Saturday, March 28, 2015

Stubs – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) Starring: Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon Directed by Jim Mallon. Screenplay by Jim Mallon, Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chapin, Bridget Jones. Based on Mystery Science Theater 3000 created by Joel Hodgson. Produced by Jim Mallon.  Run time: 75 minutes. US. Color. Comedy, Science Fiction

On Thanksgiving night, November 24, 1988, KTMA (now WUCW) channel 22 in Minneapolis, Minnesota began airing Mystery Science Theater 3000; a show created by Joel Hodgson that made fun of bad films, by talking over them and making jokes about the plot, the actors, the direction and the production values. Wrapped around the riffs were live action segments, featuring Joel Robinson (Hodgson), an affable man who worked at the Gizmonic Institute, before being kidnapped and imprisoned in space aboard a dog-bone shaped Satellite of Love by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Joel is forced to watch bad movies as some sort of psychological experiment at the hands of his captor. Joel built several robot friends, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Trace Beaulieu), Tom Servo (voiced mostly by Kevin Murphy) and Gypsy (voiced mostly by Jim Mallon).

Joel Hodgson originated Mystery Science Theater 3000 on KTMA, Minneapolis.

Initially signed for a 13 week run, the show was picked up by Comedy Central, where it ran from 1989 until 1996 and then later on the Sci-Fi channel (now Syfy) from 1997 until 1999. In the middle of season 5 on Comedy Central, Joel left the show and was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) as the main tortured protagonist. Hodgson's departure was due to a growing rift with his producing partner, Jim Mallon.

Some (me included) would say that the change was not for the best. It wasn’t so much the parody sections of the show, those were still funny, but the live wrap-arounds, which changed tone and Joel’s more gentle humor was replaced by Nelson’s more brash personality. But the show within a show really seemed to suffer the most in the move to the Sci-Fi channel, when Trace Beaulieu left the show and Dr. Forrester was replaced by mad scientist Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), talking chimp Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy) and Observer (Bill Corbett).

Much of the humor of the show, besides the live action sequences, came from parodying really bad movies. There was always a careful balance that had to be struck between how bad the movie could be and how funny the commentary had to be to keep the viewer interested. If the movie was too bad, then no amount of humor could save the viewing experience.

When the idea to take this concept to the big screen occurred to everyone, the selection of movie was crucial. In this case they chose This Island Earth (1955), directed by Joseph M. Newman and starring Jeff Morrow (Exeter), Faith Domergue (Ruth Adams), Rex Reason (Cal Meacham), Lance Fuller (Brack), Robert Nichols (Joe Wilson) and Russell “and the rest” Johnson (Steve Carlson). This Island Earth, while campy in places, is still considered a classic of its time and genre. And reviewing the film as part of reviewing Mystery Science Theater 3000 is unfair to that film. The movie's running time of 87 minutes had to be cut by 20 minutes to accommodate the MST3K’s run time and several scenes important to the movie were jettisoned. So mention of This Island Earth will be limited here to riffing and a review of that film appears here.

MST3K: The Movie opens with a modified version of the show’s opening. Mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), working from an underground laboratory, explains the premise of the film, which is he’s forcing them to watch the film, This Island Earth, in an effort to break their wills and then take over the world (he is a mad scientist after all and that’s what they do.)

Evil Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) explains the premise of the movie.

Up onboard the Satellite of Love, we’re treated to an homage to 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) as Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) runs in a gravity wheel, which is really more like an exercise wheel you’d find in a guinea pig cage, complete with water dispenser. All seems normal onboard, Gypsy (Jim Mallon) provides Mike with a printout to review. Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) shows up and asks Mike if he’s interested in finding out what’s making a rhythmic noise, knowing full well that Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) is behind it.

In the lower decks of the ship, they find Crow, dressed in a World War I army helmet, attempting to dig his way out and even though he does breach the hull, Mike manages to stop further damage by using the helmet to fill the gap.

There is nothing about This Island Earth that avoids getting riffed, as it starts with the opening credits and continues all the way through the film. The production company is Universal-International (“Doesn't the fact that it's universal make it international?”), the starry background (“Who sneezed on the credits?”) and so on. The humor is a mixture of political references, as an example when a jet plane takes off: “John Sununu gets a haircut”; to inside jokes: against the background of stars one of the bots remarks “Look, Orion’s bankrupt” referring to the now defunct movie studio; sexual innuendo about the relationship in the movie between Dr. Cal Meacham and his assistant Joe Wilson; bathroom humor and just plain funny comments and responses.

Nothing is out of line for the MSTK 3000 crew to riff on.

One of the better riffs is in an early scene in Meacham’s lab:

Through a viewport, we see a rectangular metal slab suspended above a squat, boxy metal coil.

Mike: Oh, yeah. This is when science didn't have to have any specific purpose.
Dr. Meacham: Lowering the cylinder.
Servo [as Meacham]: Inserting the breakfast pastry.
Crow [as Narrator]: [darkly] The secret government Eggo project.
Servo [as Meacham]: Contact Dr. Jemima!
Mike [as Meacham]: God, I love the blueberry ones best.

Meacham flips a switch. The toaster-like coil starts to red with heat, and we hear a pinging sound.

Dr. Meacham: Increase the rate of reaction.
Servo [as Meacham]: Start warming the syrup!
Mike [as Meacham]: Yum!

Cal and Joe play with some knobs and dials. The "toaster" emits loud grinding noises.

Dr. Meacham: Check rate of radioactive decay.
Crow [as Meacham]: Increase the Flash Gordon noises and put more science stuff around.

Meachem (Rex Reason) and his assistant watch an experiment go to ruin.

At the end of the experiment, the toaster object blows up.

Mike [as Meacham/Morrison]: Oh, my God! My waffle! Oh, the humanity!

A loud beeping noise follows post-explosion.

Mike: Fries are up!

Mike (Michael Nelson) riffs on This Planet Earth with his
robot friends Crow (Trace Beaulieu) and Servo (Kevin Murphy). 

Like the TV show, there are breaks in the film, including once when the film catches on fire. During one such break, Mike decides to show Crow and Tom that he is a pilot and takes over navigation of the Satellite of Love from Gypsy. The result, Mike flies into the Hubble telescope. His attempt to save the Hubble goes awry as well. Using the satellite’s manipulator arms, called Manos after the series' best known spoof, Mike dislodges the telescope and sets it free to fly like a bird. Instead, it falls from space and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, leading Crow to chide “You killed the Hubble!”

Mike flies the Satellite of Love (pictured above) into the Hubble telescope.

In another sequence, Tom reveals that he has an interocitor, an alien instrument used in This Island Earth, and the gang goes into his quarters to search for it, hoping it will get them back to Earth. Instead, they make contact with a Matelunan (John Brady), the alien race in the film, who happens to be taking a shower. He tries to help, but no matter what he does, the interocitor sends a red laser beam into Tom. Dr. Forrester intercedes, using his own interocitor, and uses the laser to corral the group back into the movie theater.

When This Island Earth ends, rather than broken by the experience, Mike, Crow, and Tom celebrate with a Metalunan-themed party. Mad at his failure, Dr. Forrester attempts to use his own interocitor to inflict harm on Mike and the others, but only succeeds in transporting himself into the shower with the Metalunan from earlier. Mike and the robots briefly celebrate Dr. Forrester's disappearance, but quickly realize without him they no longer have a way back to Earth. Following this epiphany, Mike says "Hey, wait a minute!" and the crew head back to the theater in time for the movie's ending credits, which they also skewer:

Crow: [talking about the Puppet Wrangler credit for Mystery Science Theater 3000] "Puppet Wrangler"? There weren't any puppets in this movie!

The film, like the TV show, had a niche following and did not do very well at the box-office, bringing in a little over a million dollars during its theatrical run. However, that does not mean the film isn’t very funny. There is really no way to describe the film. Like Airplane! (1980), the jokes come rapid fire and so many hit their mark, that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. While some of the jokes, like the swipe at the over indulgences of President George H.W. Bush’s White House Chief of State, might seem dated, the vast majority are still laugh out loud funny after multiple viewings.

If you need a laugh, then you should see Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

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