Blu Reviewed: Shout! Factory's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – Collector's Edition

Where are we going? Planet Ten! When? Real soon! Check out Chris Jordan's review of Shout! Factory's latest must-own collector's edition.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension 
has got to be one of the most unique, totally out-there cult films ever made. A gleefully eccentric, totally unpredictable mash-up of comedy, sci-fi, adventure serial, and Saturday morning cartoon, Buckaroo is so committed to its utterly unusual vision that it's a bit baffling that writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter were ever able to get a studio to fund it. Its tag-line, “expect the unexpected – he does” could not be more of an understatement: this is the sort of movie that could plausibly do any off-the-wall thing at any time, and probably will, flying defiantly in the face of genre expectations as it does so. Yet somehow not only did Mac Rauch's script get produced, it got produced with a ridiculously good all-star cast, lead by Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Barkin, Clancy Brown, Vincent Schiavelli, and Christopher Lloyd. Rarely has cult cinema history ever seen a bigger coup d'etat than this movie being made with this ensemble. 

When they greenlit it, the studio apparently hoped for an off-center sci-fi-comedy answer to the decade's Spielberg/Lucas blockbusters, but instead they wound up with an oddity that left them all scratching their heads. With no idea how to properly market it – how can you market something you don't understand? – they cut their losses and let it flop into theaters unnoticed. But as with so many other cult classics, word of mouth slowly spread, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was resurrected on VHS as one of its decade's most beloved fan-favorites. In a rare moment of the passion of fandom triumphing over corporate apathy, a group of the movie's most vocal admirers successfully convinced MGM to replace the bare-bones DVD release they had planned with a lavish special edition. This MGM disc was, for a while, one of the finest examples of a great, feature-packed DVD celebrating a once-obscure cult film. But now, the professional movie-lovers at Shout! Factory have blown that release out of the water with their new two-disc collector's edition blu-ray, which marks the launch of their Shout! Selects series. With a gorgeous transfer and a ton of special features – including an over-two-hour documentary about the film – this is a must-own for fans of this beloved cult flick, and a perfect opportunity for newcomers to see what all the fuss is about. Let's take a look at Shout!'s latest stellar release.

"Who designed this set - David Cronenberg's less dark and messed-up brother?"

The Movie:

The best way to describe Buckaroo Banzai is as a comic-book-movie based on a comic series that doesn't exist... but the movie not only pretends that it does exist, but also pretends that all the viewers are big fans of the series who will already know the world and its characters. It's very hard to describe... the movie operates under an unspoken assumption that it is part of a larger cinematic or literary universe, and makes casual references to all sorts of people, places, and ideas within that world... but since there isn't actually any expanded universe that it could possibly be referencing, the viewers are left to figure it all out by context, and connect the dots to form that larger continuity. That probably sounds really weird and disorienting, and in a way it is, but it is also an inspired choice that is ultimately the key to the film's success. It does make the film a very disorienting experience on the first watch, as the script's approach is willfully confusing, and feels as though it is leaving a lot underexplained. But upon repeated viewings it makes the film very rewarding, as it is full of so much nuance and so many fine details that every re-watch will reveal new secrets, and expand your appreciation of Earl Mac Rauch's crazy world. This approach also gives the film the gift of feeling much larger than itself: it genuinely feels like it is part of a bigger franchise, and even though it is the only entry in that would-be series, all the hints at greater things allow viewers' imaginations to run wild with the possibilities. Think of it as a whole trilogy's worth of ideas condensed into a single film in a way that expands when you add audience.

The eponymous Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller, Robocop, Star Trek: Into Darkness) is the ultimate modern Renaissance Man: a brain surgeon, particle physicist, philosopher, and rock star, and the subject of his own series of comic books and video games. With his (literal) band of musician/scientists, Buckaroo has cracked the code to interdimensional travel... but in doing so he has inadvertently reignited a long-brewing war between two factions of aliens, all of whom are named John, and only he can stop them. It is even stranger and more off-the-wall than that brief description makes it sound, in the best way. But rather than playing it for over-the-top laughs, director W.D. Richter wisely plays it straight, with a delightfully deadpan sense of humor. To these characters, this is just how their normal lives work, and so they deliver Mac Rauch's quotably hilarious dialogue in the tone of perfectly ordinary, nothing-special conversations, which of course makes it all the more absurd. Buckaroo and his whole team (including Jeff Goldblum, Clancy Brown, and Ellen Barkin) do an excellent job of grounding their characters in reality even as they wear utterly ridiculous 80s-musician costumes into utterly ridiculous situations, and even as the actors all readily admit in interviews that they had no idea what the hell was going on in the script. The aliens (chief among them Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Dan Hedaya) take a different approach: they carefully give performances as creatures that are almost successfully passing for human, but can't quite get it right, and are ever so slightly creepy and unnatural. Only John Lithgow, as the insane split-personalitied villain Dr. Lizardo/Lord Whorfin, goes truly over-the-top, and he does it in a most inspired way that makes for one of the most entertaining performances of his great career. As he screams “laugh while you can, monkey boy” in his thick faux-Italian accent, one can't help but think that this has got to be one of the most hilariously unlikely follow-ups to an Oscar-nomination (more than that; two back-to-back Oscar-nominations) ever.

Lithgow's unlikely casting and brilliantly off-kilter performance is just one more reason why it is totally surreal that this film exists in the first place... but the world is definitely a better place because it does. It isn't for everyone: you've got to be on a very particular weird-movie wavelength to appreciate Richter and Mac Rauch's odd approach to their very odd narrative. But the sheer originality and uniqueness of its eccentric genre blend makes it a must-see for aficionados of '80s cult cinema, and those who like the film's crazy style will probably really love it after a couple viewings. Given the way that the film gets better and better the more you immerse yourself in its world, it definitely is deserving of a truly immersive, in-depth blu-ray release. Let's take a look at how Shout! Factory's disc measures up...

The Video:

When coral reefs strike back!
This disc presents the North American HD debut of Buckaroo Banzai, and fans should be very, very happy with how it looks. The MGM DVD looked good but not spectacular; this new transfer looks quite spectacular indeed. The image is crystal-clear, with a very sharp and incredibly clean transfer. It looks like a totally natural reproduction of the 35mm image: there is no noticeable digital enhancement, and the healthy presence of film grain gives it the aesthetic and personality of a theatrical print. This transfer really gives a new appreciation for how well the movie was shot: even in the many dark parts of the film, like the night-time investigation of the crashed ship and the third-act chase through the basements of Yoyodine, there is very little of the noise often visible in low-light sequences in other films. The use of light in the movie's cinematography was clearly excellent. The color is also very well handled on this transfer, with the film's outlandish, comic-book-style art design brought vividly to life. There are some very light film scratches here and there, but they are quite minor, and far from being a problem, I like the way their presence reminds you that you are watching film stock, faithfully reproduced. Film isn't flawless, but that's because it has personality and physical properties all its own, and that is a beautiful thing. I don't think Buckaroo Banzai has ever looked this good, and I don't think it could possibly look any better.

This level of quality greatly benefits the film, due to the sheer quantity of visual information crammed into every frame. Many shot compositions layer action in the background and foreground, and the carefully-designed chaos of the art design – especially in the alien madhouse that is Yoyodine Propulsion Systems – crams a ton of detail into every inch of visible space. For the first time, you can really see it all; just another way in which multiple viewings of the film uncover further details. Yes, the HD facelift also makes some of the film's low-budget flaws more visible, but this is more than outweighed by the cool visual touches that it uncovers for the first time since theaters.

It is worth noting that this transfer does not appear to be original for this release: as far as I can tell, this is the same transfer used on last year's Region B Arrow blu-ray. Not that this matters, of course: it is still a new-within-one-year transfer, lovingly done by a genre-focused company that genuinely cares about the film. At any rate, this transfer is new to America, and is an absolutely gorgeous restoration that easily meets Shout! Factory's high standards.

The Audio:

Just when you think you've seen the most
insane Jeff Goldblum performance...
nature finds a way.
Buckaroo Banzai is presented here in 5.1 and 2.0 stereo, and it sounds great. The dialogue – and Buckaroo's singing during the concert scene – sounds very sharp, even more so than on the DVD, and the sound effects and background music are really brought to life in the mix. As the special features reveal, many of the alien sound effects were created by composer Michael Boddicker, so they could blend in with, and play off of, the droning electronic soundscape used in the background of much of the film. This electronic soundtrack, as well as the delightfully kitschy synth tunes that populate the film (especially that iconic closing credits sequence), all sound better than ever. As with the visual effects, the remaster brings out the occasional flaws, and the film hardly does anything earth-shaking with its sound design, but that's all perfectly understandable for a lower-budget mid-80s title. Shout! Factory's disc sounds as great as the film possibly could, and fans should be more than happy.

The Special Features:

As per usual with Shout! Factory collector's editions, this is where this release really shines. Buckaroo Banzai is number 1 in their new Shout! Selects line, which is a sub-label designed to bring the prestige and quality of special features we've come to love from their Scream Factory releases to films that do not fit under that very genre-specific banner. So far the line-up of Shout! Selects includes comedies (Bill and Ted 1 & 2), biopics (John Carpenter's Elvis), action films (Road House), and thrillers (Midnight Run); an eclectic mix of anything that couldn't fit under the Scream Factory name, but that they'd like to honor with a special release. As the debut disc in this new line of collector's editions, they've certainly made sure that Buckaroo Banzai lives up to what we expect from the company in the features department. Of course, a ton of great special features already existed for Buckaroo from the special edition MGM DVD, and they've all been ported over: a writer and director commentary, a 22-minute making-of featurette, a bunch of deleted scenes, and trailers. On top of that, though, they've created some really great new material.

The first big addition is a new commentary by visual effects artists, genre historians, and Buckaroo Banzai fans and experts Michael and Denise Okuda. Their commentary track is a very informative and entertaining lesson in history, trivia, backstory, and pop-cultural context surrounding the film. You'll learn cool details of the production, like that Buckaroo's jet car was designed by the same artist who created Ghostbusters' Ecto 1. You'll also learn a lot of information about the backstory of characters and plot points within the film: stuff that got cut between the script stage and shooting, stuff that wound up on the cutting-room floor, stuff that was elaborated on in the film's novelization but not touched on in the film itself. You'll learn about Buckaroo's briefly-mentioned arch-nemesis, Hanoi Shan, who was supposed to be the villain in the sequel. You'll learn just what happened to Buckaroo's deceased wife. You'll learn exactly why Dr. Lizardo seems to be able to get high on electricity. And you'll find out where to look and listen for subtle clues to Buckaroo's backstory, like photos around the set featuring Jamie Lee Curtis as Buckaroo's late mother, taken during an alternate opening sequence that wound up getting cut. It's a really interesting track, and fans will definitely enjoy hearing its insights.

"Now one more time... explain to me the
continuity of this film... and it had better
make sense!"
There is one other new special feature... but please note that I didn't say just one more, because it's a big one. For this release, Shout! Factory has produced an exhaustive documentary about the production of Buckaroo Banzai, called Into the 8th Dimension. A 2 hour, 8 minute documentary, nearly half an hour longer than the film itself, this is a truly epic behind-the-scenes doc on the same level as several that have gotten stand-alone releases, like His Name Was Jason, Never Sleep Again, Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound, and More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead. The inclusion of this alone makes this the ultimate release of Buckaroo Banzai, and makes this disc a no-brainer for fans of the film to upgrade from their old DVDs. The documentary is based around extensive interviews with most of the primary cast and crew, including director W.D. Richter and big stars like Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, and Clancy Brown. There are a few notable absences, like writer Earl Mac Rauch and stars Jeff Goldblum and Ellen Barkin, but aside from them nearly everyone is accounted for. Over the course of eight chapters (“dimensions”) it chronicles the history of the film from its highly collaborative and spontaneous inception and production, through its battles with a hostile studio head and its resulting disastrous release, and ultimately to its redemption as a cult classic and career-highlight for all involved.

By all accounts, the production of Buckaroo Banzai sounds like a very positive artistic experience that was as unique as the film itself. The actors and artists all describe a highly collaborative, spontaneous, improv-heavy environment, where director W.D. Richter encouraged everyone from the stars to the prop artists to make suggestions about new touches and alternate ideas that could be mixed into the film. As it turns out, this is how some of the movie's most memorable moments came about, particularly from the rich improvisational chemistry between John Lithgow and Christopher Lloyd, and between Peter Weller and Lewis Smith (Perfect Tommy). In addition to raving about this collaborative production style, nearly all the actors share the same story of how they came to the film... first with a reaction of “what the hell is this script? I don't understand a word of it,” followed by “I've got to be in this – I'm never going to be offered a script this weird again.” Everyone looks back on the film with extreme fondness – John Lithgow says it's the project of his that he most enjoys watching and even if stories like this were all the documentary consisted of, it would still be incredibly fun and entertaining. But that's far from all: the interviews give great detail about the history and the decisions behind the crafting of the film, from the art designer's work in creating the organic look of the Lectroid technology, to the casting process and the way that the actors decided on the defining aspects of their characters' personalities. Whether you love this film, or love low-budget filmmaking in general and want to learn about how it was done in the '80s, the crazy facts and firsthand accounts will prove extremely interesting.

We also get a pretty honest look at the negative aspects of the production. The film was victim to frequent meddling, interference, and hostility from a studio head who seemed to actively want to sabotage it, and the production wound up with its head on the chopping block on more than one occasion. While Richter and company triumphed in the end and made more or less exactly the film they wanted, there were only more trials ahead. The doc also delves into the history of Buckaroo's distribution struggles, and the journey by which the filmmakers and actors discovered their fandom and came to appreciate just what a cult classic they had made. The filmmakers even give specific shout-outs to a few key fans – including Peter Weller, who tells the story of how a certain famous fan finally made him understand Buckaroo Banzai 30 years after its release. It all adds up to truly the ultimate look at this most unusual film, and for fans this documentary will be worth the price of the disc in itself.

Best. Credits sequence. Ever.
What else can you really say?
However, it must be said that there are a few other special features items that it would have been nice to have, but which cannot be found here. Firstly, three bonus features included on last year's Arrow blu-ray have not been ported over. In the case of two of those – Arrow-original interviews with Peter Weller and John Lithgow – it is perfectly understandable, as Shout! probably couldn't get the rights to another company's less-than-a-year-old extras. But the third, longer extra included on that release but missing here – a 45-minute Q & A about the film with Weller and Lithgow, hosted by Kevin Smith at New York City's Lincoln Center – is fairly inexplicable. The Film Society of Lincoln Center has the whole video on their YouTube channel, meaning that Arrow does not own the rights to it, so why not include it when the movie's other major release did? Well, perhaps that is the answer – because it is on YouTube for free. But still, in the interest of assembling the ultimate, most complete possible package, it really should be here. In addition to those omissions, it is odd that neither of the two blu-ray releases include a commentary by any members of the cast. Given how fondly everyone seems to remember the film, it seems like it should have been easy to get most of the stars to sit down and record a commentary track, and it certainly would have been a fascinating listen. That Shout! Factory decided not to do this is a bit of a missed opportunity. Still, these are ultimately all small complaints when we get to enjoy a feature-length documentary as high-quality as Into the 8th Dimension. Sure, there are a few other things that it would have been cool to see, but since everything here is so excellent and so thorough, I'm not going to complain. On the strength of the new doc and commentary track alone, this first Shout! Selects disc is a resounding success in the features department.

Overall, Shout! Select's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is a great disc, and an excellent launch to their new collector's edition series. The disc really makes the most of the film's North American HD debut, with a stellar transfer that reveals details of the chaotic picture that fans may have never noticed. Despite the absence of a few key extras included on last year's Arrow disc, the special features are likewise first-rate, with the feature documentary being this blu-ray's biggest selling point. That alone makes this an easily superior release to its Arrow counterpart, and all-region collectors who are debating between the two should go with this one on the strength of that alone. It's a shame that the Film Society of Lincoln Center Q & A wasn't included, as die-hard fans who wish to own all major extras associated with the film may end up wanting to double-dip on both discs as a result. But if you're only going to buy one of the two blu-rays, this is the one. It's another outstanding example of why Shout! Factory may be the best cult-cinema-focused blu-ray label currently out there.

Laugh while you can, monkey boys!

Overall Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan