Retro Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie.
With Netflix’s new series’ revival, we look at the cult classic movie from 1996.
As we explored in our first impression review of Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Return, the franchise has had a long and storied history. The series changed channels three times before being revived on Netflix, and it has had three hosts to date. Its fortunes has been up and down, but at one time it had enough clout to warrant a full theatrical release.
MST3K: The Movie was arguably the high water mark of the series. As a long time viewer, though not a super fan, I was interested to see if the experience of riffing on a crappy movie would translate to the big screen. Part of the charm of the series was the casual and subversive nature of the show. You pretty much could drop in and drop out at home, getting your fill of snarky commentary. Could that sustain a full length movie? How does experience stand up over time?
Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Movie (1996)
Mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and his minion, TV’s Frank, torment a trio of test subjects with horrible movies while they are trapped aboard a space satellite. Mild mannered human Mike and his two sarcastic robots, Tom Servo and Crow, must suffer through cheesy B movies and keep their sanity by making nonstop jokes.
The horrible film this time out is This Island Earth, the story of one dashing scientist who is recruited by a shadowy organization to be a part of their global think tank. It turns out that the organization is run by actual space aliens who are trying to save their own planet, by using human ingenuity…or by simply replacing the Earth’s current occupants.
The humor in MST3K the Movie is pretty uniformly great. The show opens with a great skit about dim-bulb robot Crow trying to use a pick axe to dig his way home to Earth. The evil scientists (the Mads as they’re known to fans) have a fun segment promising mental pain and anguish about the feature film, and the film indeed opens up with some great fodder for the crew to mock, as the film is rife with craptacular 1950’s special effects.
Between the film and the skits, the movie never loses momentum. One of the reason I liked Mike Nelson as the host of MST3K so much was that he had an obvious synergy with the robot voice actors, Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu. His “nice guy in over his head” routine allowed the robots to become much more demented and wacky, providing running jokes. Because the trio was so funny just being themselves, they easily cover any slow spots in the movie they’re riffing.
It helps the film tremendously that This Island Earth is ripe for mocking. It’s almost one of those 1950’s flicks that is fun to watch on its own, like Them! or Creature from the Black Lagoon. The effects are schlocky, the hero is a puffed-up buffoon, the heroine is one of those damsels who randomly falls down when a monster appears instead of running, and the tone of the piece is way too self-serious…but that’s what makes mid century sci-fi so much fun. The sheer earnestness of people with terribly big terrible ideas about science with shoddy special effects is heartwarming in its silliness.
While I don’t think the big screen was needed to enjoy this film, I do appreciate the expanded budget. The skit sequences, which are so effective in this outing, really pop and obviously have benefited from better materials and film quality. Everything just looks a touch more polished (not terribly surprising science MST3K never chose to shed its public access programing vibe.)
Another change made for the big screen is that the source film, This Island Earth, was edited down by about 20 minutes so that the feature length run time of the total film would not become ponderous. I wish every episode of MST3K would adopt this.
I have to say that I’ve watched Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie almost a dozen times since it came out in 1996. After a limited run in the theaters, MST3K: The Movie was a staple of late night television for years, and was pretty easy to find on DVD. In 2013 the parent company Shout! Factory released a collector’s edition that contained deleted scenes and alternate endings for fans.
Every time I see it, I find something new to enjoy: some quickly dropped wise-crack from Mike and the bots that I missed the last time, or some actually interesting nuance to the movie that they are heckling. Some of the references are getting dated, so new audiences might not realize why the bomb ravaged planet of Metaluna does indeed resemble Michael Stipe’s head, but for the most part the humor is timeless. The recently relaunched MST3K on Netflix might revive interest in this cult classic gem from outer space.