Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie

MST3K - The MovieSynopsis: After six seasons of sublime, nerdy fun on television, the cult comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000 took to the big screen in 1996 for its deliriously funny take down of the 1955 alien invasion epic This Island Earth.

Evil scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester explains the premise at the start: in his quest for world domination, he devises a scheme to subject the human race to the worst movies ever made. He tests his plan on Mike Nelson, the sole human aboard an Earth-orbiting space station known as the Satellite of Love. But our hero and his two robot sidekicks turn a lemon into a much funnier lemon by showering This Island Earth with wisecracks, ridicule and general silliness. The human race may never be rid of cheesy movies, but when the critics are this nutty, who cares?

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Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie 7.75

eyelights: the hilarious riffing.
eyesores: the quality of the interstitial skits.

“This is my test subject, Mike Nelson – a disgustingly mild-mannered dope who’s managed to survive every film I’ve subjected him to. But, perhaps, this movie will drive him to the breaking point and crush his soul. And then I’ll unleash it on an unwitting public, and then I will rule the world!”

‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ was a television show that ran for eleven seasons (if one counts the KTMA run) from 1988 to 1999. The premise was simple: our lead was a dork who was sent into orbit by mad scientists and was trapped there, forced to watch outrageously bad movies so that they could study his reactions and behavioral patterns.

The show consisted of watching Joel (later replaced by Mike), and the robots he built to keep him company, crack wise while being force-fed these movies – all superimposed in profile at the bottom of the running film, giving the illusion that viewers were behind them in a cinema. The film would often be broken up by short skits and commercial breaks.

I’m a BIG fan of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’. I first heard of it towards the end of its run, via a co-worker who was telling me about the short film collection he was buying on VHS (they often preceded their feature films with shorts, and many of the shorts were collected in three or four volumes). Old educational shorts are ripe for spoofing, so the idea appealed to me.

One day I stumbled upon a DVD copy of their ‘The Wild Wild World of Batwoman’ episode in a second hand shop. It was a bit pricey, however it boasted not only the episode, but also the unedited feature film on the flip side of the DVD (remember those flipper DVDs?). I immediately took it home and started to watch it that afternoon, eager as I was to finally discover MST3K.

I found it amusing, but didn’t entirely get it. One of the problems is that I hadn’t seen the original movie. I needed to hear the original dialogues to understand what was going on and get the jokes – except that I had a bunch of wise-@$$es blabbing over it. That’s when I discovered that having the original movie was a key element to the enjoyment of MST3K.

So I watched the original film sans the MST3K crew, then re-watched the episode. I was able to appreciate it more. And what I discovered was that I enjoyed the episode more and more as I watched it. Another key problem with MST3K is that there are so many wise-cracks that you can’t get all of them in just one sitting – you’re too busy laughing and/or reacting to what was already said.

What’s great about the riffing is that it’s not just about the crew being silly or sarcastic – they also make an abundant amount of pop culture and historical references or allusions. This means that, unless one is well-versed on a wealth of general knowledge (i.e. trivia), one might not get a lot of the jokes. I certainly don’t get it all, but I get (or I understand the context ) enough to really enjoy the show.

Over the years, I’ve picked up quite a few of the DVDs and boxed sets. While I’m disappointed that they no longer include the original films on their flipside (for rights reasons, no doubt), I still enjoy the episodes anyway. And when a friend of mine had a rare (but battered) copy of ‘MST3K: The Movie’ on DVD, I had to snatch it up right quick. It soon became a staple of my lane-night diet.

The motion picture was originally conceived on a grander, more expensive, scale with the mad scientists going to a Mad Scientists Convention. The MST3K crew even considered doing a music musical version of the show and spoofing ‘The Great Escape’. But Universal, the studio that had agreed to make the picture, asked for a cinema version of the TV show.

Cal Meecham: “Check rate of radioactive decay.”
Crow T. Robot: “Increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around!”

So they went back to the drawing board, and basically translated the show for cinema audiences as best as they could.

The ‘Mystery Science Theatre: 3000’ movie is revolves around the sci-fi cult classic, ‘This Island Earth’. Since the gang at MST3K were making the picture with a major studio, they had to dig up a colour film which from the large Universal catalogue, and which was decent enough that the masses could appreciate it. They screened a bunch of movies to eventually come up with this “stinky cinematic suppository”.

Unfortunately, they MST3K gang struggled to appease the studio and keep the flavour of the show intact: Universal started to edit the script, partly for legal reasons, but also because the studio heads didn’t get the references and claimed that audiences wouldn’t either. Ironically, they had convinced the studio that it would work by performing it live in front of an audience in 1994 (their second live show ever!).

To make matters worse, they had to reduce the number of gags and comments that they made for the theatrical audience, so that there wouldn’t be too many jokes buried under all the laughter. In the end, the picture ran at a breezy 73 minutes in length – which is hilarious given that the television show was around 90 minutes long (as was the original picture, ‘This Island Earth’).

The filmmaking process itself started off smoothly: They had wrapped up 80% of the movie in the first week of filming, due to the simplicity of the concept as well as their experience at doing it. But then they butted heads with Universal over the credits, of all things, dragging the production down and resulting in a credit sequence riffing.

Ultimately, the MST3K crew were not satisfied with the end result.

In fact, they were all upset enough that they decided to parody the experience in cathartic episode 704 of the show,  “The Incredible Melting Man”. Many years later, the bitterness remained: during a cast reunion in New York City, when asked what was the worst movie that they had featured on the show, Trace Beaulieu replied “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie”.

And yet, by all accounts, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie’ is hardly a failure. It’s not as funny as many of the episodes are (and, apparently, the live riffing that they did was better than this expurgated version), but it remains a very good film nonetheless: fans pretty much universally agree that it’s good, just not great.

Dr. Forrester: “Hello, and welcome. I’m Dr. Clayton Forrester, and soon you will all bow down before me.”

The film begins with an intro by Dr. Clayton Forrester, the principal mad scientist since the show’s inception – but without a sidekick, seeing as TV’s Frank had unfortunately been killed off recently. These first moments are basically a quick brief on what the show’s basic premise is, to set the stage for newbies – as if there non-fans would likely attend.

Beaulieu, who played Forrester, tries his best to make up for the absence of a tag-team partner by amping things up, but it doesn’t entirely work. If anything, it only serves to highlight the camp factor and to prove how indispensable TV’s Frank was as a partner-in-crime: while Forrester was merely evil, Frank was actually loveable – for an oaf.

Then we cut to the film proper, which begins as an homage to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ – with a shot of The Satellite of Love  in space and our good-natured protagonist, Mike, running on a circular treadmill whilst air boxing. That’s when the film takes an unexpected twist: Crow is trying to dig his way back to earth. Um… through the ship’s fuselage.

Crow T. Robot: “Well believe me, Mike, I calculated the odds of this succeeding versus the odds I was doing something incredibly stupid… and I went ahead anyway.”

And this is the sort of silly shenanigans one can expect from Mike, Crow T Robot, Tom Servo and Gypsy, in this picture’s interstitial segments. That, and crashing the ship into the Hubble telescope, finding an interociter in Tom’s room (“Oh, who doesn’t own an interositer these days?”), and holding a mixer for having gotten through yet another agonizing experiment.

Unfortunately, while the cast’s acting works great on the small screen, it doesn’t have the same impact on the big screen – it feels amateurish at best, amplified as it is. Similarly, while the low-budget sets were fine on TV, even revamped for the big screen they look extremely cheap. Sadly, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie’ still looks like a TV show, not a movie.

But ‘MST3K’ is mostly about the riffing, not the skits and other bits. At least, it is for me. While I usually like some of the segments, some of them positively inspired and/or hilarious, and great breathers, they are hit-or-miss: in the show they are often merely excuses for ad breaks. So I’ve gotten most of my kicks in the back seat, with the gang in the front row, cracking jokes.

Tom Servo: “Captain’s log: a bunch of our ship fell off, and, nobody likes me.”

How is the riffing in ‘Mystery Science Theater: The Movie:? It’s pretty spot on: ‘This Island Earth’ is absolutely ripe for riffing, what with its dubious science, its deep-voiced, wide-grinned hero, the lame, large foreheaded alien race, the ridiculous plot contrivances, and some not-so-special special effects. It’s as hoaky as ’50s sci-fi gets, it seems.

Exeter: “Now place your hands above the rail… they’re magnetized.”
Crow T. Robot: “And if your hands were metal, that would mean something.”

I say “seems”, because, as mentioned earlier, the original film was truncated for the MST3K version. This is typical of the show, which could only allot so much time to any given picture, but this practice severely limits the ability for a picture to maintain its cohesiveness. Fans of ‘This Planet Earth’ and critics of ‘MST3K: The Movie’ abhorred this so-called butchering, calling it unfair.

But is it unfair to poke fun at the fact that Exeter looks like a rejected Mork (from ‘Mork and Mindy’)? No, it isn’t! Is it unfair to poke fun at the some of the pathetic dialogue? No, it isn’t!  Is it unfair to poke fun at the clunky ’50s technology and inventions? No, it isn’t!  While, I agree that the original film is likely better than it appears in this format, it nonetheless has plenty of ludicrous aspects to it.

Anyway, ‘MST3K’ is frequently about the pop culture references, making geeks laughs knowing that they’re part of an exclusive club – one that actually “gets” the jokes. Fans of ‘MST3K’ are part of the “in” crowd for ninety minutes, having an awareness, understanding and sense of humour that most of the rest of the world simply doesn’t have a clue to. And that’s infectious.

One perfect example of the type of pop culture references that ‘MST3K’ does is that one of the secondary characters is played by Russell  Johnson, who also played The Professor in ‘Gilligan’s Island’.  One needed to know this to understand the riffs: “So Professor, you made this car entirely out of bamboo, huh?” and “His coffin will be made entirely of coconuts.”. But, if you do, they’re total chucklers.

Complaints that I’ve heard about the blu-ray release of ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie’ was that the picture suffered in some areas – in particular that the interstitial bits were okay, but that the ‘This Island Earth’ segments were scratchy and dirty. I didn’t mind it: Sure, it’s soft, but it’s not so bad. If anything, I was disappointed that the audio was as front-heavy as it was. Oh well.

Tom Servo: “If not satisfied with this movie, please return unused portion for a full refund.”

The film was initially released on college campuses, as the people at Universal figured that the show’s audience would primarily be found there, and that word-of-mouth would then take it to the multiplex. It was a failed strategy, as no one knew it was even out. (Ever ironic, Universal had the film tailored for a larger audience, but then only showed it to fans. Doh!).

‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: the Movie’ would be enough of a failure that there never would be another ‘MST3K’ film. But the show did return for three more seasons on the Sci Fi Channel, ending its run in 1999. While I think that the crew should have stuck with what worked, keeping it on the small screen, I’m glad that they tried to bring the formula to a larger audience.

And say what you will about the end result, ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie’ is no ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’. For good or bad.

Date of viewing: October 24, 2013

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