s amazing to watch this movie for the first time in 2018, the era of Cinematic Universes: ones that were established properly (it took four years to build up The Avengers and another six for Infinity War), improperly (Justice League as a messy conclusion of a failed attempt to rush out a response to Marvel) and complete failures from the start (yeah, good luck with that Dark Universe after The Mummy). Buckaroo Banzai is not even like that. It’s not the Big Crossover or that event movie that we were all waiting for. The plot is just another adventure of heroes against their villain of the
week installment and it’s not even the Big Buckaroo Nemesis (who is even mentioned somewhere in the movie) but just some random aliens from Planet Ten who have broken out of their prison in the 8th dimension and invaded Earth (which was covered up by the famous Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio hoax of 1938 – yes, this is all in the plot!) This movie is entry umpteen out of eleventy in the Banzaiverse, but where none of the previous or further installments actually exist!
Basically, much like sci-fi or comic book movies (or any contemporary speculative fiction, for that matter) shows us a glimpse of another reality where superheros exist, or time travel is possible, or dragons, or aliens etc., Buckaroo Banzai does this also on a meta level in that the movie itself seems to come from another reality where Buckaroo Banzai is a well established megafranchise, much like the MCU is today for us. Actually, this will be a little cheat for me, but I’ll refer to someone else who explains it perfectly: Bob “MovieBob” Chipman draws an amazing parallel between Banzaiverse from alternate 80s to our own 2012’s “Avengers” – check this out.
Admittedly though, contrary to Infinity War which was put together competently enough to be digestible and enjoyable even to absolute newcomers to the franchise (as evidenced by my wife), Buckaroo Banzai‘s production values, overall weirdness and a style that is over the top even by the 1980s standards (and that afwul, awful music) make it hard to appreciate by anyone who isn’t in on the joke. Both when it came out (the movie flopped at the box office and only achieved cult status in the following decades) and, I’m afraid, now.
But for fans of not necessarily specific franchises but the whole modern concept of franchise-centered pop culture it’s a must see. Because comparing it with how the cultural landscape looks now makes you realize Buckaroo Banzai – on a meta level – is truly a visionary piece of history.