It’s the final week of the Clarion West Write-a-Thon and, coincidentally, my last week before vacation. Which means you probably won’t see me around much for a little while. Before I go, though, I have my second (and final) WaT reward essay to share. While last week we discussed John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (a film where Satan is a bunch of green goo in a vat, and bugs are fucking everywhere), today we’ll be shifting gears to talk about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a film where a brain surgeon/comic book hero/test pilot/rock star/physicist saves the world with his buddies, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, from hostile aliens.
My friends, this movie is an experience.
This movie is older than I am and silly as all get-out. You’re getting SPOILERS.
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), man of a billion professions, briefly travels through the 8th Dimension with the help of an oscillation overthruster. Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) and the Red Lectroids want to steal this device, while John Emdall (Rosalind Cash) and the Black Lectroids demand that Buckaroo stop Lizardo; otherwise, the BL’s will be forced to kickstart World War III and basically destroy the entire planet. Ridiculousness ensues.
1. I’m genuinely not sure how to hell to organize this review, so we’ll try tackling it semi-chronologically until the whole thing breaks down into chaos and despair. Well, probably not despair. This is a joyfully ridiculous movie that revels in its absurdity, tongue firmly in cheek. There are problematic aspects. There are definitely a few things I’d like to change. But on the whole, I find this movie’s goofy, oddball irreverence utterly endearing.
Case in point: the film’s Star Wars-esque opening crawl, which I was going to re-watch and transcribe because it made me laugh so hard; alas, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension–henceforth known as ABB8–has apparently disappeared from Amazon Prime since last week, goddamn it. Anyway, I laughed pretty hard at the movie’s backstory. Specifically, I wrote this in my notes:
YES, this is the best backstory ever. THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS. I already love this movie.
So, as you can see, we’re off to a strong start.
2. Also, ABB8 has an incredible cast: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Clancy Brown, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, Dan Hedaya, Christopher Lloyd, Carl Lumbly, Vincent Schiavelli, etc. A young Jonathan Banks has a minor role as the mental hospital employee who’s inevitably murdered. Meanwhile, I was delighter to discover that Bill Henderson plays a small role, too. (Henderson is the cop in my beloved Clue, and–though I only just realized this–one of the river boat poker players in Maverick.) And not for nothing, but the kid who plays Henderson’s son here also played Danny Glover’s kid in nearly all the Lethal Weapon movies.) ALSO, Jamie Lee Curtis and James Saito play Buckaroo’s dead parents, though sadly, that scene got cut from the theatrical release.
Peter Weller, it should be said, is not the best choice to play a half-Japanese man, and dying his hair black to make him look more Asian is not as effective of a strategy as one might assume. For anyone, clearly, although this dude specifically has a very Germanic look to him, like, the only whiter actor they could’ve gotten for the role would’ve been Arnold Schwarzenegger. This movie has more than a few cringe-laugh moments, like when Buckaroo wraps a hachimaki around his goddamn helmet before taking off in his Jet Car.
Again, my literal notes here:
Oh, wow, he really just put that around his head, oh no. Oh no.
3. So, the plot. Immediately after performing some kind of super complicated neurosurgery, Buckaroo tests the newly improved oscillation overthruster in his Jet Car. Things start looking dicey, but Buckaroo manfully refuses to call off the experiment and instead drives his ass straight through a mountain. He passes through the 8th Dimension, which has an awful lot of lightning and hilariously bad 80’s special effects. It’s also populated by strange beings that, on first glance, appear to be either giant evil babies (Mek’s initial impression) or weird bendy Gollum creatures (mine).
Safely back in our dimension, Buckaroo and the Hong Kong Cavaliers perform live at some nightclub, which is where we meet Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), the love interest.
4. Everything about Penny Priddy is the worst thing about Penny Priddy.
So, Buckaroo stops performing mid-song because he hears someone crying and wants them to fess up. Everyone starts looking around until a sniffling Penny apologizes, and Jesus Christ, this is giving me such flashbacks to being a kid in school, discreetly trying to stop crying, only for some little asshole to feel it’s their solemn duty to tell the teacher, usually in front of the whole class, and all right, due to childhood trauma, I’m now legally required to hate Buckaroo forever.
Anyway. Buckaroo decides Penny needs both a mic and a fucking spotlight as he asks her name. Penny does not say, “Yo dead mama, that’s my name,” but I really wish she would. Instead, she bitterly asks, “Who cares?” And when Buckaroo persists, she tells us her name and her backstory–basically, she’s broke–while everyone in the audience jeers. Buckaroo gently chides them, “Don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean.” Which is a nice philosophy, but motherfucker, you’re the one who started this bullshit. What did you expect was gonna happen when you called out a crying woman in the middle of your concert? Also, there’s more: Buckaroo actually says, “We don’t have to be mean because no matter where you go, there you are.” Which, I feel like those two thoughts don’t connect as well as Buckaroo thinks they do, at least, not in this context? Penny, certainly, isn’t very comforted by the notion as she tries to maintain her composure.
Buckaroo decides to dedicate his next song to Penny, only he gets her fucking name wrong when he does it. (Like, there’s a reason, which I’ll get to in a moment, but for Christ’s sake, this is a pretty shitty blunder when you’re trying to convince a person that somebody cares about them.) He sings “Since I Don’t Have You,” which–from the lyrics we get–doesn’t seem to be a particularly upbeat song. Meanwhile, one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers mutters, “This is weird,” and buddy, we are all right there with you.
While Buckaroo sings, Penny pulls out a gun and aims it at her own head, which somehow no one notices even though she’s really not subtle about it.
Fortunately, a waitress accidentally bumps her arm and the shot goes wide. Then every single motherfucker on stage pulls a gun, and I promise this is the last time I’ll do this, but I specifically had to pause here to deliberately type in all caps:
WHAT IS THIS MOVIE?
Penny is then arrested for shooting up the place, which makes me wonder what, exactly, is the opposite of a meet-cute? Meet-nightmare? Meet-WTF? Because I think that’s about where we are now.
It only gets weirder.
Buckaroo visits Penny in jail, who–if memory serves–is stretched out all super awkwardly in her cell like some bizarre pinup? Penny apparently reminds Buckaroo of Peggy, his dead wife. Penny’s first question, naturally: “Was she very beautiful?” Ugh. Like, come on. Why do men so often assume that’s a woman’s first and only concern? Buckaroo responds wistfully that she was the Queen of the Netherlands, and . . . sure, fine, whatever.
It turns out that Penny’s adopted, and it’s heavily implied that she’s Peggy’s long lost twin. (Although I’ve since also seen a fan theory that she might actually be Peggy, too.) And I simply cannot stress this enough: none of this soap opera backstory has any relevance to the plot. Really, Penny herself has no relevance to the plot, other than how she gets abducted by the bad guys while the oscillation overthruster is secretly hidden in her purse. And even that would’ve been ludicrously easy to change, like, basically any of the Hong Kong Cavaliers could’ve been abducted in her place, and everything plot-significant would remain the same. I know I
rant write a lot about shitty love interests on this blog, but damn, I haven’t seen one quite this functionally useless in some time.
5. But yes. Back to the plot.
So, Buckaroo gets Penny released–he only need say the word, natch–and she joins him and the Hong Kong Cavaliers at a press conference about his inter-dimensional travels. Buckaroo leaves to take a call from the President (on a pay phone, LOL), but this turns out to be a trick. An alien is actually on the other line, sending an electrical charge through the phone that physically shocks Buckaroo. This isn’t an attack, as it initially seems; instead, the shock allows Buckaroo to see the hostile aliens who are posing as humans. He then quickly gives chase when they abduct his mentor, Dr. Hikita (Robert Ito). Buckaroo successfully rescues him, which surprised me: I had this dude marked for death very early on. But not only does he survive his abduction, he lives throughout the whole movie! It’s very impressive.
Meanwhile, John Parker (Carl Lumbly), one of the Black Lectroids, crash-lands on Earth, and we should probably press pause again to discuss the aliens in this movie. Let’s tackle the Red Lectroids first.
We must begin, of course, with Lord John Whorfin.
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
If you look up “chewing scenery” in the dictionary, you won’t see John Lithgow’s face, but you really, really should: while most of the actors are either playing it straight or going for more understated humor, Lithgow goes for camp, like, to the billionth degree. Also, his accent is supposedly modeled after his Italian tailor, and . . . hoo boy. It’s. It’s a choice.
Lithgow is playing Dr. Emilio Lizardo, a seemingly normal scientist whose own experiment with the oscillation overthruster failed years ago, and by failed, I mean he gets his head stuck in a damn wall for a hot minute. That kind of thing is bound to mess you up, but when he’s eventually pulled free, well. See above. It’s literally not the same Dr. Lizardo anymore: he’s been possessed by Lord John Whorfin, the leader of the Red Lectroids. I didn’t actually realize this for a while, though. There is honestly a surprising amount to keep track of for such a silly B-movie. Like, if you want to understand the backstory, you really do have to pay attention. (Or double check Wikipedia for the things you missed.)
Lizardo’s main underlings are John Bigbooté (Christopher Lloyd), John O’Connor (Vincent Schiavelli), and John Gomez (Dan Hedaya). Notable things to mention here:
A. At some point, one of them–I think it’s Bigbooté–flips Whorfin off, which I just thought was hysterical, possibly because I’m secretly twelve.
B. Much to his frustration, everyone pronounces John Bigbooté’s name as Big Booty. The twelve-year-old in me was very amused by this, too, although my actual favorite “John” name is John Small Berries.
Moving onto the good aliens: unlike the Red Lectroids, the Black Lectroids are all portrayed by black actors with dreadlocks and questionable Jamaican accents. Carl Lumbly, who I primarily know from Alias and Justice League (the cartoon), is so young and hilarious here with his 80’s mustache and his super shiny jacket. (Rest assured, we will be talking about ALL the fashion in this movie later on.)
I also love that John Emdall, the leader of the good aliens, is played by a black woman.
As you can see in the clip above, John Emdall explains that the Black Lectroids are from Planet 10 and were at war with the Red Lectroids for a long time. The Red Lectroids were defeated and banished to the 8th Dimension, but some escaped during Lizardo’s failed experiment. She charges Buckaroo to keep Lizardo from stealing the oscillation overthruster; otherwise, she’ll be forced to trick Earth’s world leaders into beginning World War III, almost certainly destroying the Earth and the Red Lectroids with it.
6. Of course, the Red Lectroids do quickly manage to steal the device, only they don’t realize it because when they kidnap Penny, they never bother to look in her purse. Much more importantly, the bad guys also kill Rawhide (Clancy Brown), one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers. HOW DARE YOU KILL CLANCY BROWN, YOU BASTARDS! I don’t know, I’ve just adored this actor for years, and this is one of the very few times he actually gets to play a good guy. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Clancy Brown play a good guy and live. (In live action, at least. It’s pretty much impossible to keep up with his voice acting career: dude’s in everything.)
Anyway, our remaining heroes track the Red Lectroids down to Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems. There’s battle stuff. I don’t feel like recounting it all. Penny gets tortured and dies offscreen. Buckaroo works with John Parker to blow up the bad guys. Parker returns home, and Buckaroo decides to get his creepy Snow White prince on and kiss Penny’s corpse. To his surprise, his lips zap her. (Buckaroo’s been zapping people left and right for a while now, although not usually with his mouth.) The zap, quite naturally, resuscitates Penny. Then Buckaroo kisses her awake, and then they kiss even more, and while I once had eyes, they’re now somewhere in the back of my head; please pray for my speedy recovery.
We then set up for the sequel that, sadly, never happened, and also provide what are clearly The Best End Credits of All Time.
They are magnificent. They are a thing of beauty. And look! Clancy Brown apparently got better!
7. A handful of random things I haven’t yet had time to address:
7A. My two biggest problems with this movie are A) literally everything about Penny Priddy, and B) the pacing. Movies that thrive on the ridiculous work best when they’re go-go-go, and unfortunately, I think ABB8 stumbles hard in its second act. It might bother me less on repeat viewings and/or be less noticeable in a big group of people, but as is, my attention definitely wandered a lot while watching this movie. It’s kind of the one reaction you don’t want from a story as patently ludicrous as this.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to fix it, too, but other than adding even more triumphant 80’s music, I’m not totally sure. Maybe a little less overt political satire? Some of it I genuinely enjoy, absolutely, but there’s a reason I’ve barely written about any of the government officials in this movie, and the reason is that they’re boring. The film gets bogged down in the middle, and I think trimming up these scenes might help a lot.
7B. We haven’t spent much time talking about the Hong Kong Cavaliers, either, other than Rawhide and his unfortunate demise. I do like these guys, although I’d like them better if they included a woman and/or someone who might, you know, actually be from Hong Kong. The two I want to mention specifically are New Jersey and Perfect Tommy.
New Jersey (Jeff Goldblum) is a doctor, HKC groupie, and the newest, dorkiest member of the band.
Inexplicably, he’s also dressed like a cowboy for most of the film. Like, not a serious cowboy. A cowboy from a low-rent production of Oklahoma. (There are cowboys in Oklahoma, right? Well, you can tell how much I know about musical theater, clearly.) Anyway, this is the typically nerdy and oddball performance that we’ve all come to expect from Jeff Goldblum, which is to say, he’s just casually delightful. Honestly, it’d probably be weirder if this movie didn’t have Goldblum in it.
Perfect Tommy, meanwhile, is played by Lewis Smith. I’m not really familiar with the actor–although I couldn’t stop thinking of Guy Pearce while watching him–but he has several good moments here, like when he’s gently banging his head against the cell bars as Buckaroo and Penny talk, or just that bare-chested strut of his in the end credits. (He’s the dude in the white jacket.) You can almost hear him thinking, Work it, baby, work it, own it, and it’s hilarious. Although, IMO, Perfect Tommy is poorly named because I’m pretty sure he’s also the guy that goes for The Most Obvious Trap of All Time. Perfect Tommy kinda deserves to die here, that’s all I’m saying.
7C. Okay, all the kudos in the universe must go to the prop department of ABB8 cause, seriously, the prop game in this movie is on point. Favorite bits include The Declaration of War (The Short Form), the Nobody Cumz In Here – Sekrit sign, the alien brain attached to the Jet Car, the framed picture of John Lithgow in the alien spaceship, and, of course, the watermelon that’s never explained.
7D. All of the fight scenes are also appropriately hilarious. Buckaroo is not afraid to kick an alien in the junk. And Christopher Lloyd punches a dude by just casually extending his arm horizontally. It’s kinda the best.
7E. I seem to remember people eating spaghetti or something while hanging out in the core, watching Buckaroo and New Jersey operate. I know things were different in the 80’s, but I suspect this might not have been standard procedure.
7F. Shit, I almost forgot to mention that, at one point, Buckaroo psychically transmits a formula or something by licking his hand and placing it on Dr. Hikita’s forehead. Ew. EWWWWW.
7G. A bit of secret history backstory I also forgot to mention: apparently, Orson Welles was reporting about the Red Lectroids when he “read” The War of the Worlds on the radio. Unfortunately, he was then hypnotized into covering it all up. Fucking War of the Worlds, man. It’s always War of the Worlds.
7H. Finally, I just don’t know if anything I write could ever really describe some of the fashion choices in this movie. There is just SO MUCH to cover. Penny’s pink flapper dress, runny mascara, and the beautifully 80’s bow in her hair. Buckaroo’s bow tie, grey suit, and weirdly awesome red glasses. Perfect Tommy’s pink jacket, pink undershirt, and red sweater vest. Lizardo’s hair, just his hair. Everyone’s bizarre bubble wrap masks. And, of course, what I’ve already mentioned: Goldblum’s cowboy outfit, John Parker’s shiny jacket, Perfect Tommy’s white jacket and bare chest.
It is all glorious, and I want to group cosplay this shit immediately.
New Jersey: “Why is there a watermelon there?”
Reno: “I’ll tell you later.”
Holographic John Emdall (after delivering an ultimatum): “End of discussion.”
New Jersey: “Discussion? What discussion?”
Lord John Wharfin: “Where are we going?”
Red Lectroids: “Planet 10!”
Lord John Wharfin: “When?”
Red Lectroids: “Real soon!”
Buckaroo: “Power, power, where’s the power?”
John Parker: “I’m a diplomat! I failed flight school.”
Buckaroo: “Now let her out and give her your coat.”
Perfect Tommy: “Why me?”
Buckaroo: “Because you’re perfect.”
Perfect Tommy: “You have a point there.”
Buckaroo: “I’ve been ionized, but I’m okay now.”
Mission Control: “Buckaroo, the White House wants to know is everything okay with the alien space craft from Planet 10, or should we just go ahead and destroy Russia?”
Buckaroo: “Tell him yes on one and no on two.”
Mission Control: “Which one was yes, go ahead and destroy Russia . . . or number two?”
Buckaroo: “It flies like a truck.”
John Parker: “Good! What is a truck?”
Pacing problems aside, I enjoyed watching this bit of 80’s ridiculousness. I actually really wish we could get that promised sequel now, only with an almost entirely new cast and no real explanations. Buckaroo would actually be half-Asian. (If this was put into production today, Hollywood would cast Keanu Reeves in a fucking heartbeat, but I’d love to hear other casting suggestions if you have them.) And some of the original actors could totally cameo. My personal preferences would be Jeff Goldblum as either the mentor or a villain, and Clancy Brown as someone who doesn’t fucking die.
Add some POC to the writing staff, keep the goofy ass tone and irreverent props, and with any luck, it’ll bomb and become a cult classic years later, just like this one!
I know I’m probably supposed to pick Lithgow for being so ridiculous, but I dunno, I think I’ve gotta go with Goldblum on this one. He just fits so naturally. This is the kind of movie that Goldblum was born to star in.
Jesus, uh. Be all you can be? Like, literally, be every single thing you can be simultaneously. Oh, you think you’re a rockstar neurosurgeon? Ha ha, fuck you, buddy. Unless you’re an actual rockstar AND a neurosurgeon AND a comic book-physicist-American hero, you’re nothing! You’re less than nothing! You’re shit!
Well, it’s either that or “wherever you go, there you are,” I guess.
9 thoughts on ““Why Is There A Watermelon There?””
This movie is the one that determines when I need to upgrade to a new format. It is my “White Album” of video, only with less actual musicianship.
I watched this in the theater during its brief run in 1984, when I was 15. It is absolutely in my top ten list of all time favorite films. I know I have seen it at least a hundred times. I’m always catching shit that I never spotted before: last time it was the phone booth scene: after he gets ionized, Buckaroo asks for “a pen, anything”, to write down the formula for the antidote. New Jersey pulls a pen out of his hat! I’d never noticed it before. Anyway, Buckaroo Banzai was part of my mental formation, and has been a true guiding light for me for 36 years now.
I love it when you’ve watched a movie a billion times and then you still find new things. That’s the best. 🙂
Returning to this review a year after I first read it, so enjoyable. Thanks for writing it.
Glad you still enjoying read it! 😁
WD Richter appeared at a screening and told us all about the watermelon…
I love that the press conference starts with the freakin Secretary of Defense announcing that they’ve gotta be getting this thing going because a motorcycle convention is going to be using the space right after them.
And that’s why there’s motorcycles sitting in the hallways for the chase scene after Penny Priddy gets kidnapped.
My first 8 viewings were in the theater- age 14. Subsequent 307 viewings via beta, VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and most recent 71 via streaming purchase on Amazon. I’d love to see a director’s cut some day (ya still dreaming). ANYWAY, it is obvious to me now that the watermelon is mounted in an intelligence-testing machine, designed for quantifying the computational and insight capacity of minds in the… what would you call it- the hyper-ultra genius range? Imagine Einstein x God^2 and you’ll only be a couple orders of magnitude short. BTW- Buckaroo wrote the chemical formula for the antidote to the electronic brainwashing-bug on his palm with ‘Jersey’s pen. He didn’t psychically send it to Professor Hikita, he licked his hand to wet the ink so the formula would transfer to Hikita’s forehead. Another BTW: IMHO, Whorfin is, hands down, the best character in the movie. If for no other reason (although there are many) than because he utters the best movie quote in all of human history: “USE MORRE HONEY!! FIND OUT WHADDA SHE KNOWS.” 😉