“Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie” is based on a concept so simple and obvious cynics everywhere must be kicking themselves for not thinking of it themselves: Take a minor motion picture of questionable artistic merit and have a trio of kibitzers supplement the soundtrack with a stream of wicked wisecracks.
For the last seven years those exceptional jibes have been the exclusive property of the cable TV show known to fans as “MST3K.” Though it had hardscrabble beginnings as a local-access program created in Minneapolis, “MST3K” has gradually become respectable, winning a Peabody Award, getting nominated for Emmys and CableAces and finally getting the theatrical motion picture treatment.
The show’s basic concept has remained unchanged through all this acclaim. A mad scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) has sent a regular guy named Mike (Mike Nelson) into space in order to subject him to some of the worst movies ever made and determine how much cinematic punishment the human mind can take.
To make his viewing more bearable, Mike has arranged to see the movies with a pair of robot pals who share spaceship space with him, Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Beaulieu again). Their three heads, plus a row of seats, are seen in silhouette while the chosen film, in this case “This Island Earth,” plays on the screen. A third robot, Gypsy (Jim Mallon), is delegated to fly the spaceship while the show is on.
Every once in a while, “MST3K” leaves the movie and devotes time to small live-action skits involving Mike, the mad doctor and the robots. Taking advantage of the presumed greater resources of theatrical features, the “MST3K” crew, which includes director-producer Mallon and a staff of seven writers, has made these skits more elaborate than the TV versions, which was a bad call. So overdone it’s hard to believe they come from the same people who think up the deft wisecracks, these tedious bits bring things to a halt whenever they hit the screen.
“MST3K” regulars will also miss the shy and shambling presence of Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator and the original guy on the spaceship. (Hodgson left “MST3K” in 1993, but the curious can see him in three vintage episodes just released by Rhino Home Video.)
And though you wouldn’t know it by the time Mike, Tom and Crow get finished with it, the film they dissect this time around is not one of the show’s usual born-to-be-bad items like “Teenage Crime Wave” or “The Atomic Brain.” In fact “This Island Earth,” released in 1955, is considered something of a science-fiction classic.
That doesn’t stop those relentless quipsters from immediately cutting into it, starting with the Universal International logo, as in “Doesn’t the fact that it’s Universal make it international?” A shot of space leads to the crack, “Look, Orion is bankrupt,” and an aerial view of the Washington mall calls forth “It’s a long par-five leading to the nation’s Capitol.”
The plot of “This Island Earth,” at least as much of it as can be gleaned from this truncated version, concerns hotshot nuclear scientist Cal Meacham, played by Rex Reason, who is contacted by a mysterious group “seeking scientists of exceptional ability and superior technical knowledge to join our team.” Though Cal is a little slow on the uptake, it is clear soon enough that these strange folks with white hair and big foreheads are nothing less than aliens from another planet.
Besides sneaking in one-liners, either via visual jokes or cracks about celebrities from Kate Moss to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the “MST3K” crew likes to add irreverent dialogue to what the characters have already uttered. So when one of Cal’s associates says, “Here’s something my wife could use around the house,” one of the three immediately adds, “a man.”
Helping to make these pleasantries funny is their spur-of-the-moment quality, the same quick spontaneity that characterizes chance remarks overheard at raucous movie houses. Capturing that bright and unexpected quality is what the “MST3K” crew does best. Too bad that’s not all they do.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual humor. Times guidelines: fairly tame material.
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‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie’
Trace Beaulieu: Dr. Clayton Forrester
Michael J. Nelson: Mike Nelson
Jim Mallon: Gypsy
Kevin Murphy: Tom Servo
Trace Beaulieu: Crow T. Robot
John Brady: Benkitnorf
A Best Brains Inc. production, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Jim Mallon. Producer Jim Mallon. Screenplay Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chaplin, Bridget Jones. Cinematographer Jeff Stonehouse. Editor Bill Johnson. Costumes Linda Froiland. Music Billy Barber. Production design Jeff Maynard. Set decorator Blakesley Clapp. Sound Designer Tom Naunas. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
* Exclusively at AMC Santa Monica 7, 1310 Third St. Promenade, (310) 395-3030; Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500; Goldwyn Pavilion, Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202.