In 2016, THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION is—if not quite a venerated classic—a beloved film in the contemporary cult canon. The vocal fanbase that coalesced around film in the VHS era peaked in 2006, when the film got a deluxe release on DVD after years of limited accessibility. Since then, venerated cinema blog The Dissolve devoted a weeklong series of blog entries and essays to BUCKAROO BANZAI, and no less an auteur than Wes Anderson tipped his red watchcap to the film in the closing credits of THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU.
BUCKAROO BANZAI predicts many of the millennial film trends, such as the fast-paced onslaught of non sequitur humor, the ensemble cast of quirky characters, and the loosely plotted screenplay that serves as an excuse to watch a bunch of oddballs bounce off one another. A film like this is only as successful as the man whose name appears over the title, and director W.D. Richter lucked out by casting Peter Weller as the neurosurgeon/particle physicist/bandleader/zen warrior of the hour.
In the early ‘80s, when the film was in development, established actors—or at least established personalities—headlined genre films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and CONAN THE BARBARIAN, which accounted in part for the crossover audience those movies attracted. 20th Century Fox encouraged Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch to find a marquee name for their film, but the pair had different ideas. Instead, they sought out stage actors, who Richter believed “could interact completely with props”. At the time, Peter Weller was known primarily for his role as Diane Keaton’s love interest in SHOOT THE MOON, but he also had a deep background in Off Broadway productions and was a member of the Actors’ Studio.
In a 1995 interview with Sci-Fi Universe, Weller admits he was initially “leery” about the script. “I read the script on a plane to Los Angeles to meet David Begelmen, and wondered what the film’s point-of-view would be. Would it be campy? Would it be a cartoon? Or would it be the sort of wacky, realistic film that would catch people sideways—and not be a cartoon.” Meeting with Richter helped Weller gain perspective on the character. “I thought it was wonderful. Buckaroo Banzai is a guy who operates as a neurosurgeon, drives his car through a mountain, and then finds time to play rock’n’roll with his band. After Rick had finished telling me the story, he had become my avatar—I felt willing to do any movie he wanted.”
Amidst the murderer’s row of character actors, each playing their own eccentric character to the hilt, Weller’s levelheaded, sometimes deadpan cool sticks out. His levelheaded manner gives him a believability in the opening scene (in which he discusses his band with a colleague as they perform brain surgery), but he can also pull off lines like “don’t pull that—you don’t know what it could be attached to” without raising too much alarm. With his aloof cool and his authoritative manner, Weller travels from the operating theater to the Mojave Desert to the nightclub to a holding cell in a prison, and he appears plausible, if not fully at home, in each locale. In a discussion of BUCKAROO BANZAI on The Dissolve’s Forum, critic Noel Murray observes that “Weller holds this movie together by playing the material straight, but with just a bit of a twinkle.”
Murray’s other observation about the actor—“Weller looks like he should be a movie star, but if it hadn’t been for films like this one and ROBOCOP, I don’t know that Hollywood would’ve ever figured out what to do with his aloof cool”—is sadly true. BUCKAROO BANZAI was too acquired a taste to truly launch a career, but had it been a hit, Weller may have had a credible career as a character actor, like those of his costars John Lithgow and Jeff Goldblum. Unfortunately, the film opened at the end of August 1984 on fewer than 500 screens, and the marketing campaign aimed squarely at sci fi congoers and managed to miss a wider mainstream audience. Not even glowing reviews from Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert could help the film’s untimely death at the box office.
BUCKAROO BANZAI’s lack of success may have paved the way for Weller’s unusual career. Apart from ROBOCOP (a role Paul Verhoven chose him for on the strength of his “expressive lips”, Weller is best known for his portrayal of Burroughs stand-in William Lee in David Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH, and for his appearance in Antonioni’s final film, BEYOND THE CLOUDS. His lack of celebrity has allowed him a surprisingly rich and multifaceted career outside of Hollywood. A perusal of Weller’s Wikipedia entry reveals that he teaches courses on Italian Renaissance art at Syracuse University, and that he had been conferred his doctorate in the months before his most recent film, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, opened. He also has a background in music and a strong interest in Japanese language and culture. Buckaroo Banzai would be proud.