Three Lovable Flops: The Philadelphia Experiment, Krull and Buckaroo Banzai
I have a soft spot for some of the near-misses from the 1980’s, typically big-concept genre movies that were either too earnest, too cheap, too goofy or too Too for their own good. Sometimes they win you over on merit and other times, it’s just a matter of crying “uncle” and letting the insanity win. I will leave it to you to decide if these three films have what it takes to be flop-classics, or just plain flops.
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) Briefly, two WWII Navy guys are swept into the future (circa 1984) when the experiment to radar-cloak warships goes awry. David Herdeg (Michael Pare) and Jimmy Parker (Bobby DiCicco, who was a primary actor in another lovable bomb, Steven Spielberg’s 1941) are being sucked back into a time vortex, on a molecular level, where their ship and a chunk of a town are trapped. Yes, it is just as daft as it sounds.
Along for the ride is Nancy Allen as Allison, cute and red-haired, with a mousy-behavior and an inclination toward eye-humping Pare every chance she gets. Jimmy gets sucked back to the ship and it is up to Herdeg to find out what’s going on, or as it is more often phrased in the movie, “what the hell’s going on, goddammit.”
All the ways it doesn’t work – The time paradox stuff falls apart pretty quickly, especially when it is revealed that Herdeg’s valiant third-act actions were supposedly already known by his shipmates from the past. And yet, when Herdeg visits old Jimmy (character actor Ralph Manza), none of this seems evident. Also, what’s up with Herdeg’s eyeliner? You never quite buy Pare as anyone from the Forties.
The continuity problems are pretty glaring, not the least of which is Herdeg’s protestations about these weird cars he don’t know how to drive (automatic transmissions, ‘natch) that, apparently, he can drive like a pro later in the flick.
And yet… – As dopey as things can get, and as much as the experiment’s command center looks like cast-offs from a ’70s Dr. Who episode, you still get sucked in to the film provided you’re generous enough to go with it. It’s young love, dang it, between a P.Y.T. and a dude who is technically old enough to be her grandfather. Eeeewwww…
Originally, John Carpenter was approached to direct the movie but he opted to do Escape From New York instead. When it was made years later, it was with Carpenter in the role of executive producer.
Krull (1983) High adventure! Swash to be buckled! Princes, princesses, space mountains that crash into planets, or just appear and disappear at will, acting, reacting, overacting and the worst frisbee you’ve had the displeasure of trying to catch (they call it a glaive). Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) was just about to get hitched to his hot, young princess bride Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) when said evil alien mountain crashes into the planet Krull, and more evil brain-parasite creatures steal her away, all for the pleasure for the even-more-evil squiggly mirror monster overlord Beast. Colwyn must save the princess, banish the evils, and take his place as the king of planet Krull.
All the ways it doesn’t work – This movie is all about more, more, more, from Peter Yates’ (Bullitt) direction to James Horner’s score, to the near-Shakespearean weight the movie has crowned itself with, there isn’t a moment of it that doesn’t scream of desperate import and urgency.
And yet… – The movie is kind of fun. Sure, it is bloated, but it resides in that weird little subsection of fantasy filmmaking that was aiming to be perceived as an event, and in the right frame-of-mind you kind of get swept away by it. In that, it is a lot like Dragonslayer or The Dark Crystal. Is it a classic? No way. Is it the worst thing you can do with two hours? Arguably not, and watch for Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane in one of their first gigs as gypsy ruffians.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) Now here is a movie that is crazier than a dog turd trying to make it’s way back home. Buckaroo Banzai, scientist, adventurer, rock star, everything else (Peter Weller) has to stop the invasion of the Red Lectroids led by the alien-possessed Dr. Emilio Lizardo (played by John Lithgow, who gets the movie’s best lines mostly to himself) – the Lectroids move among us in disguise, but they all are named “John,” and each has a more ridiculous surname… For example, Christopher Lloyd as John Bigbootie…
All the ways it doesn’t work – It just doesn’t work at all! If Krull was about “more,” then Buckaroo Banzai is about “more” with lasers for eyeballs, nunchucks for arms, twin Evinrude motors for legs and a lit roman candle sticking out of the butthole. Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin) knows little to nothing about her twin sister apparently; certainly nothing about Sis’ relationship with Banzai, but now she’s dead so, oh well. Nobody really knows what’s going on, but the rock band-cum-world savers are going to save the day even if Jeff Goldblum’s character New Jersey has to wear the cowboy outfit for the whole show… And the hat too.
And yet… – The irrational exuberance on display, the utter chaos and “wing it” demeanor of the movie has the feeling of playing cops, robbers and Red Lectroids in the backyard, complete with “pschew! pschew!” noises from your little toy gun. It is the height of demented excess, but it is the most fun sort of cinematic seizure possible. Writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter (screenwriter for Big Trouble In Little China) know it too, and aren’t afraid to let the freaks fly their flag.
Example: When Lizardo feels he’s being mocked in the sanitarium, Lithgow in his thickest Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Italian accent shouts, “Laugh-a while-a you can, a-monkey boy!” When he’s addressing the Lectroids on a podium like some kinda Stalin, he bellows, “Where are we going?!”
The Lectroids shout back, triumphantly, “Planet Ten!”
Lizardo shouts, “When?!”
The Lectroids: “Real soon!” Lizardo poses like he has just won something.
None of these movies will ever rise from their very small corner of film history, but in a sense, they work out of some acid-reflux of spite. At the best of times, you jump in the back seat and go for the ride, and at the worst, they all probably would make for the drunkenest drinking games you’ve ever played. Consider one, or all, for your New Year’s festivities!