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Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie
Director: Jim Mallon
Cast: Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue
(MCA Universal, 1996) Rated: PG-13
by Sabadino Parker
PopMatters Film Critic

You Should Really Just Relax

In the not-too-distant future, a mad scientist and his assistant hatch up a diabolical scheme in Deep 13, the subbasement of Gizmonics Institute. Their plan is to send an unscrupulous young man into space and force him to watch some of the worst B-movies ever made while they monitor his mind in the hopes their evil experiment will ultimately break his will. A screening, usually of some abysmally cheesy '50s science fiction flick, occurs within a theater aboard the Satellite of Love, with the black silhouettes of test subject Joel (Joel Hodgson) and his two homemade, wise-cracking robot friends, "played by" low-tech puppets Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy). Lined up along the bottom of the screen, the threesome comments on the bad — no, terrible — movies they watch, entertaining each other (and their audience)with mordant remarks and humorous references. It's not exactly the strongest of premise for a television show, but when Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on an independent UHF TV station in Minneapolis in 1988, a new cult series was born.

The show's creator, Joel Hodgson, played the hapless janitor Joel Robinson, the subject of Dr. Clayton Forrester's (Beaulieu again) depraved psychological research. For years Hodgson had made small guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. His routine was premised on offbeat timing and an uncanny array of sight-gag props, such as airbag helmets for motorcyclists and the cumber-bubble-bund (a sash releasing a nonstop flow of bubbles to liven up any social engagement). His big break came when his low-budget TV show drew the attention of what was then the fledgling Comedy Channel (now known as the cable powerhouse Comedy Central). Hodgson's show consisted of the in-theater screening, intercut with segments on the bridge which broke up what could be a potentially monotonous viewing of a bad two-hour movie. (The bridge segments alone could have constituted a series, with Joel, Crow, Tom Servo, and ship's caretaker Gypsy [Jim Mallon], performing witty skits reminiscent of the Muppet Show's backstage antics.)

As for the "experiment," though Dr. Forrester continually presents increasingly grueling movies — Hercules and the Captive Women, The Amazing Colossal Man, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians — Joel and his robo-pals are never phased, at least not for long. They always redeem the worst cinematic experiences by their innovative joking.

As the years rolled by, many of the original cast and crew left to pursue bigger and better projects, including Dr. Forrester's original assistant (Josh Weinstein), that assistant's replacement (Frank Conniff), and eventually Joel himself, who was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson, who was the series' head writer for most of its run). After the sixth season, the possibility of the series' cancellation loomed heavily. In order to boost popular awareness and to promote the fun of watching with a group (after all, the show is modeled after friends commenting on bad movies), the creative team, Best Brains Inc., decided to release a movie, so that audiences could watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 in an actual theater and "participate" along with Mike Nelson, Tom Servo, and Crow. During the opening moments, Dr. Forrester intones, "By observing, you become part of the experiment, too."

That is, you watch Joseph Newman's 1954 science fiction classic, This Island Earth, in which top U.S. scientist, Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) — very masculine and very technologically savvy — is lured by Exeter (Jeff Morrow) into a secret alien-run program designed to save the dying alien planet, Metaluna, from inevitable destruction. All this is typical of early Cold War films' xenophobia and technophobia. Tom Servo immediately picks up on this: as Meacham works hard in the laboratory, assembling the alien-provided communication device, Tom announces in an enthusiastic commercial narrator's voice, "Men using tools to fix things! Turning them! Twisting them!"

Reason-as-Meacham stiffly recites his own dialogue as he meets the token female scientist (and love interest), Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Dermergue), discovers the aliens (who resemble white-haired, white men with absurdly large foreheads), and ends up on Metaluna where he and Ruth must escape imminent demise by the alien slave race, known as Mute-Ants (overgrown insect-like creatures with large exposed brains and lobster claws). As in any episode, Mike, Tom, and Crow dissect the movie: "Ah, the script has just arrived," blurts out Tom Servo when a postman delivers a mysterious package to the scientists.

On its own, This Island Earth isn't necessarily bad; but a halfway-decent movie was probably a necessary choice if Best Brains, Inc. hoped for cinematic success. Nonetheless, MST3K: The Movie differs only slightly from the series, with the most striking difference coming in the bridge segments. As there are no commercials to herald, Mike, Tom, and Crow find other excuses to leave the theater and act out their individual characteristics: while they watch This Island Earth, the film suddenly breaks and they exit to the S.O.L.'s bridge where Mike tries manually controlling the ship's navigation. Within seconds, he crashes into the Hubble Telescope and has to dislodge the expensive device from the hull, using a pair of remote-controlled robotic arms. After a tense operation, the repair is a success, but the telescope, on release, plunges immediately into the earth's atmosphere, burning as it enters. "Mike broke the Hubble," they cheer as they return to the theater.

Such disastrous outcomes are typical of Mike's clumsy exploits. He suffers repeated humiliation at the hands of his two sarcastic robot friends: Tom, who tends toward scientific and literary allusions, and Crow, who has the more childish and pop-oriented personality. Together the three reflect their target audience, basically middle-class, male, science fiction fanatics who'd "get" the occasionally obscure references to '70s rock bands, B-film stars like Miles O'Keefe and Tor Johnson, and the oddball humor that develops from watching decades' worth of terrible speculative films on classic late night TV movie showcases.

The use of the meta-narrative has become something of a rage in recent times, from Dennis Miller's news roundups to VH1's Pop-Up Video, mirroring current desires not to take a given set of roles, information, or plots at face value, and to undercut assumptions about movie-watching and self-identifying. Unfortunately, in 1999 the Peabody Award-winning Mystery Science Theater 3000, which enjoyed another three seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel, was canceled — the two-hour show was simply too long for a major network to finance for its loyal but small "cult" following. However, the aftershock of this clever series will reverberate for years to come, breeding a new generation of critical commentators on popular culture and forever suggesting that we should sit back with our friends, watch what we're given with a sarcastic eye, and really just relax.

 

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