The films of Drive Invasion's Sept. 1 line-up all involve aliens, like you might expect from the moviegoing zeitgeist of three decades ago, when Hollywood wanted to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars, Alien and the like. The bill features John Carpenter's Antarctic horror freakout The Thing (1982), the videogamer escapist fantasy The Last Starfighter (1984) and the bizarre pulp satire The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). From a purely nostalgic perspective, the most interesting may be Buckaroo Banzai, a defiantly strange film that feels more timely today than the year of its release.
In terms of quality, The Thing is handily the best of the threesome. Carpenter's attempt to capitalize on Alien proved a disappointment on release and was knocked for emphasizing disgustingly creative make-up effects over the paranoia in its premise of an alien shape-shifter. In retrospect, The Thing delivers a terrific, haunting mix of mood and body horror, and the practical effects look great compared to present-day CGI work. Plus, it showcases a great cast of character actors, from lead Kurt Russell down to the hapless huskies, whom the podcast We Hate Movies praise for some of best "dog-acting" in cinema.
The Last Starfighter comes across as a breezy but instantly forgettable Lucas/Spielberg imitator, as Lance Guest's trailer-park teenager discovers that his favorite arcade game is secretly an aptitude test for battling real aliens. As a kitschy period piece, Starfighter probably offers most of its appeal for the now-dated special effects, fashions and synth-score. But the script contains some genuinely funny dialogue, and the production ingeniously casts Robert Preston, in a twist on his signature role from The Music Man, as a fast-talking alien recruiter.
In Buckaroo Banzai future Robocop Peter Weller plays the title role, a half-American, half-Japanese neurosurgeon/physicist/test pilot/musician who investigates strange phenomena and rocks out with his colleagues/bandmates, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. The plot hinges on alien invaders from the 8th Dimension - or is that Planet 10? - led by deranged scientist Emilio Lizardo. As the villain, Jon Lithgow sets some kind of altitude record for going over the top.
Director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch riff not just on Indiana Jones and Flash Gordon but the pulp novels starring crime-busting super-genius Doc Savage. Weller brings an appealing Zen-like detachment to a potentially fascinating role - "No matter where you go... there you are," he announces in one of the film's signature lines - and it's a shame the film doesn't keep him at center stage. For a while, Buckaroo Banzai unfolds like an overcrowded Robert Altman ensemble piece, but the film doesn't even flesh out its characters on the level of a Mel Brooks comedy. Instead, it just throws crazy personalities and weird props at the audience, with diminishing returns.
Nevertheless, Buckaroo Banzai feels very much in synch with the genre satire and non sequitur jokes of Adult Swim, and would probably make more sense doled out in 11-minute chunks late at night. At one point, two of the Hong Kong Cavaliers walk through a lab. "Why is there a watermelon there?" asks the one played by Jeff Goldblum. "I'll tell you later," says the other guy. Of course, the watermelon never gets mentioned again. Incidentally, Buckaroo Banzai's cast is even better than you remember, with the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, Carl Lumbly and Vincent Schiavelli as aliens. Even bit parts may be played by the likes of Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff or future "Breaking Bad" scene-stealer Jonathan Banks (the object of Dr. Lizardo's memorable line, "Laugh while you can, monkey boy").
A friend of mine suggests that part of the appeal of 1980s films is that they pre-date the irony of 1990s and seem more unselfconsciously sincere, at least compared to the archness to come. Buckaroo Banzai serves as an exception, though, suiting the contemporary zeitgeist of "random humor" and inescapable comic book movies. Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic even imitated Buckaroo Banzai's closing credit sequence of the team assembling while walking along. It may be misguided and unsatisfying, but it's enormously confident in what it does.
Drive Invasion 2013. Sun., Sept. 1. Starlight Six Drive-In, 2000 Moreland Ave. www.facebook.com/driveinvasion.
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