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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Matinee director (and loyal MST3K opposition) Joe Dante points out that This Island Earth had to be unfairly cut down to compensate for MST3K: The Movie's barely feature-length, thus making This Island Earth look more incoherent than it actually was. This is true, but also not the fault of the Brains: Between Universal's devotion to focus groups (who didn't like series antagonist Dr. Clayton Forrester and wanted less of him), and what producer Jim Mallon describes as the studio's notion that a comedy should be as close to 80 minutes long as possible, Universal just kept cutting and trimming and hacking.
(For the record, Gramercy's 1995 comedy release Mallrats clocks in at 95 minutes, and the 1997 Bean is 85 minutes. This makes the decision to whittle the vastly smarter MST3K: The Movie down to 72 minutes all the more mystifying, especially considering that Universal was releasing it to so few theaters as to make showings per day an irrelevant issue. The fact that Mallrats is now available in a two-hour cut, while MST3K: The Movie remains stubbornly at an hour and quarter, can be seen as further evidence of a godless universe.)
The studio slashed This Island Earth and the host segments alike--all of it footage that had already been filmed, requiring an entirely new ending to be shot--and there wasn't anything the Brains could do about it, to their still-evident chagrin. In "The Motion Picture Odyssey," writer, producer, and performer Kevin Murphy agrees that This Island Earth was butchered, and that they did it a horrible disservice. Of course, even if they'd included Earth in its entirety, odds are there still would have been anger. MST3K had been fielding "Hey, that's not a bad movie!" backlash from the beginning--in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, Murphy tells of complaints from curmudgeons as varied as Dennis Miller and Kurt Vonnegut.
So, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was a miserable, frequently heartbreaking experience for its creators. How is it for the viewers?
At the time, it was a big deal. It was a movie of my favorite TV show, a TV show that had been officially canceled a month earlier. And my town--San Francisco--was considered a major enough market that it not only played here, but we got an advance screening. My girlfriend and I attended that screening, like-minded individuals packed into one of the smaller auditoriums of the Lumiere Theatre. And we laughed. We had always laughed. Our heroes had made it onto the big screen where they wanted to be (for some reason), and this was for us.
And yet, I was underwhelmed.
It was Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it was stretched thin even at 72 minutes, transferred to a canvas on which it simply didn't belong. Something about the show being re-created on the screen, with slightly bigger sets and more camera movement, didn't quite resonate. Live-riffing can, and does, work--hence the post-MST3K projects Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic (the latter of which is conducting its farewell tour)--but the crucial element in a theatrical setting is that, on some level, some element of the performance should be live.
The riffs were mostly funny and perfectly delivered, but because the Brains were under orders to make the jokes more accessible it all felt less sharp than it should have. I had every episode of the show from the past five years on VHS, and I watched them frequently, yet nothing about the experience of the movie felt like it was in any way an improvement on the television series. Wasn't that the point of making a movie version of a TV show, to do it bigger and better? If so, how come MST3K: The Movie was neither of those things?
Though it's a safe bet that the film would have been more pleasing had the studio never interfered, that doesn't necessarily explain why it needed to exist in the first place. And now that the nearly 200 episodes are available in formats both legal and otherwise, the movie seems all the more superfluous.
When the Sci-Fi channel picked up the series in 1997, and the Brains were back in the comfortable environs of their home studio, they continued the story right from where season seven left off, ignoring the movie altogether. The remaining seasons were far more cinematic than Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, with a broader, world-expanding sweep and far more ambitious lighting and camerawork than had been attempted before, all while working in the same amount of tiny studio space. How much of that came from the experience of working on the movie is impossible for me to say, but once they broke free of Sci-Fi's original mandate to only do movies owned by Universal (most of which were by This Island Earth producer William Alland), MST3K went on to do some of their best episodes yet. Oh yeah, I'm saying it: Time Chasers, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, and Hobgoblins are right up there with Manos: The Hands of Fate.
This Island Earth, via Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie? Not so much. But it's still worth watching at least once, just to see what can go wrong when funny people aren't allowed to be funny.Follow @VoiceFilmClub
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