26 January 2017

[film] It's Time To Let Buckaroo Banzai Go

There is one thing in life that I will brook no things which one has to brook when one attempts to brook one is my love of Buckaroo Banzai.

The full title of the movie, made in 1984 is, of course, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension. In this movie, the title character, a Mentat-level scientist-neurosurgeon-rock and roll guitarist and band-leader (seriously. I'm not kidding) born of a Japanese father and American mother, finds himself as the pivot in a cosmic war between two colors of reptilian ET called Lectroids when he figures out how to pierce matter itself and access a place defined as the 8th dimension.

It's not a place I'd go on a vacation, unless I took a mortal enemy there, and left him. Them. Whatever.

Anyway, Dr. Banzai's piercing of the 8th dimension gets the attention of Dr. Emilo Lizardo/Lord John Whorin, played with scene-chewing glee by John Lithgow. Whorfin, who had been biding his time in the Trenton Home for the Criminally Insane since 1939 (not long since Orson Welles's famous War of the Worlds interpretation, not entirely co-incidentally), knows that since the Earthling scientist has made the breakthough, returning to the 8th dimension to rescue the remainder of their trapped comrades has become possible, and he goes on a rampage, gathering the Red Lectroids who did escape with him in 1939 to either steal the technological key to interdimensional travel (the oscillation overthruster) or get his own version to work and complete the revenge upon the Lectroids who stranded them there to begin with as punishment for insurrection, the Black Lectroids.

To human eyes, the Black Lectroids look like Rastafarians and the Red Lectroids look like uptight white men. And unless Banzai and his crew stop the Red Lectroids, the Black Lectroids will gull the Soviet Union into a nuclear first strike on the USA.

But, no pressure. It's all in a days adventuring for Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers.

And if I keep trying to explain it, it'll be all about explaining it, and I feel myself getting farther and father away from the point. It's a crazy, fun movie which tried to revive the spirit of pulp adventure and SF and largely succeeded. causing a group of cult fans (of which I am one) to take the movie to their hearts more or less permanently. Anyone wishing to question my bona fides need only see my BB patch collection, hither:

I am, in my heart, a Blue Blaze Irregular.

I mean, I even have a vintage copy of the BB novelization. Doubt me not.

I told you all that, to tell you this:

Over time, because the movie was presented as just one story in the many adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, like all franchises, fans have always wanted more. The end of the movie boasts the encouragement to Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai: Buckaroo Banzai against the World Crime League. Fans have hungered for decades, now, to see this notional movie. Sadly, though, for many reasons, most of them apparently having to do with who owns which rights to what, it's never happened. But, for a brief time last year, it looked as though it would have a rebirth.

Kevin Smith, to whom anybody who is savvy enough to follow me this far should need no introduction (but if you aren't savvy enough, he did Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) got in touch with W.D. Richter and Earl Mac Rauch, respectively the films director and the story's writer, and began the ball rolling which should have resulted in the property becoming an Amazon original series. Should have been, but the rights monster eventually came round and burned down Tokyo; in May, 2016, on my birthday coincidentally, the creative collaboration was announced; but then, just four months later, in November 2016, Smith bailed, leaving the project in limbo.

2016 killed not only David Bowie, Prince, Chekov, and Gene Wilder, it also killed Dr. Buckaroo Banzai. Lethal.

It was after I heard the news that I thought for a while about it. I was one of those fans who thought maybe a little more BB would have been welcome. I was.

I'm not anymore. I tell you why.

Buckaroo Banzai was a thing of its time. The actors defined the roles; I can't think of BB without seeing Peter Weller's face; Penny Priddy will always be Ellen Barkin; Perfect Tommy will always be Lewis Smith, and nobody could carry off New Jersey the way Goldblum could. Those actors are more than thirty years older now. It wouldn't be the same.

But it's not just that shallow observation that makes me think that Old Moe Mentum has swung the other way. In the 80s, we had one foot in the the future but the other was dragging its reluctant way out of a rather hoary past, the sort of past that the seemingly relentless Gerry Marshall nostalgia factory was making a ton of money repackaging and selling. Buckaroo Banzai was crystallized out of a modern world that had rosy ideas of a certain past full of tall, noble, mostly white heroes who were pure of heart, sharp of mind and unimpeachable of intent. And a reimagining of the pulp-hero aesthetic then made a certain amount of sense then; these days, having an arch-enemy named like Hanoi Xan comes off like a dented can that's been left on the shelf about 15 years too long (I saw a clip in which Ellen Barkin's Penny Priddy character accuse the Lectroids of being tools for Hanoi Xan (who is, incidentally, the head of the World Crime League) and hearing the name just made me cringe somehow.

Even the idea of a group calling itself the World Crime League sounds trite.

It was at that point I realized, my friends, that the ship has sailed. We BB fans may want to see a new extension to the BB mythos, but the things that make it nifty to us, don't really apply any more. Truly, we can't go home. It's a different world now, and BB, along with the things we cherished as kids in the 80s, don't really apply anymore. Well, not as they were, anyway. These days, BB would be rebooted, rethought, reimagined, recast, and turned into some odd, dramatic gritty thing that took itself far too seriously, and maybe that would sell … but it wouldn' t be Buckaroo Banzai.

But we do have this lovely little gem of a perfect cult film, a thing of guileless charm and manic wit, which saw the old pulp franchises thought an 80s lens, lightly, with beloved actors playing unironically idealized characters. Whenever I watch it, I imagine that this is a thing that's part of a fictional franchise that could have been, if the parameters of the universe were tweaked, just so.

I'm for letting Buckaroo Banzai be Buckaroo Banzai. I mean, look at the brobdignangian top-heavy thing Star Wars has become. Sure, it's enjoyable, but I'm seeing some big time stretch marks.

But, of course, that's just me.


James M. Six said...

While "Buckaroo Banzai" came out of the (looking back on it) surprisingly racist mid-1980s, I'm not so sure the pulp hero has had its day. Doc Savage is getting a movie, recast with a person of color as Doc. "Legend of Tarzan" did well. Of more recent movie creations, "John Wick" is a pulp hero ... or can be.

Buckaroo's problem isn't that he's a pulp hero. It's that he's a 1980s pulp hero, and most of those have not handled the passage of time well, probably because we're still too close to it and we don't know HOW to update it the right way. I can't watch the updated "MacGyver" (who was a pulp hero in the 1980s if anyone was) because they took the screwy but kind supporting characters and turned them into government killers. Apparently, it's popular, but it's not the old "MacGyver."

While I want to see more "Buckaroo Banzai", I think it's better for Buckaroo to sleep for another decade or two so someone can bring him awake in an era which can adapt his story without destroying the core that we love (scientists who are individualists can be heroes in spite of the government, don't be mean, and don't take everything quite so seriously).

Samuel Klein said...

That's a well-made point. The idea of a "1980s Pulp Hero" crystallizes the weaknesses with the BB character quite well. The 1980's idea of what a pulp hero that never was but should have been is how I'd put it but I think I follow what you're saying here.

The times are a little too dark for B. Banzai. I hope we don't have to let him sleep for 20 years, though. It's still the age of the dark, tormented hero, isn't it?