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A movie about watching movies: How Mystery Science Theater 3000 transferred its weird charm to the big screen
The future of Mystery Science Theater 3000 looked fairly precarious in the spring of 1996. The beloved (if cult) show's home network, Comedy Central, had just decided that seven seasons and 149 episodes of riffing on long-forgotten, terrible movies were more than enough. (The Sci-Fi Network would eventually save the day.) On top of that, some fans still seemed unconvinced that Michael J. Nelson was fit to lick the spaceship floor original host Joel Hodgson walked on, resulting in the biggest sci-fi flame war since Kirk vs. Picard. Perhaps not the most ideal time, then, to make that giant leap from the small to the big screen.
In fact, the idea for Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, which turns 25 today, was instrumental in Hodgson's shock departure three years previously. The show's surprisingly camera-shy creator had little desire to see his face pop up in cinemas. Even less so when co-producer Jim Mallon fought to make a dramatized origin story rather than a straightforward transfer of the show's typical set-up: The host and the Bots mocking a bad movie. Despite Hodgson's absence from the creative process, though, it was still the latter approach that won out.
Indeed, Universal had been so impressed with the team's live takedown of This Island Earth on the ConventioCon ExpoFest-A-Rama (the 1994 inaugural MST3K convention) stage that it greenlit what was essentially just a regular episode made on celluloid. Nelson and his film-loving droids Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot were even allowed to riff on the same B-movie, despite it being one of the studio's very own.
This Island Earth, an adaptation of Raymond F. Jones' same-named novel, was a curious choice for the Satellite of Love's big-screen experiment. Unlike all of the franchise's previous targets, Universal's first sci-offering in Technicolor received relatively positive reviews on its 1955 release. Variety even hailed it as "one of the most imaginative, fantastic and cleverly-conceived entries to date in the outer-space film field.” As a result, MST3K: The Movie struggles to reach the heights of episodes centered on more mockworthy material — Manos: The Hands of Fate, for example, or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
Nevertheless, its story — alien race coerces human scientific genius into helping them win their interplanetary war — still offered the trio plenty to get sarcastic about. As you'd expect, the special effects once considered hyper-realistic now appear decidedly creaky. "Oh, don't mind me, I'm just a weather balloon," utters Mike after alien scientist Exeter's UFO crashes. The reluctant viewers also draw plenty of mileage out of the hammy acting, nonsensical dialog, and the chosen one's failure to notice that the mystery man inviting him to join a special research project has a suspiciously large forehead.
As with the original series, the observations come thick and fast, even if they don't always land — there's a misjudged comparison between two on-screen skeletons and supermodels Kate Moss and Christy Turlington that certainly wouldn't pass muster in 2021. But you have to admire its work rate. Taking aim at everything from distribution company Universal-International's tautological name to William Shatner ("OK, let's see here... no, doesn't look like he's in this one; we're safe"), the trio cram in more gags while watching the opening credits than many comedies manage in their entirety.
Wisely, audiences are given a bit of a breather from all the meta-commentary with the various brief sketches that interrupt, yet still tie in with, the screening. None venture beyond mildly amusing — there's a half-decent sight gag when Mike boasts that he's a better pilot than This Island Earth's Cal (Rex Reason), only to steer the Satellite of Love directly into the Hubble Telescope. But they're undoubtedly needed to help punctuate all the non-stop snark, particularly for the uninitiated.
Director Mallon does make a few concessions to any newbies who, for whatever reason, chose to actively seek out a limited screening for their first taste of MST3K (more interested in flop Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire at the time, distributor Gramercy only released it in 26 cinemas). Mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) quickly explains the premise, and his dastardly world-conquering plan, in the opening scene: Discover which all-time worst movie drives his "disgustingly mild-mannered" prisoner Mike insane and then subject the rest of humanity to the same ordeal.
Perhaps hoping to draw in those unconvinced that watching people break the cardinal sin of cinemagoing — talking over the film — could be classed as entertainment, editors also got a little scissors-happy. Nearly a quarter of This Island Earth was left on the cutting room floor to make the whole thing clock in at a slim 74 minutes. That's roughly 20 minutes shorter than an average Comedy Central episode.
Longtime fans who'd waited eight years to watch a film-within-a-film may well have left feeling short-changed. They weren't the only ones. In an interview for its belated 2013 DVD release, This Island Earth fan Joe Dante claims MST3K had misrepresented its source material by removing so many scenes, a sentiment shared by its writer Kevin Murphy who admitted they'd done it a "horrible disservice" for the same special feature. In contrast, leading man Reason was so appreciative of the team introducing his work to a new generation that he frequently appeared at Mystery Science Theater conventions.
The first, and so far only, movie is unlikely to feature in anyone's MST3K best-of list, true. Yet by avoiding the usual "bigger is better" approach, it retains the ramshackle charm that first made the concept a cult favorite on late-night Minnesota cable TV. There's nothing remotely Hollywood-ized about it. The sets still look cheaper than those they're lampooning, and you still need an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and several repeat viewings to get all the quips. Hodgson may well have balked at the running time, but it recaptures the geeky, goofy spirit of his original without even really needing to try.
"Every year Hollywood makes hundreds of movies. This is one of them!" read the self-effacing tagline. That pretty much sums up the casual appeal that is still keeping the art of ridiculing bad films alive.