The modern age of science-fiction movies began with ''2001: A Space Odyssey, '' which pictured the future as a streamlined place full of gleaming surfaces and freshly scrubbed people. Later a reaction set in with films like ''Dark Star'' and ''Alien,'' which mingled high-tech situations with sloppy characters and lived-in surroundings.
''The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension'' takes this trend an amusing step further. The settings are downright squalid much of the time, and the filmmakers revel in their awfulness. They also revel in the strangeness of their characters, who have names like Perfect Tommy and Penny Priddy, and sport fashions ranging from cowboy hats to pastel spectacles and quick-changing hair colors.
And then there's the hero, a mishmash of fantasy-film role models: an Asian-American neurosurgeon who stars in his own rock group and spends his spare time discovering scientific secrets like the eighth dimension, which he locates by driving an ''oscillation overthruster'' through a solid mountain.
Some of this has a Thomas Pynchon-like feel, especially when a name like Yoyodyne Propulsions Systems comes up. In all, it's a regular compost heap of whimsical variations on pulp-fiction themes, and I'm sure there's a hilarious movie buried in there somewhere.
But director W.D. Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch don't manage to dig it out. Their style is so deliberately cool and offhand that the mood grows blurred and sleepy, even as too many ideas compete for attention on an ever-more-crowded screen. The talented cast gets lost in the shuffle - except John Lithgow, whose portrayal of the evil Dr. Lizardo energizes every scene he appears in. Too bad there's not enough of him to propel the movie into hyperspace, where it so badly wants to take us. 'Teachers'
Socially committed realism and screwball comedy don't mix easily. That's the main reason that ''Teachers'' is a mess.
There we are in a troubled urban high school. It's the kind of place we read about in articles on the decline of education. A minority of determined nonlearners is gumming up the whole academic process, and the local educators can't agree on what to do - except take each day as it comes and not rock their very fragile boat.
Instead of exploring this provocative situation in depth, director Arthur Hiller and screenwriter W.R. McKinney toy with it. One minute we're watching an urgent event - a pupil going berserk or a counselor pleading with an apathetic parent. The next minute it's two teachers in a slapstick battle over a mimeograph machine, or the comic demise of a pedant who's so orderly he can hardly move. And so it goes, lurching from the serious to the stupid, with no sense of balance or irony to unify the action.
The performances are in line with all this. As the hero - a bearish social-studies teacher with tarnished ideals - Nick Nolte veers uncertainly between machismo and vulnerability. As a lawyer pressing a suit against the school, JoBeth Williams vainly searches for a handle on her poorly written role, which sounds as if a large committee (perhaps a PTA) had assembled bits of unconnected behavior and dialogue. Judd Hirsch, another teacher, lets his suit do most of his acting.
Only the young Ralph Macchio (the ''Karate Kid'' himself) rises above the fray by pouring on his dark-eyed charm. The supporting cast, not very well used, includes Allen Garfield - whose role seems to have been mangled in the editing room - as well as Lee Grant and Zohra Lampert.