Blu-ray/DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie’: This Movie’s Birth

mst-themovie

For the crew of the Satellite of Love, adapting their movie-mocking TV series to the big screen seemed a natural transition. After all, their live shows in theaters were hits, so shifting to the silver screen itself would be a logical, successful step–right?

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to Hollywood: MST fell victim to the same company-town madness that had plagued so many movies it had tackled over the years. And when Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie finally reached big screens on April 19, 1996, it was a butchered version making barely a blip at just a few theaters. (Well, it did manage to inch just above a $1 million gross.)

I was among the lucky ones to see the film theatrically, at a press screening in Houston at the old Greenway Plaza Theater (essentially an art-house then) before its very brief run. And being a fan — while also doing my job as a reviewer — I greeted the feature as a mixed blessing.

Finally making its Blu-ray (with DVD) debut Tuesday from Shout! Factory, MST The Movie shows the perils and pitfalls of playing with the big boys — namely, Universal Studios, which was called Universal International when it spawned the target of MST’s big-screen barbs, 1955’s This Island Earth.

Many have bemoaned that the glossy ’50s film wasn’t in the “so bad it’s good” league of so much MST fodder, so its selection was inappropriate. In that sense I concur, but I remind them that a color film with reasonable production values was needed for this project. And anyway, today’s RiffTrax — as an extension of MST3K — doesn’t make merry solely with turkeys. You can poke fun without showing contempt.

Besides, did you really think men with large foreheads and snow-white hair weren’t inadvertent sight gags?

They’re the humanoid aliens in this saga of yet another interstellar civilization coming to Earth for help as its home planet faces doom, this time to harvest scientific knowledge (huh — we haven’t even reached orbit yet), not women or oxygen. But you’d be hard-pressed to follow the entire tale in MST The Movie’s version, since the original film was chopped almost in half, from 87 to (as I count) 46 minutes.

The indignity of such brevity also extended to the MST movie as a whole, since its running time was just 74 minutes, one of the shortest theatrical lengths in decades. As generous making-of material on both of these discs relates, good ol’ Universal not only misunderstood much of the script and its gags, but also kept directing the Best Brains crew to tighten it up.

The result is still an entertaining enough romp, and it’s good to see other sides of the Satellite of Love than the bridge in framing scenes. I also appreciate insider references such as seeing Mike Nelson reading an old print copy of Best Brains’ Satellite News, later replaced by the still-going fans-run website of the same name.

But some of the best treats for this release are the splendid new special features, available on both discs.

Perhaps most intriguing are 23 minutes of deleted and expanded scenes, a mix of footage where This Island Earth is being riffed and elaborate scenes aboard the SOL. A five-minute meteor shower sequence is especially good, the drawback to such footage being its low-quality source material. But at least it exists.

The best overview comes not from a cursory five-minute making-of featurette from ’96 but a 33-minute making-of study created by reliable Ballyhoo for this edition. Subtitled The Motion Picture Odyssey (and using familiar music from 2001: A Space Odyssey), it assembles the cast to reflect on their rocky experience with Hollywood.

Though the big boys allowed bigger sets (created elsewhere in Minneapolis-St. Paul, since Best Brains’ studio in Eden Prairie was so cramped; silhouetted movie-riffing scenes were shot at a facility owned by Prince). But their maddening meddling also led the SOL crew to bemoan “fighting against the forces of mediocrity,” especially when it came to the script.

“Trust the funny,” Kevin Murphy advises.

And the cuts — oh, the cuts. “This is supposed to be bigger and better than our TV show?” Mike asks rhetorically, given the fact that the average MST episode lasts around 20 minutes longer than the entire MST movie.

Of course, nothing got cut more than This Island Earth.

“It was butchered,” Kevin says. “We did a horrible disservice to the film.”

But in the end, the guys realize that at least their movie got made, at a time when their Comedy Central run was running down. (They’d survive to thrive again on Sci-Fi, of course.) They see the film as a small triumph in the “us against them” wars — and a lesson well learned about surviving in Hollywood, as some MST creators have done to this day.

Both discs also include a fine 37-minute 2 1/2 Years in the Making featurette, again from Ballyhoo, on the original creation of This Island Earth. In it, you’ll see footage from the film not shown in MST The Movie and learn a lot from a narrating group of astute historians/fans, including director Joe Dante. (In a nice touch, they’re sometimes playfully shown via the “Interocitor” from the film.)

This gang doesn’t pull punches, berating the project for cutting the movie so much and degrading its Technicolor look on screen. But their enthusiasm for the ’50s flick is infectious.

There’s also the original theatrical trailer for MST The Movie, and that’s it. But that’s a lot, and I’m grateful.

— Bruce Westbrook

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One Response to “Blu-ray/DVD Review ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie’: This Movie’s Birth”

  1. K.E.M. Says:

    I was lucky enough to see it twice during it’s theatrical run; once in NYC shortly after its release, and once in Red Bank, NJ a coiple of months later. And I saw it a third time during ConventioCon II. Plus, I saw the live trial run they did on “This Island Earth” for ConventioCon I.

    Good review; I’m looking forward to seeing the new DVD.

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