Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1985

American Dreams, American Nightmares

This is the first of a regular Prometheus film review feature by John Ahrens, a libertarian philosopher who is the Associate Director of the Social Philosophy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension

directed by W.D. Richter

starring Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd.

Repo Man

directed by Alex Cox
starring Harry Dean Stanton. Emilio Estevez.
Reviewed by John Ahrens


Buckaroo Banzai is a hero tailor-made for the generation that was deep in the throes of adolescence in the mid-60s. Our heros were the scientists and astronauts who were literally transporting us into other worlds and, for the most part, the rock stars whose sybaritic adventures provided inspiration of another sort. Most of us aspired to be scientists/astronauts or rock stars or even better, both. Buckaroo Banzai is a scientist, an astronaut (of a metaphysical sort), a rock star, and more—inventor, neurosurgeon, martial artist. His life is one of stellar accomplishments and endless thrills, and he even provides the musical accompaniment for his own adventures. He is the living embodiment of a dream that for years has found expression only in high camp—the Batman television series—or straightforward escapism—Luke Skywalker of Star Wars.

But Buckaroo Banzai is played entirely too straight to be either high camp or escapism. And I suspect that this explains the critical reaction to it. This movie has been in extremely limited release for several months, and reviewers have consistently 1abled it “weird” or “strange” or “odd”. They do not seem to know what to make of a movie that features a heavily armed rock'n'roll band, a mad scientist the likes of which you’ve never seen, what has to be the most bizarre boy-meets-girl scene ever put on film, and yet seems to take itself seriously. There is something more than just simple comic fantasy going on here, but it is not clear just what this something else might be.

One would expect reviewers to disdain a movie which departs so radically from traditional categories but does so without being preachy. But they do seem to like it, and so do audiences. Why? I think because Buckaroo Banzai is a movie about the American Dream—not just the standard version—the dream of a society in which all children can grow up to be anything they want to be. This is an improved version, in which children can grow up to be everything they want to be.

Like Luke Skywalker, Buckaroo is a hero who cannot be real; to this extent, the movie is escapist. But unlike Skywalker, Buckaroo Banzai is is a hero who can be emulated. He is a self-made hero, and not simply a pawn of cosmic or social forces. He is a cause rather than an effect. If Ayn Rand had written for children (of any age) and if she had had a sense of humor, she might have written about Buckaroo Banzai.

Or maybe not. For what Buckaroo Banzai lacks is any portrayal of the impediments to self-realization. It is all well and good to point out that every human being has the potential to be anything or even everything. Perhaps this is an overly optimistic assessment of human potential and perhaps not. But whatever the truth of this matter may be we all know that nature and, even more, society will conspire to keep us from being anything at all. This conflict between human aspirations and the natural social context in which these aspirations must be pursued is the focus of another movie in limited release—Repo Man.

Repo Man is the most eccentric and unlikely movie I have ever seen. The protagonist. played by Harry Dean Stanton, makes his living by reposessing cars from deadbeats who do not make their payments. This is not just his job, it is his calling: it requires unswerving dedication to the “repo codes” which teaches that respect for private property and a good credit rating are the essentials of a meaningful life. Clearly, this is not a movie that would receive Ralph Nader's seal of approval.

But Stanton’s character is a flawed hero. He recognizes that the repo code sets him apart from Communists and Christians, who cleave to false values, and from “ordinary peoples” who cleave to no values at all. But the burden of his difference weighs heavily on him and he comes to hate those interior types more than he respects himself. His fall from grace is precipitated by extraterrestrials who are secreted in the trunk of a scientist’s car. The authorities offer an extremely large bounty for this car, much more than the fee for an ordinary repossession, and Stanton steals the car in order to free himself from financial and social restraints.

Not surprisingly, Stanton expires as a result of his theft. His fall from grace renders him vulnerable to the radiation the aliens emit from their pores and he sickens and dies. But not before he has initiated a young disciple [played by Emilio Estevez, who I’ve heard is Martin Sheen’s son—editor] into the repo life. This young disciple, along with an aging hippie, is whisked away by the aliens, presumably to a better life beyond the stars.

What is unlikely about this movie is its moral absolutism. The repo man attains salvation via unswerving commitment to his values in the face of temptation. The aging hippie is armored against “sin” because be has so damaged his brain with drugs that he is incapable of comprehending either good or evil. And these seem to be the only viable alternatives for human beings: one can stand firm against the pressures to compromise or one can simply opt out of the human race altogether.

Like Buckaroo Banzai, Repo Man exhibits strong individualist themes. The characters in these movies are not mere ciphers who are used to illustrate the effects of natural and social forces. Instead they are the forces who create and direct nature and society. We identify with them because they are what we could be, rather than merely what we are. What does all this individualism in the movies mean? Probably not much. These are B-movies and both are in limited release. But maybe there’s a trend in the making. And even if there isn’t, it’s refreshing to see at least a few movies in which individuals who are coping with the human condition—rather than struggling to escape it—are the focus of attention.

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