Saturday, 23 April 2016

Banzai Treat

The Betamax of cult sci-fi comedy-adventures, Buckaroo Banzai is another example of a superior product let down by its own inadequate marketing in the mid-1980s.

This poster does give some indication of the studio's cluelessness in marketing the film.
I had a tie just like that in 1984, though!

Trapped somewhere in time and tone between the phenomenally successful Repo Man, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was possibly too clever for its own good. Personally, I think its also too good for its own good - boasting a phenomenal cast including John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown, Jeff Goldblum and Ellen Barkin, endearing characters, sharp dialogue, still-impressive effects and two of the most quoted lines in science fiction film history:

"Remember, no matter where you go..."  (1:44)

Summing up the plot is one of the films biggest problems and in fact, is probably what confused and stymied any attempts to market it properly.

A Studio publicist claimed, "Nobody knew what to do with Buckaroo Banzai. There was no simple way to tell anyone what it was about—I'm not sure anybody knew".
John Lithgow, who giving an unforgettable performance as villain Dr Emilio Lizardo, said, "I've tried to explain the story line to people and it takes about an hour. I mean it; it's that complicated. But it's terrific."

John Lithgow as Emilio Lizardo/John Whorfin and Ellen Barkin's leg.
Simply put: Our hero - neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race driver, rock star and comic book hero - Buckaroo Banzai and his team the Hong Kong Cavaliers become caught in the crossfire between two warring factions of aliens , the Red and Black Lectroids. Unless Banzai can thwart the plans of the Red Lectroids evil leader to release his cohorts from the 8th Dimension onto Earth, the normally Peaceful Black Lectroids will be forced trigger to WWIII to ensure their enemies remain trapped.

But these bare bones of a story are adorned, accessorised and sometimes even camouflaged by eccentric but loveable characterisation and deliberately obscure but somehow naturalistic, dialogue. Bizarre set pieces hover between improvisation, stylisation and beloved, cheesy mid-eighties action and romance tropes.

Jeff Goldblum dressed in oversized furry chaps as a cowboy from New Jersey is an arresting sight, as is an entire race of aliens who look and sound like dreadlocked Jamaicans (and are all called 'John').

Effects wise, the film saves its powder, and the cloud-skimming skirmish between the two alien vessels, (the smaller having so much personality that it got the biggest laugh from my put-upon viewing partner), can hold its head up high amidst today’s digital conjuring tricks.

The Red Lectroid Shuttle - personality plus.
But alas, Buckaroo Banzai’s box Office performance not only sunk the film and its planned sequels, but the also small production company which financed it. Despite this, the lead actors went on to become some of the biggest names of that era’s cinema, and our dimension moved on.

How do you fail to market a film which provided so many instant memes?
(geek fact: the name Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems was later appropriated by Star Trek
as the manufacturer of all the Federation's ships)
Like many films which fail to find their audience at the time, Buckaroo Banzai would probably have flourished in our current times of social media. Hong Kong Cavaliers T-shirts would be worn everywhere by the in-crowd, while live band performances and maybe even racing track events would bolster publicity. The possibilities for the contemporary phenomenon of ‘cosplay’ are limitless.

The film isn’t perfect, suffering, for example, from a slight Act II drag, but exists in its own reality where it’s difficult to judge by conventional standards. Viewers really just have to keep up.

Buckaroo wins the day, gets the girl (who seems to be, ummm, his deceased wife’s twin?) and the Earth is saved.

But wait, there’s more:

“I hope that when all life on this planet dissipates that the only
remainder of mankind is a copy of
Buckaroo Banzai.”
(You Tube comment)

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