Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)

2010 #97
Jim Mallon | 74 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

I’m not that well versed in the cult fandom of Mystery Science Theater 3000 but, as I understand it, Turkey Day (i.e. Thanksgiving) is the MSTie (as fans call themselves) High Holy Day (I’m presuming not literally, but who knows?) Something to do with Thanksgiving marathons on whichever network MST3K was on at the time, I think.

Anyway, with that in mind, what better day to finally post my review of MST3K’s big screen endeavour than on that beloved American holiday.

The world, so they say (and by “they” I mean “absolutely no one” — I’m making this up), is divided into three sorts of people: those who love MST3K, those who’ve never heard of MST3K, and those who have a vague notion of what it is but have, for whatever reason, never seen any of it. (Of course, there will be that fourth group who don’t like it, but my saying’s already stretched at three. This is why I said “they say”, y’see, to absolve me of responsibility for the glaring oversight. But anyway…) I fall into the latter category. Having bought sci-fi mags for the past decade or so (thereby overlapping with the time MST3K was actually in production) I naturally have an idea what it is, but had never actually seen any of it… (you know what’s coming…) (wait for it…) …until now.

For those who’ve never heard of MST3K, it’s a bit like a DVD commentary… except instead of people involved with the film recounting anecdotes or academics offering analysis, we have people taking the piss out of it. I say “people” — one person and two robots. Who are obviously voiced by people. Look, that’s not the point. The movies they watch are all cheaply-made rubbish ones, well deserving of having the mickey taken (not to mention the all important fact that such efforts are generally copyright-free). The bloke and two robots appear on screen at the bottom as silhouettes, because… well, there’s no real need for it, other than to remind you they’re there and remove the issue of disembodied voices. The series started before DVD, remember, so the notion of an “audio commentary” wasn’t yet widely known. Besides which, I quite like seeing them there. OK, they don’t do much besides wiggle their heads or arms occasionally, but it feels more congenial than the disembodied chatter of an audio commentary.

The film isn't in black and whiteAnyway, the gang set their sights on one film per episode — or, in this feature film, one film per film. They’re being forced to watch these movies, for various unimportant reasons, and every once in a while we get comedic ‘host segments’, where they get up to hijinks on their space station (I forgot to mention, they live on a space station). These bits are well-meaning and quite funny — and in this big screen outing have been shot with a suitably filmic gloss that the video-shot TV episodes lack, which adds a surprising magnitude to the still-small-and-cheap sets and props — but the real meat of the humour is in the riffing over the film.

In this film, the film is This Island Earth, Joseph M. Newman’s 1955 sci-fi… film (“2½ years in the making!”). “Classic” wouldn’t be the word, though MST3K: The Movie provoked some controversy among some film critics because they considered This Island Earth to be an SF classic, one that didn’t merit the derogation that MST3K usually lavishes on B- (or lower letters) movies. On the evidence of what we see here (not, it should be noted, the full film, which runs a quarter-hour longer than MST3K: The Movie; including those host segments, quite a lot must be lost), This Island Earth is perhaps of higher quality than some of the films tackled by MST3K, but is clearly a cheap effort and no classic.

This Island cropped poster

Talking of things being shortened (I was, in the brackets), MST3K: The Movie is, unusually, a good fifteen minutes shorter than a regular episode of the series. There are reasons — partly to do with helping mainstream appeal, more necessary on the big screen than a minor cable network, and not wanting to outstay their welcome. Similarly, the jokes feature fewer obscure references than on TV and they’re more spaced out, to make sure people catch them (when laughing as part of a large audience, you see). This latter fact means that when the film is watched by yourself the gags can be more spread out than might be desirable, which is a shame. This improves as it goes on though — clearly most of what got lopped out of This Island Earth was cut from later on, and as the film they’re watching becomes harder to follow so we’re compensated with more laughs.

The quality of the humour varies, as is the case with so many comedies. For me, there were enough laugh-out-loud moments and significant chuckles to make it a good experience; equally, there were also a couple of fart-related gags, something I’ve never found funny personally. There are some current affairs-related references that not so much date the film as lose their currency as time wears on (this is 14 years old now after all), as well as culturally specific jokes that don’t carry across the pond. Such occurrences are an inevitably of this kind of humour, I think, and they’re not too prevalent to destroy the experience. That experience is very much like watching a movie with some matesMike and the bots when you’re in the mindset to take the piss out of the film. That is, if you get on with the characters (as it were) and sync with their sense of humour; if you dislike them or their humour, or like whatever they’re watching too much, then it’s probably more like some irritating yobs nattering away over something you’d quite like to watch thank you very much. (Equally, if you embark on this intending to watch This Island Earth, more fool you.)

MST3K: The Movie was disliked by the production team — too much studio interference during production left it an unpleasant experience. Tales of this pepper the web, if you want to go looking, but they include the studio forcing a story arc on the film, before conducting test screenings (to completely the wrong audience) which concluded they should cut out the resolution to said enforced story arc. Or the stupid release pattern, which failed so badly it’s never been repeated. MSTies have a more mixed response, as far as I can tell, but a significant number like it, particularly those for who it was their first experience of MST3K.

And that’s me, as you may remember. I can see that not everyone will like MST3K — the concept won’t appeal, or the style of humour won’t tickle some funnybones. But if the concept does appeal, the only way to tell is to try. Personally, I can’t wait to get stuck into more of the series. I believe there’s almost 200 episodes…

4 out of 5

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