Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Better Than Gilgamesh

It has to be said: "Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers" is the best name for a band since "Gilgamesh and the Guitar-Gardeners" took Babylon by storm.

Sumeria, whatever.

It also ought to be said that it's not all that surprising that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension never really took off and became a bona fide hit movie. It's a bit of a mess, story-wise (The Lectroids are stealing the Overthruster! The Lectroids don't have the Overthruster! The Lectroids have their own Overthruster! The Lectroid's Overthruster doesn't work! Wait, is the planet going to be destroyed or not!? Huh? What?), and the effects are probably best described as "charming", but more than that, Buckaroo Banzai doesn't wear a costume.

Have you ever wondered why it is that superheroes always wear outlandish costumes? I guess there's a couple of reasons (makes it easier to draw them if they're always wearing the same thing, makes them more recognizable on cover illustrations), but I was thinking recently that one of the key reasons is that by depicting characters in idiot costumes, costume superhero stories clearly indicate that they are taking place in some alternative fantasy world, NOT our own.

We can accept that Superman flies around and stops criminals more easily if we're told right from the get-go that this story is taking place in a fantasy land. Likewise Batman, who arguably isn't a super-hero at all, just a man with great skill, lots of money and phenomenal luck, wears a costume in part to let us relax our suspension of disbelief and accept the goofy stories that we're being told.

I think it's harder for many people to relax that suspension of disbelief if the cues announcing a fantasy setting aren't as clear.

Now, given that Buckaroo Banzai starts with a character who goes from brain surgery to inter-dimensional rocket test pilot, and is named Buckaroo Banzai, it could be argued that the cues here are reasonably clear. But a big cape, primary colours and even a mask would go a long way toward making that crystal.

Not that I'm arguing for that. I like Buckaroo the way he is, and indeed I like this film just the way it is, thank you very much. It does a great job of evoking its wacky little world without ever falling into over-explication. It respects its audience, and assumes we're all in on the joke, which is is a sufficiently rare thing for any film that in that quality alone it's worth watching.

Buckaroo harkens back to the pulp heroes of yesteryear, when a man could excel at ALL things, and didn't have to specialize in one field. It wants to tell us (and this is the central argument of nearly all fantasy) that one person CAN make a difference, that we CAN make choices that will effect not only our lives, but the very course of history.

Maybe that's why fantasy typically gets a bum rap from most critical wankers: because it dresses up its core struggles with the trappings of historical significance, rather than relying on the inner world of the human spirit. A real writer would be able to tell that story, present that struggle and give it weight and power and resonance without armies or dragons or evil masterminds. Using such elements is seen as "cheating" -- much in the way that over-stirring music can alienate rather than move an audience.

But would Buckaroo's story be BETTER if it didn't feature a possessed Dr. Lizardo (that's another problem -- you've got a character named DR. LIZARDO and you have him possessed by some clown named John Whorfin? WTF?), Lectroids from Planet 10, the perils of the 8th Dimension and the threat of nuclear annihilation? Now that's crazy talk. Because we all know that critical wankers who say things like got said in the previous paragraph are joy-killing turdballs who probably don't even like dinosaur movies.

TAoBBAtED would have been more popular had the story been more coherent, had there been LESS goofy ideas thrown about, and most importantly, had they put Buckaroo in a cape and a mask. But it would have been less of a movie. Even if they'd added dinosaurs.