How does one explain Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)? It is a bona fide film, with a big-time production studio, release, and everything else you would expect from Hollywood. Such a description alone, though, would be quite misleading. The movie is based on a television show of the same name (before the colon) that began in the late 1980s, and ran through the 1990s. During that time, some of the characters and/or the people playing them changed, but the premise remained the same. There is a mad scientist who shot one of his employees into space. This accidental astronaut now orbits the Earth in the “Satellite of Love,” and is forced to watch terrible movies with his robot companions. The goal is to drive said employee and friends insane, though as test subjects for these cinematic experiments they instead sit there and make fun of whatever it is they are watching. It was really an excuse to show crappy films and fill-up airtime on nascent cable networks. It was also a major inspiration for me, and I credit many of the comments I come up with in my reviews to their pioneering work. For a long time I had been trying to contrive a way of talking about Mystery Science Theater 3000 in a review. And then the other night I remembered they had made a movie!
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie starts like any episode of the show. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) begins wondering aloud how next to torture the good-natured Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson), the current tenant of the “Satellite of Love.” Aboard it, Mike is joined by robot Tom Servo (operated and voiced by Kevin Murphy), and they are wondering about the source of a weird clanking noise. This turns out to be the third of the movie watching trio, Crow T. Robot (operated and voiced by Trace Beaulieu), who believes he can tunnel through the satellite and thus effect their escape back to Earth. Once they repair the breach in the hull this misguided act produces, they head back up to get their movie for the day. It is the 1955 “B” science fiction flick called This Island Earth, and off they go into the theater to watch it. Now, from here Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie shifts mostly to Mike, Tom Servo, and Crow viewing and riffing on This Island Earth. They do not show the entirety of the latter because that would be tedious. Neither do you really need to know all the details of the other movie. Briefly, you have a collection of Earth scientists, prominent of which are Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), who are recruited by an extra-terrestrial scientist named Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Exeter brings Earth’s leading minds together in order to help his dying planet, though they are imprisoned at a posh New York estate against their wills. Cal and Ruth manage to escape, only to be beamed aboard Exeter’s ship as it leaves Earth. They then travel to Exter’s home planet Metaluna, which is in the process of being destroyed. The leaders of Metaluna want to flee to Earth, but Exeter is sympathetic to the planet he had just come from and helps Cal and Ruth escape. They manage to get back aboard the spaceship just before Metaluna’s final destruction. Unfortunately for Exeter, in the process he is mortally wounded by one of his planet’s mutant monster guards. He is able to get Cal and Ruth safely back to Earth, but then crashes his ship. The end . . . of This Island Earth. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie intersperses this campy science fiction melodrama with wisecracks and skits that relate to the other film’s content. In the end, of course, Mike and his companions emerge from the theater no worse for the wear, much to Dr. Forrester’s evident frustration.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie works because it does not stray too far from the tried and true formula of the show. I am not sure what possessed Universal Studios to make a bigger version of such a television program. At the same time, I am sure the low budget, struggling comedians from Minnesota who dreamed up this amazingness in the first place were thrilled by the opportunity to reach a larger audience. I can imagine the studio executives wanted to do what so often happens when they encounter previously little heard of material: go in a completely different direction than what had made it popular, albeit on a somewhat limited basis. Instead, you get a glorified episode of the show that takes you into parts of the “Satellite of Love” not regularly seen, like Tom Servo’s room. It strikes the right balance between doing something new and paying homage to the usual format. It also relies on its bread and butter of making fun of another movie. Apparently, when This Island Earth was released, it was to generally positive reviews. By the time we get to 1996 and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, it is painfully dated in effects and plot. All of this provides excellent comedic fodder for Mike and the robots.
One thing that sometimes makes me feel guilty about enjoying Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, or its television counterpart, is the lampooning. This might seem strange because that is what it relies on for laughs. In a sense, this is a form of bullying. As somebody who was the victim of bullying growing up, I can be sensitive to such things. My growth in my Faith has cemented those feelings. Simply put: I do not like it. Then again, I find all of Mystery Science Theater 3000 hilarious. The problem is that so often filmmakers do things that are inexplicable, which can be unintentionally funny. All it takes is someone to point it out, and laughter ensues. It should also be noted that those behind the title show and the movie did not do this to be mean spirited. They have a Midwestern sense of humor that is as self-deprecating as it is incisive. Finally, if we cannot find ways of making fun of ourselves sometimes, then there may be an issue with pride. There is one of the Seven Cardinal Sins for you, and it can lead to all manner of poor behaviors. In a sense, then, the movie is a lesson in humility. Regardless, you should watch it, and check out the show while you are at it.