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Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie

Review by Carrie Gorringe

   

Directed by Jim Mallon.

Starring Trace Beaulieu,
Michael J. Nelson, Jim Mallon,
Kevin Murphy, and John Brady.

During the early 90s, it was great fun to turn on the television and pick up the latest offering on Mystery Science Theater 3000. All you had was Joel Hodgson, his trusty robot sidekicks Tom Servo and Crow, and a grade-Z sci-fi film from the 50s, usually one of those minimal opuses from AIP schlockmeisters Nicholson and Arkoff -- the type of film laden with enough bad acting and other forms of unintentional irony to render them ideal targets for satire -- and Joel and the boys rarely disappointed. Trust me, without MST 3K, I never would have gotten through a screening of Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster in one piece. There were some cast changes (most notably, Hodgson was replaced by Mike Nelson in 1993), but the quality was always consistent.

For this big-screen outing, our three heroes (Nelson, Murphy as Servo and Beaulieu as Crow) are being held hostage by the mad Dr. Forrester (Beaulieu), though their daily needs are being tended to by an Audrey-like plant by the name of Gypsy (Mallon). Forrester’s intention has been to drive the dynamic trio insane by obliging them to watch one bad film after another, with no success thus far. But Forrester now believes that he has the film that will "drive [them] to the boiling point of madness". To this end, and to get the narrative up and running, the MST 3K crew have selected the 1955 Universal-International screen ‘classic’, This Island Earth, ("Doesn’t the fact that it’s Universal mean it’s international?" asks one of the robots, knowingly).

Though thought by critics to have ground-breaking special effects at the time of its release, This Island Earth now conveys the impression of belonging to a slightly higher grade of Velveeta. The acting has the consistency of freshly-tapped sap about it, most of the matte work looks amateurish, even for its time, and most of the aliens sport amazingly large, white pompadours, a hair style generally reserved for those whose primary choice in sartorial splendor extends only as far as white polyester suits and white patent loafers, and the hair has the additional advantage of matching the aliens’ amazingly large, white expanse of forehead. In professional parlance, the film is an unintentional hoot-and-a-half; it’s hard to believe that William Alland, then late of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, could have put his name on it. While hosting This Island Earth on the American Movie Classics channel recently, host Nick Clooney opined that This Island Earth should be declared a classic because of its theme (no species has the right to consider itself superior to other species) and the presence of "three-dimensional characters". As for the first point, I concede that Clooney may be right (although the theme emerges only briefly at the end of the film, so it seems like more of a sop to the Hays Office than anything narratively significant); as for the latter point, it can only be said that Clooney must have confused This Island Earth with Mars Needs Women.

Of course, I’m being somewhat unfair to This Island Earth; there are some scenes (albeit very few) which don’t fall victim to many of the problems listed above, and their inclusion does tend to smooth over enough of them to make the film tolerable. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are precisely the scenes which have been excised from MST 3K’s version; without them, This Island Earth plays exactly like the type of overblown space operetta which is ripe for reviling. And Mike, Tom and Crow put the pretensions of This Island Earth through the critical Cuisinart quite nicely. For Seattleites, there’s even a jibe at the latest ceiling-tile problems in the Kingdome (and Ken Behring says the building isn’t world-class). Some of the humor falls a little flat in places, probably because, for all of its faults, This Island Earth hasn’t quite the same chronic lack of production values common to the typical MST 3K sacrificial offerings. Nevertheless, our heroes valiantly sink to the occasion, gleefully offering up a steady stream of constant cultural references and sarcastic rejoinders for our delectation ( a loud ringing on the soundtrack of This Island Earth inspires the comment, "Now we know what the world sounds like to Pete Townshend."). Mercifully, the framing device involving Forrester is kept to an absolute minimum, so the film provides an abundance of laughs at the same time that MST 3K: The Movie prevents itself from falling into self-parody.

It’s rumored that the MST 3K production company, Best Brains, Inc., is planning to obtain rights to bad sci-fi films from the 70s and beyond. I, for one, can’t wait to hear the planned riposte to a certain line from Bride of Re-Animator: "My God, they’re using tools!"


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