How did I go my whole life without seeing Buckaroo Banzai? I am baffled.
Wait, before you send me angry letters: I am not at this point saying that it’s a good movie. I’m just saying that I find it remarkable that I’d never encountered it. It seems like it would be one of those things that someone foists upon you in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. “This stinks; smell it. This tastes hideous; you’ve got to try it.” But maybe that’s just my friends.
Hmm. That would explain a lot, actually.
If you haven’t seen Buckaroo Banzai , get thee to a Netflix ASAP, folks (for searching purposes, you should know that the entire title is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, but that’s an unnecessary mouthful, isn’t it?). It is cheesy, ridiculous, early 80’s, semi-scifi weirdness. Like a comic book gone wrong. Horrible effects, bad acting, outrageous story line, musical numbers, preposterous love story. It’s everything bad movies are made of. And yet, somehow, through all that utter crap, I just couldn’t stop watching. It was quirky and fun and I enjoyed it thoroughly. If you willfully suspend your disbelief and your modern CGI sensibilities, it comes off as merely campy. Plus, it’s got John Lithgow and Peter Weller and Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd (Dick Solomon, RoboCop, The Fly, and Doc Brown – a strange but satisfying scifi quartet). And a ton of other character actors who I refer to as Hey-it’s-that-guy-guys, which is always good for the old Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon (I can’t help it, I can’t stop, just let it go).
So, briefly: Buckaroo Banzai, the physicist-slash-brain surgeon-slash-rock star, figures out how to pass solid matter through solid matter, and somehow in the process discovers a horrible interdimensional alien plot/war/situation thing that’s been going on since the 1930’s (with an excellent nod to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds for you invasion conspiracy geeks). Meanwhile, the evil enemy character (John Lithgow, with amazing crazy-guy hair) has been taken over by the leader of the bad guys and is doing everything in his mad scientist powers to thwart our hero and his band of ragamuffin genius musicians. There’s also a really great corporate conspiracy element, since the bad aliens have been on Earth for decades and have established a stronghold in a company that’s doing research in space travel (which, if you’re an alien trapped on a planet without interstellar travel, is fucking brilliant).
Damn it. Once again, the thing I want to talk about does not sum up well. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I do this to you? It’s probably my stupid Literature degree, creeping in, taking over. As soon as I touch a keyboard my brain’s all “Must summarize! Must critique!” (Not sure why my brain sounds like a Dalek, but I’ll take it.)
Point is, this movie is the perfect example of a cult classic film, a phenomenon that fascinates me. That liminal moment when you get to share an obscure movie with someone who hasn’t seen it? That’s good stuff. Just tremendous. Especially if, as is occasionally the case, they really like it. But what makes a thing go beyond obscure and into the mystical land of cult? Is it the amount of love? Because that’s a bit subjective and not really quantifiable. Is it our twenty-first century ability to measure box-office release numbers to DVD and online purchase/streaming numbers? Because there were cult classics before the interwebs and home movies. It seems like a term that’s pretty difficult to drive a nail through, even though we all know what we mean when we say it.
The more I think about it, though, I really believe that the key element in any cult classic is not the movie itself, but the fans. Take Clerks, for example. Or Rocky Horror Picture Show. This Is Spinal Tap. Eraserhead. Pink Flamingos. (And that’s not even getting into really genre-specific groups of movies, because I have lists, let me tell you, and I could talk about cheesy 70’s horror movies or C-grade zombie films all fucking day). None of these are great movies if you look at them closely just for what they are. But what makes them great is how much we love them, despite their awfulness. We know every word, every joke, every facial expression. We quote them to each other endlessly. And I’m not saying that all cult classics are intrinsically bad. Fight Club is pretty cult-tastic, and it’s one of the greatest films of our generation. Donnie Darko. Harold and Maude. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Anything Quentin Tarantino’s ever touched. These are fantastic movies, but they’re not blockbusting hits that you know everyone and their mom has seen.
Cult classics are bigger than their popularity (or lack thereof), and more important. They tend to be a big part of what defines the boundaries of groups of people, along with books, music, etc, etc. Those boundaries create a community, an instant barrier between those who get it and those who don’t, and we just want to show these things to the uninitiated so they’ll be on our side of the fence, right? Drag them down with us? That’s how social groups work, identifying common interests. (Duh, hello Psych 101.) For instance, I guarantee you that anyone who will scream “We are the Knights Who Say Ni!” at another human being has played at least one game of Dungeons & Dragons in their life.
Go ahead. Try to defy that logic.
Now stop. Because your argument is invalid.
Anyway, if you’re into bad geeky adventure movies that are silly and have awesome aliens, you should watch Buckaroo Banzai. Let me know what you think if you watch it or any of the others that I’ve listed, and if there are more that I absolutely must see, leave me a comment. Wikipedia (oh, how I loathe you) actually has a pretty decent list. Hooray for crowdsourcing information that doesn’t need to be verified!