Following the departure of the show's creator and host, Joel Hodgson, and with the program's deal with Comedy Central clearly on its last legs, the team behind "Mystery Science Theater 3000" responded to Hollywood's call. A deal was set up at Universal's specialty label Gramercy Pictures, and the writing staff eventually settled on the 1955 sci-fi classic This Island Earth as their target. Over the course of a grueling production, the enthusiasm of the Best Brains crew was slowly whittled away as the studio insisted on heavy revisions to the screenplay, forced the company to hack it to pieces after poor test screenings, and ultimately dumped it into 12 markets, choosing to push the Pamela Anderson action movie Barb Wire instead.
Viewed almost 20 years after its theatrical release, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is a good movie, but not one without significant caveats. Personally, there will always be a place for The Movie in my "MST3K" collection, as it was my introduction to the series, but when one actually examines the specifics, The Movie actually isn't a very good primer for non-fans. A prologue explains that Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) is experimenting on Michael J. Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) with bad movies, but movie casually glosses over the characters and their relationship to one another, staples of the show's format ("We got movie sign!"), and a long list of in-jokes, which makes the whole concept seem weirder than, say, just hearing the show's theme song.
On the other hand, anyone can understand the riffing segments, and This Island Earth isn't a fraction as bad as some of the movies selected for the show. It's probably true that MST3K unfairly damaged the movie's reputation, especially considering it's been cut to shreds -- the complete MST3K: The Movie, with hosting segments, is shorter than This Island Earth by itself (more on this in a moment). Then again, The Movie's riffs on the film's gigantic alien foreheads and silly, slack-wearing Mutant creature aren't exactly mean-spirited. Most of the jokes here are based on visual cues and imagined narratives for the film's characters (particularly, the unrequited love of Robert Nichols' nerdy assistant Joe for Rex Reason's scientist protagonist Cal Meacham). They may be making fun of This Island Earth, but there's a warmth to it rather than seething hatred, unlike many episodes of the show.
The gags are also less obscure than a given episode, which is a double-edged sword. I've never seen an episode of the show where at least one pop-culture zinger didn't go over my head, but gags here are mostly confined to what's on the screen. Some of these jokes have dated (references to Clinton and The Kingdome), but most of them are as funny as ever. The movie gets lots of mileage out of Nelson's excellent impression of Reason's voice, and classic sci-fi and old movie tropes (self-drying clothes; vague, seemingly pointless science; wholesomeness). The host segments, like most good "MST3K" hosting segments, are also endearingly dopey. A bit where Mike pilots the ship opens with an easy gag, and builds to an even easier one, yet somehow it's charming.
Although there are many minor quibbles, the most serious complaint that can probably be lodged at The Movie is that it's only an hour and 17 minutes long, falling significantly short of the length of any given episode of the show. There's really no reason MST3K: The Movie couldn't have sustained itself for a full 90 minutes, but on the other hand, most of the forces that conspired to make The Movie what it is occurred before the film was even shot. Following the disastrous theatrical performance of the movie, the show was subsequently picked up by The Sci-Fi Channel and lasted for another three seasons. The creators seem to view the movie as a footnote in the series' history, but even today, it still holds up; it's a very funny jewel (small, perhaps, but still a jewel) in a diamond-encrusted legacy.
As with Shout! Factory's Scream line, this "Collector's Edition" of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie includes a cardboard slipcover and reversible artwork. The "default" art is the film's original theatrical poster (the slip has the poster as well), with Steve Vance art on the reverse. Steve Vance does the art for Shout's many "MST3K" episode DVDs, and the back cover artwork and reverse design are all meant to match those, which fans will probably appreciate. The two-disc set also includes a DVD copy, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
I doubt it will be a surprise to anyone that Universal has provided Shout! Factory with a fairly dated master for Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. For one thing, it's actually framed at 1.85:1 (surely if this were from the last couple of years, it would have been automatically opened to 1.78), and it features the pre-2012 Universal logo at the top of the film. This is a drab and flat-looking transfer that honestly looks approximately like a DVD. Detail like hair and skin is smooth and mushy, color is uninspiring, and there is likely a hint of EE baked into the master. The biggest improvement is in the theater segments, where This Island Earth looks a bit crisper than I remember it looking on DVD or video. On one hand, it's a slippery slope to be more lenient on some transfers than others, but personally, I'm willing to forgive the lackluster picture. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is always going to look like a really low-budget '90s comedy, and Shout! has to work with what they're provided. At the very least, it's got disc space to spread out in and it certainly doesn't look worse than Universal's bare-bones, out-of-print DVD edition.
Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Again, this is nothing to write home about. Billy Barber's 2001 riff for the opening sounds nice, the riffs and film audio are clean and clear, and the hull breach and Hubble host segments provide some minimal opportunities for surround effects, but much like the audio, this is just not really a film that provides the chances to show much improvement over a 5.1 track on a standard DVD. No subtitles are included, but the packaging displays the "closed captioning" symbol on the back cover, so if your TV offers this function, those can be activated.
For some reason, the package leads off with "The Making of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie" (5:17, SD), a vintage EPK peeking behind-the-scenes. Although it's clip-heavy and not that insightful, the wealth of B-roll footage in this piece makes it worth a watch. Still, the bigger draw is the all-new "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: The Motion Picture Odyssey" (33:07, HD). Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon, Jeff Stonehouse, and Jef Maynard look back at the development process (one idea: a Great Escape spoof in which Crow rides a motorcycle!), fighting studio notes, cinematic influences (Das Boot), and the devastating edit. Old fans will probably not be surprised to discover that the tone of the extra is a little downbeat -- the grueling experience of making the movie clearly still sticks out in their mind.
Although the doc on The Movie is very good, what makes this package really special is the next extra: "This Island Earth: 2 1/2 Years in the Making" (36:45, HD) gathers Tom Weaver (voice), C. Courtney Joyner, Ted Newsom, David Schecter, Robert Skotak, Joe Dante, Bob Burns, actor Rex Reason (voice), and even a dramatization of Jeff Morrow (played by The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra's Larry Blamire!) for a look at This Island Earth. I'm generally not all that upset when the un-riffed movie of an "MST3K" episode can't be included with a film (when it does happen, it's a really special addition, not a glaring omission), but this is such a great peek at the movie and its history that it's a real shame viewers can't pop that in courtesy of this set to take a look for themselves. Near the end, the participants do end up beating up on MST3K: The Movie a little, which is understandable, although it's frustrating to hear Dante complain that the edit of the movie was "unfair" right after hearing the Best Brains crew describe their desperate attempts to keep Earth coherent under studio pressure to shorten the film.
For many fans, the holy grail of the set is saved for last: a reel of deleted scenes (23:10, SD), preserved on what looks like a VHS tape. These include not only the infamous deleted "meteor shower" hosting segment and alternate ending, but a number of "extended" theater scenes with a number of cut riffs. Although I've always wanted to see the host segments, I ended up being partial to the deleted riffs (maybe I've just plain seen the movie as is too many times at this point to adjust to new Mike and the Bots hijinks). Admittedly, the running time is a little inflated -- much of the material is still in the movie -- but there's some gems here that I wouldn't spoil.
The disc rounds out with the film's original theatrical trailer. Also, if the viewer lets the Special Features menu play without selecting anything, they can hear the complete Dave Alvin version of the show's theme song, recorded for the film but left on the cutting room floor (the trailer only featured a very tiny snippet).
Although the A/V specs are underwhelming, the real reason to buy this release is the special features, which would be a worthwhile package even if only the Movie material were included. The fact that Shout! went the extra mile to produce a fantastic half-hour doc about This Island Earth is delicious icing on the cake, and may even do a little to appease those who feel the "MST3K" treatment may have wounded its reputation. Highly recommended.
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