Color, 1984, 103m.
Directed by W.D. Richter
Starring Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, Lewis Smith, Rosalind Cash, Robert Ito, Clancy Brown, Pepe Serna
Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Koch (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), MGM (DVD) (various) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Seemingly tailor made for cult status right out of the gate, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension rolled out in theaters from 20th Century Fox late in the summer of 1984 complete with the promise of a sequel and an eye-catching ad campaign complete with a bouncy, unforgettable theatrical trailer. Unfortunately its eccentric sensibility (and the multi-hyphenate nature of its hero, a renowned neurosurgeon-musician-pilot-physicist) proved to be way too confusing for audiences more willing to spend their cash on Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Footlloose, The Karate Kid, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Like another film sacrificed a few weeks before, Top Secret!, this one had to wait for TV airings and the VHS market to really find its audience, who promptly ate it right up. In the meantime this turned out to be the last film for its production company, Sherwood Productions, who lost their shirts on this and their prior release, Blame It on Rio, which meant that sequel was never meant to be.
Our story begins as the brilliant hero, Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop's Weller), is testing out his latest invention, a jet-powered car complete with an oscillation overthruster capable of plowing through solid matter. As it turns out this device temporarily places him in the eighth dimension, a realm responsible for the deranged mental state of Dr. Emilio Lizardo (Lithgow), who escapes from a mental institution upon hearing of Buckaroo's feat, which has also resulted in an alien organism brought back to this realm. As it turns out, Lizardo has been mentally overtaken by an alien race called the Red Lectroids, a reptilian army trying to take over Earth since the 1930s, and now they want the overthruster to release their comrades from the eighth dimension and take over the planet. Now it's up to Buckaroo Banzai and his buddies, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, to put a stop to the alien plan from being implemented through a nefarious corporation bent on global domination.
Essentially a zany comic book story without an actual graphic novel source, the film draws heavy inspiration from classic sci-fi and adventure pulp stories injected with an oddball '80s sensibility, complete with catchy new wave music, gaudy costumes, and an eye-popping cast of stars and supporting actors including Jeff Goldblum, who had appeared in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers penned by this film's director, W.D. Richter (who only went on to direct one more feature, the underrated Late for Dinner). You also get a young Ellen Barkin as good gal Penny Priddy and other Cavaliers including Clancy Brown, Lewis Smith, musician Billy Vera, and Pepe Serna, who showed up in Red Dawn the following year. If that's not enough, how the Lectroids played by Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, Vincent Schiavelli, and even The Omega Man's Rosalind Cash and a brief appearance by a very youthful Jonathan Banks, who went on to play Mike in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul? The project was actually developed over a few years by Richter and fellow Dartmouth grad Earl Mac Rauch, the credited screenwriter who came up with the Buckaroo Banzai character and started numerous scripts along with a reference guide that were chiseled into the final script. The end result is a wildly entertaining and utterly weird concoction unlike anything else that year, and it's no wonder new generations of fans keep stumbling on it every year.
After years of legal wrangling, Buckaroo Banzai wound up under the ownership of MGM and debuted on DVD in 2001 in a loaded special edition that takes the unusual approach of treating the source material as a true story (a la the in-character extras for This Is Spinal Tap) including a Richter/Rauch commentary track, a pop-up history and fact track, and copious behind-the-scenes material and valuable excised footage including an essential discarded opening sequence that sets up some key elements in the story. (Plus you get to see Jamie Lee Curtis as our hero's mother, which is pretty cool.) In total you get 14 bits of deleted footage (most sourced from Richter's surviving VHS copy), a batch of trailers and character profiles, a 25-minute retrospective featurette with the cast and crew, galleries and text interviews, and Easter Egg oddball material including some more audacious DVD packaging designs. The video extras were all ported over for a 2013 Blu-ray debut in Germany from Koch (with a DVD reissue to boot), complete with an improved HD transfer originally prepped for MGM HD broadcast.
In 2015, Arrow Films mounted a more ambitious Blu-ray release in the UK with a more generously compressed rendition of the MGM master, looking quite beautiful and doing a fine job of handling the tricky dark, foggy scenes with aplomb. It looks like some additional clean up has been provided as well since it doesn't look quite as dirt-riddled as the prior release. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio sounds great as well, with a lot of oomph for the explosions and the catchy music score. (Yes, you'll really want to crank up that last aqueduct walk as loud as you can stand.) Carried over here are the commentary, original opening, deleted scenes, trailers, the "Buckaroo Banzai Declassified" vintage featurette with the cast and crew, and trivia track, while some substantial new goodies have been added as well. Chief among them are new interviews with Weller (16 mins.) and Lithgow (13 mins.) including more of a focus on the film's enduring appeal, a very funny 45-minute Q&A with Weller and Lithgow moderated by Kevin Smith at Lincoln Center, a different expanded gallery, and a new Matt Zoller Seitz visual essay about the film's disparate literary and artistic influences. (Yep, there are a lot of Thomas Pyncheon nods here.) The usual reversible packaging also comes with a liner notes booklet containing an essay by James Oliver.