Sunday, December 11, 2005

Day 71: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

If the pulsating synth score and prevalence of toggle switches in the frame isn't enough to clue you into the fact that this movie was made smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s, then the fact that Dan Hedaya and Vincent Schiavelli share screen time (with Christopher Lloyd!) surely will.  A pleasing draught of old-fashioned serial adventure clich├ęs, more square jaw than its retro-pastiche predecessors Indiana Jones or Star Wars yet also an uneven lampoon of these same conventions, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai isn't a great movie, but it has an internal consistency and a rock solid foundation that most other post-Lucas sci-fi/adventure movies fail to bring (Lucas's own post-Lucas endeavors included).  Additionally, the movie's made with an acute awareness of its roots, in a manner befitting the Commando Cody aesthetic.

Centered on neurosurgeon, rock star, physicist and all-around adventurer Buckaroo Banzai, the movie provides the audience with an opening crawl, setting up the various skills of this new kind of Renaissance man, and then plunges ahead with nary a look back.  This is to the movie's credit, since, if it paused to give us too much detail, the whole enterprise would sink under its own improbable weight.  I was confused more than once during Buckaroo Banzai, but the events never seemed to defy the logic of the world that was set up from the get-go, so it didn't matter.  It's admirable that, in as complex an alternate universe as this is, the movie was able to reveal quite a bit without any lengthy exposition at all, even if this revelation happens mostly in retrospect.

I also really liked the way the film was shot.  The action happened most often within the frame, without a great deal of cutting.  This gave it a very appropriate and very cool Howard Hawks-esque feel, and if not quite that good, at least the stately feel of an old film when sound was new and the actors had to stand around a random piece of set dressing in which the microphone was hidden.  It didn't exactly provide any legitimacy to the film, but it did make me sit up and take notice of the style at play and how that style interacted with the plot.

The plot in question is some ludicrous nonsense about an alien bad guy who's taken over the body of John Lithgow, giving Lithgow the chance to do what he does best: ham the fuck up.  He's way over the top, but fun as he speaks in a broad Italian accent, stomps about, and exaggerates his body movements.  Peter Weller, as Banzai, also gets to play to his strengths, though in his case it's an icy-cool deadpan heroism, quiet, calm, and rigid.  But Jeff Goldblum is certainly the most memorable here as a new recruit to Banzai's team.  It's a trademark, bumbling Goldblum performance, and he gets the film's funniest line, "Why is there a watermelon there?"

Though I liked the goony, tounge-in-cheek quality to the film (and the rough-edged special effects), the humor in it is scattershot at best with only a few hits to a bunch of misses.  The movie finds a nice, dryly humorous tone when it plays it straight; it's never explicitly trying for laughs and getting them by taking the idiotic premise seriously.  So when the movie launches into broader, more parodic kinds of jokes, it's disappointing and not really funny.

I enjoyed The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, but I didn't love it.  It had a weighty feel to it that was much welcome, since some movies set in the "real" world have a hard time establishing this kind-of well-observed tone.  It's definitely one of the best projects that emerged in the post Star Wars/Indiana Jones boom for both its sincerity and the way it eschews populist, audience pleasing concerns by going forward without waiting for us to catch up with it.  Even so, the material's just too slight and the increasingly jokey tone intrudes on whatever elements of dramatic tension there are.  


Anonymous said...

Did you know that Buckaroo Banzai vs the World Crime League was retooled and became Big Trouble in Little China?

David Wester said...

No I did not Anonymous poster!

Thanks for that tidbit. Big Trouble is a fun movie.