Hot Take: Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Return.
With a new cast and “new” awful movies to riff on, can MST3K truly return to glory?
MST3K is the latest cult classic to get a second lease on life on Netflix. The first season of the revived show dropped on the streaming service last week, and we sampled the wares to give you our initial impression.
Mystery Science Theater 3000- The History.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, lovingly known as MST3K to fans, was the brainchild of Joel Hodgson. The show was initially carried by a small television station in Minnesota starting in 1988 before becoming an early addition to the Comedy Central network. Joel himself hosted the show for the first 5 seasons before departing. Mike Nelson, the head writer, took over hosting for the project. Despite up and down ratings, the show spawned a theatrical release film in 1996 that itself became a cult classic.
Despite being cancelled by Comedy Central in 1997, the show proved to be hard to kill. The Sci-Fi Channel picked it up for another 3 seasons before a second cancellation in 1999. The unquenchable thirst of fans for more B movie madness led several cast members to spin off similar products such as Riff Trax and Cinematic Titanic, and eventually culminated in a successful Kick Starter campaign by creator Joel Hodgson to resurrect the show in its original format on Netflix.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Format.
MST3K is a satirical comedy that features audio commentary over barely watchable B movies, with comedy sketches before, after, and during the film. The lore has a forgettable janitor (Joel Hodgson) being shot into space by evil scientist Dr. Forrester who wants to find a movie so bad it can be weaponized. Joel builds robot companions on his ship, the Satellite of Love, in order to stay sane during the films. The human host plus robots Crow and Tom Servo then make jokes throughout a cheesy old movie, a process Joel coined as “riffing.”
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Return.
To gauge the quality of the new season, I picked several episodes. I have to say, as a fan of the original series, the quality of the movie being riffed really determines the quality of the end product. They’re all stinkers, but you almost need to luck into a “so bad it’s good” flick to have a truly memorable episode. At the very least, you want a movie that has some action, so at worst there is something going on in case the jokes aren’t there. How did they stack up this time?
Episode 1: Reptilicus.
This is the weakest episode I saw, which is worrying since it is also the very first episode. Reptilicus is a Danish giant monster movie that is 75% nothing happening. The last 25% is glorious plastic model monster being blown to bits, but it comes too little too late. So the material is really lacking for a premier episode.
That being said…the new crew really acquit themselves admirably. The comedy segments are lively and inspired. The jokes are fast and flippant, though few rise to the level of gut busters. Tackling such a momentously un-fun movie made me root for the crew…but it didn’t make me excited for the series as a whole.
Episode 6: Starcrash.
Starcrash is a blatant Star Wars rip-off starring David Hasselhoff. It is ponderous and self important, full of crappy special effects and silly villains, and has only the barest hint of a plot. Even so, it has lasers, robots, cave men, amazons, and space ships. You could sit through this movie if you had to.
The ripe fodder of this film allows the cast to really cut loose and drop some comedic elbow blows. This is an episode that would stand up well against MST3K classics.
Episode 10 + 11: Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 1 and 2.
These movies are a mixed bag. There is plenty of swords and sorcery, though of the cheesy variety that populated Sam Raimi‘s Xena and Hercules. The plot is really standard stuff about a young hero needing to 1. avenge his slain father, or 2. save the kingdom from evil sorcerers. The problem is that the tone is childish, the action is some of the worst choreographed crap ever, and it has David Carradine in it, which is pure movie poison.
Episode ten is pretty dull. The cast falls into the trap of nitpicking the obviously bad action and dialogue. You can do that at home, and it doesn’t warrant sitting through a crap movie from start to finish. On top of that, the comedy skits are minimal and don’t add much.
Episode eleven picks up the slack a bit, adding in cameos from former stars of the show. The commentary is livelier as well. While the movie is worse than the first one, the jokes are much better.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Review.
The new MST3K is very much like the old MST3K, and by that I mean the early years of the series. Joel’s style was to ruthlessly mock the films in front of him in an acerbic style, and to provide palate cleansing asides in the comedy skits. When Mike took over, the jokes became much sillier, with the actual movie just providing a spring board for flights of sarcastic fancy. It may be heresy, but I like the Mike years better.
The cast is solid. Jonah Ray, Felicia Day, and especially Patton Oswalt are all game for the torture comedy they partake in. Oswalt is almost criminally underused, since his comedy segments and “commercial break” commentary are some of the best moments. Jonah and the bots are upbeat, incorporating music and sight gags that are new and fun, but can devolve into just pointing out the bad film-making on display.
We Got Movie Sign?
The final verdict for Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Return is that it keeps the spirit of the show’s genesis almost to a fault, but that it is only as good as the movie that is being riffed on. Some dodgy choices of source material can leave you waiting way too long for a series of jokes to land. The whimsy and weirdness of the Mike Nelson years is mostly absent, so you’re left with just what you have in front of you. If the movie is boring, the episode can’t do much to save it.
My random sampling may simply have missed some of the best stuff, but that still supports the idea that MST3K is, and always was, a gamble. Getting the whole season at once at least lets you cut bait if the current movie is miserable and ante up the next one. I like the cast, and I still love the franchise, but for some reason the time commitment of 90+ minutes per show seems onerous now. I wish they used their comedy bits and commercial breaks to abbreviate the movie’s run time. At an hour or less, you could have all the best jokes without the movie wearing you down with its badness. It’s not like any of us are here for Reptilicus anyway.