Sunday, 19 July 2015

the adventures of buckaroo banzai across the 8th dimension

sometimes when i meet someone new i’ll casually throw a buckaroo banzai reference into the conversation. if they get it, they’re cool. if not … well, if you don’t get buckaroo banzai then i’m not interested in talking to you. and if your defence is that you’ve never seen it, then read on.

i have, on occasion, encountered individuals who have witnessed mr. banzai’s first (and unfortunately only) adventure and professed not to like it. these people are the enemies of all that is awesome and should not be given the time of day. should you wish to arm yourself with an arsenal of reasons why buckaroo banzai is one of, if not the greatest film ever made please refer to the list below.

one - it’s really funny, but in it’s own unique way. this is why i like people who get buckaroo banzai, because it has it’s own offbeat sense of deadpan humour. the story follows a scientist/rockstar/adventurer and his band, the hong kong cavaliers, as they take on duelling alien races who have chosen earth as their battleground. that explanation kind of makes it sound normal, but there’s so much more to it than that. part of what makes the humour work is that the actors take all of it incredibly seriously. this isn’t one of those tongue-in-cheek, knowing wink at the audience pseudo-spoof films, this is a serious sci-fi-action-adventure that happens to have been written by someone with a sense of humour.

two – there is a huge amount of imagination and creativity on display here. why the plot is ultimately good guys vs. aliens, it is executed in a most bizarre and innovative way. the way the film is constructed is almost like the spaceship built by lord john whorfin; it’s a mishmash of tropes and movie iconography, all thrown together in a way that works but when you look at the bigger picture it shouldn’t really work at all. like buckaroo himself everything about this film is a mixture of different elements – a bit of sci-fi here, a bit of western there and if we’re ever in any doubt about the filmmakers' ability to pull this off there’s a pinch of satire sprinkled over the whole thing that makes it clear there is more going on here than is obvious at first glance. the film stops these disparate elements from tearing it apart through the force of it’s imagination. there are things here you will never see in any other film, and that strength of creativity has not diminished over the years.

three – the performances in this film really make it work. let’s take banzai himself, played by peter weller. with so many elements thrown in, banzai could easily become a caricature. he’s part john wayne, part james bond, part elvis – how could anyone play that seriously? weller not only plays it straight, he adds layers of complexity to what could easily be a comic book character. rather than heroic and impulsive he makes banzia softspoken and contemplative. as a viewer, you never doubt that banzai knows exactly what he’s doing at all times and it’s because of weller’s performance that this works. he is supported by an amazing cast including ellen barkin, jeff goldblum, clancy brown, christopher lloyd and john lithgow who delivers a career defining performance with his portrayal of john whorfin. with a cast like that, all doing a great job, how can this not be considered one of the greatest films ever made?

four – it manages to take itself seriously and be a lot of fun at the same time. i know that’s one of those things that people say a lot, that it’s just a bit of fun so stop over-analysing it. firstly, buckaroo banzai is more than a bit of fun, there is a lot to analyse here, but secondly it really is fun. usually when people say that about blockbusters, my argument is that i really didn’t have fun watching the giant robots hitting each other in a computer-generated mist through which the action is incoherent at best. but with buckaroo banzai if you want to switch off and just have fun with a movie, there is much fun to be had here.

five – the greatest end title sequence ever filmed. i’m not explaining that one, just watch it, although it is worth pointing out that wes anderson referenced the ending in the life aquatic.

there are issues, sure. the female characters don’t come off particularly well in the film and at one point are excluded from the discussions the boys are holding in their den. but i wondered if this was intentional and to do with a comment on the way women were being portrayed in films at the time. after all, the leader of the nice aliens is presented as female, and at one stage barkin’s character reveals an uncanny understanding of the inter-dimensional science buckaroo is exploring, so it seems unlikely that this was casual, throwaway misogyny. i wondered if part of the point of the film was that so often the fate of the world depends on boys playing kids games. the hong kong cavaliers often come across as kids playing with guns, and maybe that’s intentional too. maybe there is a point about how our impending doom can be brought about and stopped by boys playing with guns, but outside of that the rest of the world keeps turning.

there are similar musings on what the film is about from the very people who made it, most of whom appear in some form or another on the blu-ray special features. the vintage documentary, deleted scenes and commentary (in which director w.d. richter treats the film as a documentary on the real life adventures of the banzai institute) all appeared on the earlier dvd release but are worth revisiting. there are also fascinating new interviews with weller and lithgow, a visual essay and screening of a q&a with weller and lithgow quizzed by kevin smith. together these extras make this the definitive release of buckaroo banzai and one worth picking up even if you own the dvd.

the only real criticism you can level at buckaroo banzai is that the promised sequel never materialised, but at least with this superb blu-ray release you can relive the magic of one of the greatest films ever made in its best ever presentation to date. that way you will be fully prepared for the moment someone you’ve just met asks you, ‘why is there a watermelon there?’

arrow video release buckaroo banzai on blu-ray on 20th july 2015

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