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Cult favorite 'Buckaroo Banzai' gets a Blu-ray upgrade

Posted August 24

Every now and then, a film opens on a Friday without the benefit of having been screened for critics.

Back in my radio days, I used to joke on the air that it was a signal from the studio that the movie was so good it didn’t need reviews. Of course, it really signals that the studio has no faith in the film and is dumping it.

Whenever a movie opened locally without an advance screening, I would head out on Friday to the earliest matinee in the valley, race back to the office and write a review, and it would be published over the weekend. And usually the films were indeed dogs.

But not always.

Take the 1984 sci-fi adventure-comedy “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension,” which most critics dismissed at the time as just another confused, failed sci-fi thriller. And in the 1980s, there were a lot of those, all trying to ride the coattails of “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

But “Buckaroo Banzai” was different. Really different.

Peter Weller, low key and ultracool, stars as the title character, a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot and rock ’n’ roll musician. The plot has Banzai and his cohorts/bandmates (Clancy Brown, Lewis Smith and Jeff Goldblum, among others) taking on interdimensional aliens who threaten to destroy the planet, led by the alien-infected Dr. Lizardo, played with over-the-top gusto by John Lithgow (as if auditioning for “3rd Rock from the Sun”). Ellen Barkin and Christopher Lloyd are also on hand.

The film is loaded to overflowing with one-liners that allude to literature, song lyrics and pop culture (some of them mangled by Lizardo), along with sight gags, action sequences, zany characters and at least one non sequitur that has stayed with us: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

The studio chiefs didn’t get “Buckaroo Banzai,” and they had trouble positioning it during a summer filled with hits that arrived one after another — “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” “Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins” and “The Karate Kid.” If that wasn’t enough, the competition included the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

So “Buckaroo Banzai” opened quietly in New York, Los Angeles and other big cities in August, played for one week, and, just as quietly, disappeared. Then the film was used as filler for theaters around the country that had nothing new to show while they awaited a bigger movie.

Which is why “Buckaroo Banzai” came to Salt Lake City two months later, on the first Friday in October 1984, after summer had passed and the serious fall films were gearing up. It played just one week in the Centre Theatre downtown, without any advance warning, much less an advance screening.

I saw the film on that Friday with three other people in the theater who were very quiet. I was often laughing out loud. They weren’t. But I loved it as a goofy, off-the-wall romp. I felt that it hit all the marks, from satirical to silly. And I wrote a rave review that ran in Sunday’s paper. By the next Friday, it was gone.

But when VHS home video caught up with it, the PG-rated film earned cult status, appealing to a fringe audience that was able to get into its quirky, catchall sense of humor and crazy action.

Then, in 2002 it came to DVD and the cult grew. In fact, it grew so much that a new Blu-ray upgrade has just been released, courtesy of the Shout! Factory, which has taken to reviving beloved films that received short shrift over the years. In this case, “Buckaroo Banzai” is launching a new boutique label, Shout Select.

All of the copious DVD features are included on this Blu-ray debut, as well as a new documentary about the film and its surprise post-release popularity.

Considering how many wacked-out comic book and superhero movies are out there these days, I like to think that “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension” was ahead of its time.

It’s still not a movie that will appeal to everyone but if your sense of humor leans toward the offbeat, “Buckaroo Banzai” is for you.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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