A Review by Ivan Granger
I recently rewatched Buckaroo Banzai, or, to give the movie its full self-aggrandizing title, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. I was a teenager in 1984 when it hit the theaters and I remember being disappointed by the movie. The trailer promised adventure, science fiction, cool gadgets, extraterrestrials, and villains. What I saw then was a mess of a movie, a comedy scifi adventure about a surgeon-scientist-rock star and his self-consciously hip team who travel through dimensions, fight an alien threat that isn’t very frightening, and play the occasional rock gig, all while uttering one-liners that aren’t that funny amidst a plot that doesn’t make much sense.
So why did I even rewatch it? I heard through the Internet rumor mill that Kevin Smith, director of Clerks and Dogma, had just agreed to create a television series based on Buckaroo Bonzai, which has taken on cult movie status in the minds of many. (There is a delightful video on YouTube of Smith describing his longtime passion for the movie.) That piqued my interest. I figured I’d give the movie a second chance and I rented it, watching it for the first time in more than thirty years.
You know what? I kind of liked it. I can see why Buckaroo Banzai has found life as a cult classic. It is a mess of a movie, just like I remembered, but there is something undeniably charming and fun about the movie’s wild masala of comedy/scifi involving heroic scientist-rock and rollers, interdimensional travel, Rastafarian aliens who are all named John, and, of course, the 80s synth soundtrack. How can you not like Peter Weller as the titular Buckaroo Banzai looking like Adam Ant with oiled 80s hair and wearing a zoot suit and tie, Jeff Goldblum in a cowboy hat and fur-lined chaps, and John Lithgow as the interdimensional villain disdainfully calling humans “monkeyboy” in a thick Italian accent?
This is a movie with lines like:
“Where are we going?”
“When are we going?”
Yep, a definite cult classic. Not a great movie, perhaps, but through sheer weirdness and quotability it has earned its iconic status.
But here is what most grabbed my attention after rewatching Buckaroo Banzai: It has a flux capacitor. If you, like most of my generation, have seen Back to the Future half a dozen times or more, you know exactly what I’m referring to. In fact, Back to the Future seemed to have borrowed several of its most iconic designs and story elements from Buckaroo Banzai, which preceded Back to the Future by a year. I kept hitting the pause button on Banzai, pointing to the screen and saying, “That’s another thing from Back to the Future!”
Buckaroo Banzai begins with the hero (immediately after performing surgery, naturally) rushing to a test track where he hops into a jet car that has been tricked out with all sorts of gadgetry and flashing lights as part of a scientific experiment. What first caused my jaw to drop is that the crucial circuit is a three-pronged triangular device called the “oscillation overthruster.” Not only do the “flux capacitor” from Back to the Future and the “oscillation overthruster” from Banzai look nearly identical, they even sit in exactly the same position: right behind the driver’s shoulder.
Banzai’s scientific super car, when it reaches sufficient speed, travels through another dimension, and then reappears again. Time travel in a Delorian, dimensional travel in a jet car, both using a certain speed as the catalyst for the “jump.”
And there is the fact that Christopher Lloyd, who plays “Doc” Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, played one of the main aliens in Buckaroo Banzai (a character named John Bigbooté, whose name was gleefully mispronounced as Bigbooty by Lithgow throughout.)
Clearly, all of these parallels were no mere coincidence, and they were too blatant to be cinematic creative theft.
I discovered that several of the key production and design people worked on both movies and that, in fact, Back to the Future had other, less obvious references to Banzai:
- The 88 MPH threshold used in Back to the Future is a call back to the number 88 used throughout Buckaroo Banzai, which itself was a play on the visual likeness of “88” and Buckaroo Banzai’s initials “BB.”
- When, in Back to the Future’s 1950s story line, Doc Brown first hears Marty McFly’s story of time travel, he calls him “futureboy.” This was apparently inspired by the way Lithgow’s villainous alien Lord Whorfin derisively called a human “monkeyboy.”
- Doc Brown’s silver jacket was intentionally similar to the silver jackets worn by the Black Lectroids of the Nova Police who policed the Red Lectroids that had been imprisoned in the 8th dimension. (I know. We are talking about Buckaroo Banzai, after all.)
It’s fascinating to me that Back to the Future, one of the most iconic movies of the 1980s, one that was hugely successful and with a near-perfect construction of time travel plot, nostalgia, and youthful idealism owes so much of its success to a zany, cranky, hodge-podge of a movie like Buckaroo Banzai. Clearly, the filmmakers loved it, even if the audiences of the time (myself included) didn’t know what to make of it.
Try it sometime: A nerdy retro double-feature, Back to the Future and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, back-to-back.