Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie DVD Review

At some point in the future, a man named Mike Nelson is held prisoner in outer space by mad scientist Dr Clayton Forrester and forced to watch utterly, utterly terrible movies. In order to keep himself sane (and for company), Mike creates robot companions – Crow T (for “The”) Robot and Tom Servo – who watch along with him and mock the plots, characters, dialogue, sets and every single other aspect of the films. If this sounds like a bonkers idea for a movie, you’d be absolutely right. If you think it’d make for some seriously engaging entertainment… weirdly enough you’d be spot-on once again. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is almost impossible to summarise, and even harder to recommend, however, because the film’s enjoyment factor has virtually nothing to do with what it’s about.

Although relatively obscure (in the UK, at least), the lower-than-low-budget television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K) has a massive cult following. Featuring such mad titles as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (yes, the punctuation is part of the actual title), Puma-man (an ignominiously low point of Donald Pleasance’s career), I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Space Mutiny, the show’s concept is quite stunningly simple: approximately 70% of each episode consists of three little silhouettes taking the piss out of some genuinely awful B cinema. For the other 30-odd per cent there’s a bit of mad plot about Mike, Dr Forrester, the robots and some other characters, but frankly it’s not much fun and one can fast-forward through all that.

The show was created in 1988 by Joel Hodgson and production company Best Brains Inc and ran for 11 seasons. The (rather flimsy) back story was that Dr Forrester (played by Trace Beaulieu, one of the show’s writers) was using Joel (later replaced by Nelson) as a lab rat in an experiment to select the film best suited to his plan for world domination: to drive everyone on the planet insane simultaneously, thus turning them into zombie slaves. In later seasons Trace Beaulieu made way for Mary Jo Pehl, who took over the role of villain as Dr Forrester’s mother, Pearl.

Each episode featured a truncated version of a super-low-budget film with running mockery by Joel/Mike and the robots, interspersed with brief “host segments” and scraps of plot which really serve only to explain why three black shapes are making fun of the films in the first place. Their riffing, awash with in-jokes, pop-culture references and sly critique, is so brilliantly postmodern that one wants to hug oneself with glee at every on-the-mark shot. It’s the sort of divine lunacy that makes fans of Spaced have dress-up parties and conventions.

In 1996 Gramercy Pictures released the feature film, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. It was so poorly marketed that it sank without trace, and it is only now available on DVD in the UK. At 74 minutes it is actually shorter than the original series episodes and the film on which the characters riff, This Island Earth. Made in 1955, This Island Earth is a science fiction film about a scientist who is tricked into working on a top secret project run by aliens in search of the Earth’s uranium deposits. It is also utter tosh and fully deserving of every insult the protagonists of MST3K: TM hurl at it. And therein lies all the splendid fun of the film.

Apart from being shorter than their 90-minute running time, there is little else that differentiates MST3K: TM from the episodes. The set looks a little less Sellotaped together, the production values are slightly higher, the robots look marginally shinier, but beyond that there’s really not much difference. Nevertheless, it serves as a pretty good introduction to the series for newcomers and an essential addition to the collection of a die-hard fan. Having said that, though, it’s not a patch on Space Mutiny and comes nowhere near Agent for H.A.R.M. In fact, forget the movie and start scouring eBay for boxsets.

About The Author

Katherine hails from South Africa, where she subsidised her uncompleted Masters in Film Studies by trying to persuade students there was more to film than the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg. Her portfolio of film criticism includes film column “The Maguffin” for iafrica.com (where the controversial “What Could a Nice Girl Like Me Have Against Forrest Gump?” caused quite a stir), a year as DVD Review editor for FHM and a lifetime of utter, unrelenting geekdom. Passionate about film in its many forms, she has a particular fondness for the Marx Brothers and David Cronenberg, and a DVD collection that takes up half her lounge.

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