An average episode of the 1989-1999 cable show Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which a man and his robot buddies heckle bad movies, runs about 90 minutes. The 1955 film This Island Earth is 87 minutes. The 1996 feature Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, in which the man and his robot buddies heckle This Island Earth, and which also includes 18 minutes of non–This Island Earth material, runs a total of 72 minutes.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is less than the sum of its parts. (It's being released in a super-deluxe DVD/Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory on Sept. 3.) Here's how it came to be that way.
The mid-'90s were a whirlwind for MST3K fans. In 1993, halfway through season five, creator and host Joel Hodgson left the show and its production company, Best Brains Inc. Hodgson's press release cited the need for new creative challenges, though in recent years he's admitted that his primary reason was not wanting to star in the MST3K movie that executive producer Jim Mallon was determined to make. Hodgson was replaced by head writer Michael J. Nelson, thus creating a “Mike versus Joel” schism among online fans that rivaled “Kirk versus Picard” in sheer stupidity.
By the time the truncated, six-episode season seven began in 1996, these things were known: Comedy Central would not be picking up season eight, but the Sci-Fi Channel just might; and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was a real thing that existed.
April 1996 was an embarrassment of bittersweet riches for the devoted. The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide was published on April 1, the first six episodes of season seven had already aired—the final episode, stone-cold classic and potential series finale, Laserblast, wouldn't be seen until May—and on April 19, MST3K: The Movie hit theaters.
Well, some theaters. Not many. The distributor, Gramercy Pictures, put it into a very limited release, bouncing it around the country here and there, making it difficult for fans outside of major markets to actually see the movie. Gramercy also poured the majority of its money and attention into promoting its other spring release, the Pamela Anderson Lee boobs 'n' collagen-fest Barb Wire. On a per-screen basis, the much less expensive MST3K: The Movie did far better than Barb Wire, surprise surprise. (For reasons that escape me now, Gramercy sent me a bunch of promo material for MST3K: The Movie—maybe because I had a website, which was still a big deal in 1996?—and someone also slipped in some Barb Wire swag. I still haven't seen the latter film, and probably never will, until Rifftrax finally decides to get revenge.)
A joint subsidiary of Universal Pictures and Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Gramercy didn't have the first clue how to promote MST3K: The Movie. Visible in Steve Carell's bedroom in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the MST3K: The Movie poster combines the original art of This Island Earth with the familiar iconography of the MST3K silhouettes. The stunningly tone-deaf tagline—”Every year Hollywood makes hundreds of movies. This is one of them!”—survives to this day, stinking up the cover of Shout! Factory's otherwise exemplary new release.
Probably the Gramercy marketing department's attempt at cleverness, that tagline belies the fact that, like the series itself, MST3K: The Movie was filmed in Minnesota by Minnesotans—the silhouette sequences were filmed at Prince's Paisley Park!—and Hollywood had nothing to do with the making of the movie, beyond putting up the money … and doing everything it could to make the film as flawed as possible.
The folks from Best Brains have never been shy in describing how lousy an experience it was to work with Universal Pictures, and they continue to describe it in the making-of DVD extra “The Motion Picture Odyssey.” Rather than just let the people who'd been producing the show for years do what they did best, the studio executives constantly rewrote the script. Most famously, they demanded that a reference to Bootsy Collins be changed to Leona Helmsley, because the executives had never heard of the Parliament-Funkadelic bass player, while Leona Helmsley was a reference that would never, ever seem dated. Kids, ask your parents to Google her for you.
The Brains also were limited in their choice of movie to heckle. It had to be a Universal picture, it had to be in color, and, perhaps most crucially, the movie had to be not all that bad, one that had its own inherent entertainment value. The MST3K series had done dozens of low-budget, nigh-unwatchable movies over the years, and those often resulted in their best episodes, such as Monster A-Go-Go, The Creeping Terror and fan favorite Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Universal had no shortage of cheapjack made-for-TV movies in its vaults, but that sort of thing simply would not do for a big-screen version, especially when the studio hoped to attract audiences unfamiliar with the series. Process of elimination brought the Brains to This Island Earth, which resulted in howls of protest from that movie's fans, a large subset of whom had always been opposed to MST3K's movie-riffing on a philosophical level.
In an act of remarkable fairness, many of those opponents are given the opportunity to speak their minds in the DVD extra “This Island Earth: 2 1/2 Years in the Making.”
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-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. 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.