The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Neurosurgeon. Physicist. Rock Star. Hero. Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is a true ‘80s renaissance man. With the help of his uniquely qualified team, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, Buckaroo is ready to save the world on a moment's notice. But after his successful test of the Oscillation Overthruster – a device that allows him to travel through solid matter – he unleashes the threat of "evil, pure and simple from the 8th Dimension"… the alien Red Lectroids. Led by the deranged dictator, Lord John Whorfin (John Lithgow), the Lectroids steal the Overthruster with the intent of using it to return to their home of Planet 10 "real soon!" But, no matter where you go, there Buckaroo Banzai is… ready to battle an interdimensional menace that could spell doom for the human race. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia has grown into a billion dollar industry over the last decade, to the point that I’ve grown suspicious of any critical discussion revolving around it. Still, sometimes we’ve all got to feed our inner hypocrite, so let me tell you about why W. D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) is one of the most important movies in my development as a film fan. It might seem unusual in the day and age of DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD collections, digital streaming, and thousands of cable television channels, but there was a time when my household owned only three VHS cassettes – Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984), Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. For the record, both Ghostbusters and Empire were recorded from television (including commercials and TV censorship/edits), making The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai the only motion picture deemed important enough to actually purchase. This is because it was (maybe still is?) my father’s favorite movie. For a time, there was a loosely defined, pseudo-father/son tradition of watching either it or John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986, more on that in a moment) when my mother was out of town for work/school reasons. Also, because The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was one of three movies we owned – and because ‘80s daytime television was terrible – I usually ended up watching it when I stayed home sick from school.
I don’t know if I’m able to approach this particular film from a genuinely critical place, seeing that I used to play “Team Banzai vs. the Red Lectroids” in the backyard, but I’ll do my best. The key issues for and against The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is its weirdness and optimism. These aspects work in the film’s favor in terms of its originality and, ironically enough, nostalgia. Like George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) or Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), it celebrates the pulp traditions of the decades prior and builds an internal mythology on referential ideas. However, unlike those more popular films, Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch updated the pulp references for the mid-’80s, both praising and spoofing the era. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai exceeds its counterparts with a much more unique take on old ideas – warring alien clans are invading, Buckaroo is Flash Gordon, Team Banzai is the Justice League, et cetera – but it also falls short by cramming too much ridiculousness into one package and wearing out most mainstream audiences. Even ardent fans can probably admit that, even as it charms with fantastical ideas and fun special effects, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai feels overloaded. It is a tailor-made cult film and I think it works as such, but setting out to appeal to an ironic and/or counter-culture audience is a good way to alienate viewers. The film’s other obvious weakness is its pacing. Richter knows his cast is firing on all cylinders, so he neglects to edit their performances, instead continuously introducing new characters and relishing their improvisations. Those of us that love the film know that these loosely knit sequences often feature the funniest gags (there must have been hours of John Lithgow improv alone), but can also admit that they stifle the momentum as the story approaches the climax.
Richter’s only other movie as director is an underseen, apparently more down-to-earth sci-fi drama, Late for Dinner (1991), which is too bad, because The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a pretty stylish debut feature. He makes rookie mistakes in terms of structure and the final act could use a spit-polish, but his colorful, comic book imagery and busy, graphic aesthetic is delightful. The opening Jet Car test sequence is also quite confident, even comparable to similar scenes in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, which had been released just a year prior in 1983. Richter’s cinematic legacy doesn’t end here, though. He mostly worked as a Hollywood writer, including solo writing credits for Peter Hyams’ Peeper (1976), Kaufman’s superior Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake (1978), and Stuart Rosenberg’s Brubaker (1980), and, believe it or not, script doctor duties on Big Trouble in Little China. His career did, unfortunately, end with a fizzle, when he came out of pseudo-retirement to pen Rob Cohen’s junk blockbuster Stealth (2005). He’s still alive, so there’s still time to go out on a high note.
As you might expect, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was a home video cash-cow for MGM, who released it on special edition DVD in 2002. For whatever reason (perhaps something to do with the Fox/Sony acquisition, I don’t know these thing…) they never saw fit to put it out on Blu-ray themselves, though. According to random internet gossip, Shout Factory had asked the company (who they had been in business with for some time) if they could release the film themselves and were turned down. North American fans were left with three foreign release Blu-ray options: one from Koch Media in Germany, one from Umbrella in Australia, and one from Arrow in the UK. From what I can tell, the Koch and Umbrella releases used the same HD transfer that also appeared on streaming media and television, while Arrow either used a newer scan or employed their resources to clean up/re-grade the old transfer. In 2016, MGM apparently changed their tune and Shout Factory has released their own Blu-ray version of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai as the first title in their Shout Select series (it is currently way out-of-print and going for hundreds on eBay).
It appears that Shout Factory and Arrow’s transfers were made from the same scan source. The brightness and color timing appears to match, while the Koch and Umbrella discs appeared lighter all around. If you look really, really closely, you might notice that Arrow has a small advantage in terms of compression. The marginally larger file size allows for slightly tighter details, slightly harder lines, and slightly more well-defined film grain. That’s a whole lot of ‘slightly,’ so the US fans that weren’t able to import the Arrow disc really shouldn’t have felt like they were missing out. Print damage and other inherent artifacts are minimal as are digital artifacts, though that extra smidge of compression leads to a few haloes. Cinematographers Jordan Cronenweth (who was fired early in production) and Fred J. Koenekamp’s comic book-inspired, neon, and acrylic color schemes are bright and consistent. The darker overall tint (which matches the Arrow disc) produces solid blacks that help support shapes and create a better overall contrast than the Aussie and German releases.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai comes fitted with its original 2.0 stereo sound and a 5.1 remix that was first produced for the DVD release. Both are presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. As in the case of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers Blu-ray I also reviewed this week, the 5.1 track is respectful of the original track’s stereo structure. I still prefer the 2.0 mix for its authenticity and slight volume advantage, but find it very difficult to complain about the discretely-centered dialogue. The sound design is quite busy for a film from the period, to the point that certain scenes – the Jet Car test, Banzai’s band’s concert, the climax – match the expectations of a modern sci-fi action movie. The Lectroid technology is especially enjoyable now that lossy compression isn’t crushing its louder moments. Michael Boddicker’s underutilized and remarkably catchy electronic soundtrack gets the biggest boost from the 5.1 remix with the new surround spread and LFE bounce creating a fuller sound.
Disc 1 (Blu-ray):
Commentary with director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch – This track originally accompanied the MGM Special Edition DVD. This is a gag track in which the writer and director pretend that the film is based on true events. There are some behind-the-scenes factoids in the mix, but the ‘true story’ joke wears thin quite early in the track and I would’ve very much preferred a 100% straight-forward track.
Commentary with Michael & Denise Okuda – This Shout Factory exclusive commentary features the couple best known for their work documenting the history and chronology of the Star Trek series. It is brimming with information (some of it new to me) and helps scratch the ‘serious commentary’ itch that I acquired listening to the director/writer track.
Into The 8th Dimension (2:08:16) – While many readers are probably just happy to finally have The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai available on RA Blu-ray, some of us that already imported the film are probably most interested in this new retrospective documentary. The doc, which is longer than the film itself and includes interviews with almost every vital member of the cast and crew (no Jeff Goldblum or Ellen Barkin, however) is broken down into the following categories:
The Origin – On developing the concept, honing the script, and pre-production.
The Cast – An itemized look at the casting of each of the major characters, including other actors that were considered for some roles (Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton were early choices for Buckaroo) and the inspirations behind some of the performances (examples: Weller channeled Adam Ant and Cody Simpson channeled Billy Idol).
Making the Movie – Concerning the ins & outs of actually shooting the film, improvisatory processes, altering the screenplay on the fly, bizarre behind-the-scenes moments (the producer threatened to fire Richter and shut the movie down if Buckaroo wore red rimmed glasses in four scenes), and swapping cinematographers.
Design Elements – A look at the film’s eccentric, ‘80s baroque’ production/set/costume design and the Lectroids make-up.
Visual Effects – On the film’s composite, animated, motion control, and model effects.
Post Production – Concerning editing, including the chopping of the original introduction sequence, and the film’s music (turns out the actors were marching to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” for the sake of marching rhythm).
The Release – The cast & crew laugh about disastrous preview screenings, developing an ad campaign, Twentieth Century Fox’s lack of interest, and the eventual cult following.
Beyond Banzai – A lament for the unmade sequel (supposedly there were five planned) and final thoughts.
Disc 2 – Archive MGM Extras (DVD):
Buckaroo Banzai Declassified (22:41, SD) – The original, much shorter retrospective documentary, including more cast & crew interviews.
Alternate opening sequence with Jamie Lee Curtis (7:12, SD)
Deleted Scenes (14:11, SD)
Jet Car Trailer
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.