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The Greatest (Alien-Possessed) Mad Scientist in Cinema

Movies are full of mad scientists who use their extraordinary intellectual powers for villainy. The roots of them all (good and bad) might be traced back to C. A. Rotwang, the misguided scientist of Fritz Lang’s highly influential early film Metropolis (1927). But in 1984, as tech-heavy sci-fi films were filling up theaters, an odd, special-effects-driven movie called The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! made its debut, and while it was meant to kick off a franchise, it bombed in theaters despite being critically praised. A great film, it featured one particularly inspired performance that deserves a closer look.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! stars Peter Weller as Buckaroo, a man of many talents, including neurosurgery, race-car driving, particle-physicist, comic book hero, and rock and roll band leader. His band consists of a group of colorful characters called The Hong Kong Cavaliers, who reside at Banzai Institute in New Jersey, a think tank where they create and experiment on the latest scientific discoveries. Currently, they have modified a Ford F-350 pickup truck powered with a jet engine and a top secret device called an “oscillation overthruster” in hopes that it will allow Buckaroo to pass through solid matter. It does. Their test is a surprising success as Buckaroo actually drives the Jet Car straight through a mountain, slipping along the atoms of the landmass and unwittingly opening a portal to what they will learn later is the 8th dimension.

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Peter Weller (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984)

Meanwhile, in the Trenton Home for the Criminally Insane, a mentally disturbed physicist named Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) learns of Banzai’s success and breaks out after being held for 50 years (without aging) at the institute. We find out that actually, he technically isn’t just Lizardo anymore, as way back in 1938, he and his mentor, Dr. Hikita (Robert Ito) created their own overthruster, but when Lizardo prematurely used the machine, he ended up only going only halfway through a wall where he too witnessed the 8th dimension and in his brief time there had his mind taken over by Lord John Whorfin. Who is Lord John Worfin? Well, not a good guy.

John Lithgow (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984)
John Lithgow (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984)

A feared and condemned military leader of the Red Lectroids, the lizard-like humanoids of Planet 10, Whorfin ruled as a dictator in bloodthirsty fashion before being overthrown by the Black Lectroids, banished with his army to spend eternity in the 8th Dimension. With Lizardo’s emergence, he seized control of his body and while it was shared with the scientist, the despot was able to escape and tried to use the scientist for evil until his capture and sentence to the Trenton Home where medicine (mostly) kept the erratic Whorfin under wraps.

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John Lithgow (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984)

The mishap with the overthruster also released many of Whorfin’s army (an event reported by the now famous Orson Well‘s radio broadcast dubbed War of the Worlds, later recounted as fiction). While he remained trapped at the mental hospital, his army disguised themselves as humans (all named John) and took up jobs at Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems, a defense contracting company with the prophetic slogan “The Future Begins Tomorrow”. Brilliant. The aliens take the time to build a crude spaceship and await their leader’s return, though when he gets there, he’s not pleased with their results as they haven’t been able to construct a working overthruster. Time to steal Banzai’s.

John Lithgow is an exceptionally gifted actor with tremendous range. Perhaps best known for his 6 seasons as Dick Solomon, the alien High Commander in the television sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. A prolific talent, he’s been acting steadily in film and TV for decades, creating a number of memorable characters in all genres, from the sensationally demented multiple-personality-afflicted Carter/Cain in Raising Cain to the sensitive portrayal of Roberta Muldoon, a transexual in The World According to Garp. But it is as Dr. Lizardo where Lithgow earned cult status and gives arguably his most memorable performance (or at least unique) as the wildly erratic and comically-demented Whorfin.

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Lithgow gives the possessed character layers of personality from the freakishly electrified-looking hair and wide eyes, to the hunched, spastic movements of his torso. It’s hysterically funny and like Steve Martin‘s mesmerizing turn as Roger Cobb in Carl Reiner‘s All of Me–also about a man possessed by two individuals–Lithgow’s physical contortions and exaggerated gestures are equally compelling, a performance so committed to the absurd, it becomes almost ethereal. You can’t pull your eyes away.

What’s truly fascinating about the Lizardo/Whorfin character is how we draw very little sympathy for Lizardo. Seen whole only in a flashback for a moment, he is a compulsive and eager scientist desperate to be the first person to prove that passing through solid matter is possible. Working with his partner Professor Hikita (Robert Ito), he attempts the procedure too early, ignoring Hikita’s plea to wait. This results in the accident, and Lizardo’s encounter with Whorfin. And a bad hair day.

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John Lithgow (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984)

When he is pulled from the 8th dimension, he’s now sharing his body with the evil dictator, an internal battle waged that Lizardo cannot win. This is the punishment for his hubris, Worphin perhaps a metaphorical transformation that reveals who and what the real Lizardo truly was and how he might have abused his discovery if it had indeed worked the first time. But what makes him so classic is the pure ineptitude of the man, his incompetence and lack of even the most basic ability to run an army. His madness makes him scary and looney at the same time. We actually never truly see Whorfin in his natural state. He is always trapped inside the always writhing Lizardo, as if trying to squirm his way out of the alien skin holding him inside. This further establishes that Lizardo himself is indeed the madman. And one of cinema’s greatest mad scientists.

There’s always a risk that creating such an outwardly bizarre character might be too distracting, or worse pull away from the world of the story. This has happened in film before, from an unusual accent to an over-the-top performance that ruins an otherwise watchable film. However, drawing from the same pool of mad-genius as the great Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, whose eponymous Dr. Strangelove was himself a wildly erratic character that walked a very thin line between brilliant satire and foolishness but in so doing created one of film’s most memorable characters, Lithgow finds that same zone where his Lizardo/Whorfin not just works, it defines the film’s tone and makes for the best performance in the movie.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! is a great film, a visionary piece of sci-fi from director W.D. Richtor (in his debut, and to date only one of two films he’s directed). Purposefully designed with a stylized comic-book feel, with broad, wildly eccentric and charismatic characters, and over-the-top gadgets and dialogue, it’s both a perfect slice of 80s classic cinema and yet influential just the same. Plus, Jeff Goldblum wears a shiny red cowboy suit.

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From left: Jeff Goldblum, Pepe Serna, Lewis Smith, Peter Weller (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984)
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