Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie

[5 September 2013]

By Jesse Hassenger

The existence of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie feels at once pointless, celebratory, and inevitable. The cable access/Comedy Central/SyFy series in which a man and two wisecracking robots watch B-movies and talk back to the screen is already, in its televised version, 90 minutes long, accommodating a (more or less) feature-length program (some movies would require cuts to fit in both commercials and the inter-movie puppet-comedy segments). It seems as particular to the then-idiosyncratic pleasures of cable television as just about any series ever made (and it feels appropriate that it shared its 1996 release year with a big-screen adaptation of the similarly weird and hilarious The Kids in the Hall).

As executed, the feature version of Mystery Science Theater, now on special-edition Blu-ray, only raised further conceptual questions: why did it run a paltry 75 minutes, a solid 20 minutes shorter than a typical episode? And why were Mike Nelson and his robot friends Crow and Tom Servo mocking This Island Earth, a moderately well-respected fifties B-movie, rather than an utter disaster like Manos: The Hands of Fate (full translation: Hands: The Hands of Fate)?

The Blu-ray release is fascinating because it answers both of these questions and more. In a 30 minute documentary subtitled “The Motion Picture Odyssey”, the Mystery Science Theater team talks frankly about the movie’s origins, production, and reception, including its many difficulties at each of those levels.  It reveals that the movie idea came out of a live experiment, where Nelson, Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo), and Trace Beaulieu (Crow) performed their movie-riffing in front of a crowd—not unlike an arm of Nelson and Murphy’s current Rifftrax project. They found that the crowd energy enhanced the laughs rather than stepping on them, and they sought to recreate that feeling for a theatrical release.

The target of This Island Earth came from the movie’s financing deal with Universal Pictures—the crew had to use a Universal title. They further explain that they didn’t disdain This Island Earth and, though their selection of films was limited, they were actually excited at the prospect of making fun of a less bargain-basement title that would actually look good blown up to a movie theater screen. This is in keeping with the show’s general tone, which is often far too silly to rely on contempt for its cinematic victims. As with almost any episode, not every joke comes at the expense of This Island Earth: some of the comments are odd references, goofy non-sequiturs, or running gags crafted in parallel to the movie’s narrative.

The documentary also clears up why that narrative runs shorter than the TV episodes: perhaps predictably, Universal executives didn’t get it, and kept asking for cuts to assuage their confusion. In some ways, the cluelessness is understandable: many MST3K episodes do drag at the full 90-plus minutes, and the big-screen version is agreeably trim. But as the filmmakers explain, it’s not much fun riffing on a movie if big chunks of it have to be cut out; the commentary has continuity, too. The pace of older movies also makes them better targets; they have built-in pauses for jokes (this may also be why an OK movie like This Island Earth works just as well, maybe better than, a more modern but appreciably worse specimen; bad movies of more recent vintage tend to be faster and louder).

Even if the result is merely “better than your average episode of the show,” as one of the creators reasonably describes it, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is very funny. The inter-movie sketches are slightly more elaborate: the Satellite of Love, where Mike is imprisoned and forced to watch the movies, suffers a hub breach, and later Mike crashes it into the Hubble (a bigger-budget draft of the script was rejected, and one of the more elaborate robot sketches was cut during production). But the best MST sketches on the show involved taking absurd details from the movies to even more absurd conclusions, and though the brief homages to 2001 and the quiet spaceship-panning of Alien are fun, they’re not particularly substantial.

The This Island Earth segments, though, have plenty of classic lines spoofing ‘50s sci-fi go-getters (“This is when science didn’t have to have any specific purpose”) and gravitas—Mike and the ‘bots chanting “NOR-MAL VIEW!” in unison to match a silly line of dialogue followed by a portentous music cue is one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater moments of all time. This Island Earth may not be a total howler, but its strapping scientist hero Cal (Rex Reason) with an impossibly deep, masculine voice provides plenty of material even before the aliens show up.

The disc also includes about 20 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes that would’ve gotten the movie’s running time back up to episode length. The scenes haven’t been reworked for high definition picture, but the lo-fi aesthetic fits a franchise that began in obscurity and lives on not just in officially issued best-of DVDs but also countless YouTube clips uploaded from old VHS dubs traded by hardcore fans back in the day. In the end, that’s the true value of this movie on Blu-ray: it’s something for fans to collect, and maybe watch with a bunch of uninitiated friends, making up for the crowds it failed to draw in theaters.

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