As far as as major studios are concerned, Shared Universes are the wave of the future. On the off chance that you have neither stepped into a multiplex nor read a single word of entertainment journalism since 2008, the “Shared Universe” is the notion of a conceptual continuity, uniting seemingly unrelated blockbusters into one larger Uber Franchise. Thus far, the only fully successful Shared Universe we’ve actually seen is the one crafted by Marvel Studios, weaving a dozen (and counting) witty superhero films into one playfully bombastic tapestry. Unsurprisingly, the billions amassed from that venture have inspired other studios to throw their hats into the ring, announcing Shared Universes for everything from Transformers to Universal Monsters to Roger Corman remakes (no, seriously). Most recently, Warner Brothers planted the stakes for their DC Universe conglomerate, and while the results have been dispiriting, they’ve already made enough money to ensure that we’ll all be dead before this trend subsides.
Of course, the Shared Universe is not an entirely new concept to motion pictures. Universal created a surprisingly intricate (though not entirely coherent) web of crossovers with their first round of monsters in the 1940s, as did Toho with Godzilla and his pals in the ‘60s. And mention must be made of the “Askewniverse,” which united the slacker comedies of Kevin Smith in the ‘90s and ‘00s. But what happens when a cinematic universe collapses at the Big Bang stage?
Such was the case, at least nominally, with 1984’s beloved cult oddity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. Debuting the same year as Ghostbusters and one year after Return of the Jedi, everything about Buckaroo Banzai seems geared toward the blockbuster boom of the ‘80s. The title character covers all bases, declared in the breathless opening crawl to be a brilliant physicist, neurosurgeon, crimefighter, and new wave rock star. His friends and enemies – colorful, inventively named, and played by such up-and-comers as Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd, and Ellen Barkin – seem tailor-made to a Star Wars-like line of action figures. The film presents a universe fully realized in its opening moments, and the closing credits promise a forthcoming sequel (bearing the similarly hyperbolic title Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League).
That sequel, of course, never materialized. Neither did any noticeable amount of merchandise, save for a comic book adaptation (from Marvel, fittingly enough) and a novelization by screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch. The film barely registered at the box office, before slowly amassing a nerd-cult on VHS. It was, in short, an unqualified flop. Or was it?
Buckaroo Banzai is such a steadfastly odd film that, the closer you look, the less it seems like the first entry in a franchise, so much as a parody of the very idea. Rather than taking the safe route – presenting an accessible origin story, or, failing that, offering up some familiar characters – Buckaroo Banzai drops us unceremoniously into a world where Buckaroo Banzai is already so well-known that his status and previous adventures are hardly worth mentioning. There is precious little in the way of exposition: characters with names like Reno Nevada and Perfect Tommy enter and exit the story at will, and past exploits are referenced offhand with little to no explanation. Even Rauch’s previously mentioned novelization, which is a little more generous with backstory, includes footnote citations to nonexistent previous books.
All of which makes me wonder if Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League was ever seriously intended to come to fruition, or if it isn’t just the punchline to a very weird joke. The narrative density of the film may have kept it from reaching a wider audience, but it’s also the very reason for its enduring popularity; few sci-fi action comedies from the ‘80s can plausibly spark rumors that they were ghostwritten, or even directed, by Thomas Pynchon. I would have loved to see further adventures of the Hong Kong Cavaliers, or learned more about the war between the Red and Black Lectroids (or at least what that watermelon was doing there), but part of me feels like an actual sequel would have spoiled some of the magic. Just remember: no matter where you go, there you are.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
dir. W.D. Richter
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