Robin’s Underrated Gems: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)

This week, we finally recorded a long-awaited Shouts From the Back Row podcast about Mystery Science Theater 3000. You already know what a big fan I am of the show and I have already put together a list of my all-time favourite episodes. However, one element of the franchise that sometimes gets overlooked is Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. By 1996, MST3K had been on the air for eight years and had built up enough of a cult following that a feature-film version was made by Gramercy Pictures and distributed by Universal Studios. To say that they botched the release of this film would be an understatement. It’s one thing when a movie based on a cult TV series doesn’t draw large audiences into theatres, but when most of your fanbase isn’t even AWARE that the film has been released, then you’ve done something majorly wrong. By all accounts, the filming of MST3K: The Movie wasn’t a pleasant experience for the cast and crew, due to constant studio interference, and when asked what the worst movie ever featured on MST3K was, Trace Beaulieu often likes to answer: “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie“. However, while MST3K: The Movie may not have been a successful endeavour, does it still deliver the goods for its fans? Thankfully, the answer to that question is “yes” as MST3K: The Movie is just as funny as the best episodes of the series. It’s actually kind of hard to rate this as a movie because it really is nothing more than a big-screen version of your typical TV episode. The movie version doesn’t deviate from the formula at all or add anything new to it, and even though it didn’t have any time constraints to work with, MST3K: The Movie actually has a SHORTER running time than the TV episodes. In spite of this, their formula is so foolproof that it still makes for hilarious viewing.

I’m sure that most of you reading this are probably already familiar with the basic premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but in case you’re not, here’s a brief summary. An evil mad scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) plans on world domination by subjecting civilization to some of the worst movies ever made and driving them insane. To test this experiment out, he has kidnapped an average guy named Mike Nelson and stranded him in outer space on the Satellite of Love, where he plans to subject him to these terrible movies. Mike counters this by building two robot friends named Crow and Tom Servo, and together, they fight off the insanity of these terrible movies by providing an hilarious running commentary of wisecracks while they watch them. In MST3K: The Movie, the stinker they are forced to watch is a 1955 sci-fi B-movie called This Island Earth. The plot of this one involves a scientist named Dr. Cal Meacham (played by an actor with an awesome porn name: Rex Reason) being invited to participate on a research project by a group of people who turn out to be aliens from the planet Metaluna. These aliens pretend that they only want help to save their dying planet, but of course, they are also planning to invade and conquer Earth. The scientist and his female companion are the only ones who can stop them, but it takes them an awful long time to figure out these aliens are not human, considering that you could practically screen a drive-in movie on their foreheads! Thankfully, the professor from Gilligan’s Island is there to sacrifice his life for the good of the human race.

What’s unique about MST3K: The Movie is that their featured bad movie really isn’t that horrible. Or, at least, it’s not as horrible as some of the other godawful pieces of celluloid they’ve featured on the show. This Island Earth actually opened to pretty good reviews during in its initial release in 1955 and was looked upon as something of a sci-fi classic, but MST3K demonstrates that you can sometimes look at older films through rose-coloured glasses. While This Island Earth does have some pretty decent special effects and fairly intelligent ideas, it is undeniably cheesy and has not aged well, and many of the critics who reviewed MST3K: The Movie (such as Roger Ebert) remarked that This Island Earth seemed a lot better when they watched it as a child than watching it today. Whatever you think of the film, This Island Earth definitely gives the MST3K crew a lot to work with, and their commentary is first-rate stuff, providing consistent laughs from beginning to end. The filmmakers knew that they would have to pace their riffing a bit differently than with an episode of the TV show, so that the laughter of a live theatre audience wouldn’t drown out any of their other zingers. As a result, their commentary has way more hits than misses. Like most episodes of the show, the host segments involving Dr. Clayton Forrester, Mike and the Bots are only sporadically funny and don’t work nearly as well as the riffing, but thankfully, they don’t occupy too much screen time in the movie. One of the reasons Mystery Science Theater became such a popular cult hit in the first place is because… well, who hasn’t fought the urge to shout out wisecracks while watching a bad movie? As someone who garners enjoyment out of watching hilariously bad movies, MST3K was made especially for me. I had only seen an episode or two of the series before I watched MST3K: The Movie for the first time, but I found the film to be so hilarious that it compelled me to start tracking down every episode I could find and I quickly became an addict.

Like I stated earlier, letting a major studio oversee MST3K: The Movie turned out to be a complete disaster. Even though the running time of an MST3K episode is 90 minutes without commercials, the movie version is only 73 minutes long! MST3K episodes would often have to cut out scenes from the movies they were riffing in order to fit into the required timeslot, but even though this was a theatrical film with no set time limit, the studio decided to cut out a ton of footage. As a result, over 20 minutes of This Island Earth are missing, and apparently, a lot of good of riffing material was left on the cutting room floor. Just watch the skits from the MST3KIncredible Melting Man” episode if you want to see them vent their frustration at having to work on a movie with constant studio interference. MST3K: The Movie would seem like the ideal movie to watch in a theatre with a large audience, which makes the studio’s mishandling of the film all the more baffling. Their strategy was to give the film a limited release in what they considered to be “college towns” with a strong MST3K fanbase, hoping that the theaters in these towns would draw large audiences over a long period of time and cause word of mouth to spread. Unfortunately, the movie was so poorly promoted that many MST3K fans never even knew that the film had been released into theaters, so MST3K: The Movie came and went quickly without making an impact. And if the studio couldn’t even promote MST3K: The Movie to their core fanbase, you can bet they didn’t know how to put over the whole concept to audiences who had never seen the show before. It’s a tragic “what if” scenario because if MST3K: The Movie had been given a proper release, it might have converted more people into MST3K fans and possibly paved the way for more MST3K movies. However, the legacy of MST3K continues to live on and even though the movie wasn’t the success it could have been, it still works well enough to satisfy both fans and non-fans alike. If you want to convert someone into a MST3K fan, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is definitely a great place to start and after watching it, they’ll never be able to view bad movies the same way again.

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