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Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
This week, we look at Mystery Science Theater 3000, which hit theaters on April 19, 1996. The cult television show of the same name had run for 148 episodes when the film version, running a sleek 74 minutes, hit theaters, and it would end up being a milestone: After the movie, there would be only one more episode of MST3K on Comedy Central. (The series moved over to SYFY, known then as the Sci-Fi Channel, for three seasons after that, ending in 1999. It wouldn't return until its fan-funded seasons on Netflix in 2017.)
Getting the bots on the big screen was both a victory and a final bow, as things were never quite the same after that.
MST3K: The Movie is ... well, it’s not particularly different from any other episode, which is probably one of the main reasons the movie did not do particularly well in theaters. But longtime fans could tell there was something special by the movie the gang chose to riff on: This Island Earth (1995), easily one of the most famous films the series spotlighted. They cut 30 minutes out of the original film — which, in another rarity, was actually well reviewed when it came out — but mostly just trenched in and dug for gold. Honestly, the only thing that places the MST3K movie in 1996 is that there’s lots of discussion of the Hubble telescope.
It’s thin, irrelevant, and vanishes quickly from the memory after you’ve seen it. That does not mean it is not good, and it absolutely does not mean it isn’t precisely in the spirit of what made the show great in the first place.
Bizarrely, the original premise for the film wasn’t going to feature the familiar riffing of a movie and the shadow outline of Mike and the robots. As pitched to Paramount Pictures, which was initially very interested, the film was going to be a backstory for Mike, and Tom Servo, and Gypsy, and Crow T. Robot. Someone at Paramount eventually came to their senses on that and ultimately passed, but Universal and Gramercy Pictures stepped up and grabbed the movie, while insisting, reasonably, that maybe the movie should look like the show itself, and maybe they should make some jokes.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The show was already hugely popular among people on the internet at the time, but the thing about that time is that there weren’t actually that many people on the internet in 1996. (An MST3K book had come out earlier that year as well, to a slight bit of success.) So even though Gramercy picked up the film, it didn’t really promote it — and frankly, the studio barely released it. MST3K: The Movie reached only 26 theaters its opening weekend; the studio was more interested in promoting Pamela Anderson’s Barb Wire movie instead.
Not that it stopped MST3K fans from making sure they went out to see it as soon as they could anyway. I know this one sure did.
What was the impact? The movie didn’t make a big splash when it came out, and how could it? It was only played in 26 theaters. But it is worth noting that it did, in fact, outgross Barb Wire, at least domestically. Though that’s hardly a big victory: They each just barely crossed the $1 million threshold.
But the movie was a clear transition point for the series. The team made only one more episode before leaving Comedy Central (“Laserblast,” largely considered one of the best episodes ever), and after the three years with Sci-Fi were up, the show went away for almost 20 years. Had the movie been more of a hit, maybe they would have made another one, maybe they would have stayed with Comedy Central, maybe it wouldn’t have required fan funding to bring it back ...
Either way: The movie’s quiet reception was a sign that maybe internet buzz in 1996 wasn’t quite enough to make something a hit.
Has it held up? The interstitials of the robots and Mike goofing around are not particularly funny, and that aforementioned Hubble joke falls dead flat now. But otherwise: Yes!
The movie remains incredibly funny today — like a truly great MST3K episode, only richer. You can understand why people didn’t want to pay 10 bucks for something they’d gotten for free in their own homes 140-plus times before, but watching it now, you sort of appreciate that they made it super-sized. It led to something like ambition: not grand ambition, but a willingness to push even further, to up their game on a grander stage.
It might not be immortal. But it is still damned funny.
The greatest joke might still come from those box-office receipts: This Island Earth, the movie Mike and the bots are all mocking ... actually made more money than this did. That’s a joke worth making the movie for on its own right there.