A little honesty upfront: this new box set is simply an official, pressed assembly of the previously-released "episodes" (formerly only available as DVD-Rs), with a couple of new bonus features for the fans. Furthermore, while the worst type of criticism is comparison, none of these three imitators were very successful in re-capturing the magic of the original "MST3K," probably because they all feel, in various ways, trapped under the shadow of the show that spawned them. "Mystery Science Theater 3000" (and its new Netflix continuation) represent the development and evolution of an organic idea, and all of the competitors either feel as if they're weighed down by the obligation of simultaneously recreating and reinventing that format, or simply suffer by comparison to the caliber of the work. With that basic information out of the way, some of you will be able to skip to the later sections of the review.
Of the two problems, Cinematic Titanic struggles more with the former than the latter. While the first episode, The Oozing Brain (aka Brain of Blood), just jumps right into the riffs, the other pre-recorded episodes have a brief "sketch" introduction where the cast walks into the screening room. The somewhat vague story involves the disintegration of digital media, which is being fought by either the military, the government, or both. Joel and his compatriots are being asked to riff on each movie for some sort of futuristic archive, with Joel inserting a disc containing each riffed film into a "Time Tube." In theory, there's nothing wrong with this plot, but it's hard to escape the feeling that it's only there because "MST3K" had a plot. Admittedly, there seems to be a subsection of fans who find the decidedly silly interstitials on "MST3K" to be a bore, but this critic is not one of them (even the first episode of the new "MST3K" has an all-timer, a delightfully catchy song about monsters, which feels like evidence of the original program's special alchemy).
TV specials and behind-the-scenes interviews about the making of the original "MST3K" covered the rigorous writing process of riffing. I could be wrong, but I suspect that none of the follow-up iterations (especially Rifftrax, which has a tendency to go for easy jokes and produces so much content it's simply hard to imagine them taking the time) put in the same amount of due diligence. That's not to say that Cinematic Titanic doesn't have a handful of good belly laughs each episode, but none of them have the consistent, unable-to-breathe hilarity of some of the best "MST3K" episodes. Perhaps it's that some of the cultural references are outdated (both because this set collects episodes nearing a decade old, and references that weren't even particularly hip or clever at the time). There is also, inevitably, a handful of jokes that have simply not aged well, namely a tendency to rely on homosexuality as a punchline, and more than a couple of "tranny" jokes. The episodes have a tendency to become more funny as they go along, and the cast has more of the movie to reference and call back on.
The second half of the set includes a number of episodes recorded live, and these are an improvement on the pre-recorded ones. While the stage format necessitates the loss of the silhouettes, the live episodes tend to be more rapid-fire, and it's nice to see the performers' obvious chemistry with one another right in front of the viewer. The silhouettes add the ability to pause the film for various visual gags, including a fake business meeting, polishing the screen, performers being raised on cranes, a blimp to obscure nudity, and an entire Thunderdome being lowered onto the cast, but these bits tend to feel overly rehearsed, probably by necessity. The feedback from the audience provides some good energy, and there are opportunities for gags that could never have worked otherwise, including a synchronized spit-take that partially soaks Conniff.
Cinematic Titanic isn't a bad show, but it's one that can't avoid the feeling that something is missing at its core, that even at its funniest, it exists to follow in another creation's footsteps. The live version at least breaks the show into a format that feels less indebted, even if it never quite reaches the heights of the best "MST3K" episodes. Other viewers may be less discerning in their quest for funny riffs, but it's pleasing to know that Hodgson has been reunited with his signature creation, and that spin-offs like this will remain a curiosity of the not-too distant past.
For considerably more enthusiastic takes on most of the episodes included in this set, DVDTalk has older reviews of The Oozing Skull, Doomsday Machine, Legacy of Blood, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, East Meets Watts, and The Alien Factor.
The Video and Audio