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Mystery Science Theater 3000 invades the big screenby Peter Keough
Once everyone was an artist. Now everybody's a critic. That's part of the appeal of the cable comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show's slender premise mirrors the captive audiences of mass culture watching it. Mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (the name of the Gene Barry character in War of the Worlds, here played by Trace Beaulieu), in an obscure plan to take over the world, holds one Mike (Michael J. Nelson) hostage on a space station called the Satellite of Love. There he subjects Mike and his whimsical robot cronies Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), Crow (Beaulieu), and Gypsy (Jim Mallon) to the worst science-fiction movies ever made in an effort to homogenize and take over their minds.
Click for an interview with Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson
Like any other smartasses, our guys fight back by making funny comments. It's the couch potato as hero and not mere passive consumer, resisting media mind control with hipness, irreverence, and irony. Add some of the sharpest and most outrageous comedy writing on the tube, plus monumental turkeys like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Eegah!, and you have the makings of a cult hit.
But can it work on the big screen? You could argue that sitting in a theater watching other people sitting in another theater watching a bad movie is too self-reflexive and postmodernist to work as escapist entertainment. Besides, the movie-within-a-movie format tends to undermine your sense of being one of the protagonists, since the images on the screen have usurped your opportunity to talk back to them. You can try to compete, but it's tough coming up with better quips than those provided by MST3K's half-dozen talented writers.
Indeed, given the writers' gift for nonstop laughs, you're not likely to notice that you've been cut out of the loop and reduced again to passive consumer. Although Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie starts out a little gawkily, it settles into a purging session of snide hilarity. That is, as soon as it gets over the notion that it's a movie. The framing device explaining the background and opening up the Satellite to show us the "private lives" of Mike and his pals is more of a distraction than an expansion, though Beaulieu's Dr. Forrester is energetically demented as he spanks himself with a clipboard, shouting out "I'm a naughty boy!" in celebration of his evil genius.
Luckily, director Jim Mallon doesn't waste much time being an auteur (his allusion to 2001 in the opening moments is cute but pointless), cutting quickly to the main feature. This Island Earth (1953) has accrued some critical and cult stature over the years, probably because its narrative illogic and lack of dramatic development, suspense, or apparent meaning make it seem original and arty. Actually, with its wooden acting, ludicrous effects, and solemn, fatuous tone, it is, in Professor Forrester's words, "a stinking cinematic suppository" -- and ripe material for his guinea pigs' mordant wit. What these guys can do with an opening credit sequence alone puts most of what passes for film comedy these days to shame.
When the feature begins to unreel, the backtalk gets outrageous, raunchy, and devastatingly satiric. Island tells the story of hunky nuclear scientist Dr. Cal Meacham, who, when his plane stalls out, is rescued by a mysterious green ray ("I'm suddenly refreshingly minty flavor"). Once on the ground, he receives a strange instruction book and parts for a device called an "interocitor" that puts him in contact with Exeter, a beetle-browed guy with a Man from Glad hairdo. Exeter invites Cal to a retreat for fellow nuclear scientists, then takes him and pretty Dr. Ruth Adams to his home planet of Metaluna, which is currently under assault by some cosmic enemy.
From beginning to end, the film is amorphous and anticlimactic, evoking perhaps the era's pervasive sense of Cold War doom. Mystery Science Theater evokes some of its era's angst, too, as Mike and company take cues from the movie to engineer farcical escape attempts from their outer-space island of media captivity. Mostly, though, their Satellite of Love seems a refuge, a vehicle allowing free indulgence in toilet humor, puerile gay gibes, fart jokes, and randy jabs at the sacred and profane. The film is a vindication of bad taste, and of the principle that mocking well is the best revenge.