Film and TV

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: What Happened?

An average episode of the 1989-1999 cable show Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which a man and his robot buddies heckle bad movies, runs about 90 minutes. The 1955 film This Island Earth is 87 minutes. The 1996 feature Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, in which the man and his robot buddies heckle This Island Earth, and which also includes 18 minutes of non-This Island Earth material, runs a total of 72 minutes.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is less than the sum of its parts. (It's being released in a super-deluxe DVD/Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory on September 3.) Here's how it came to be that way.

The mid-'90s were a whirlwind for MST3K fans. In 1993, halfway through season five, creator and host Joel Hodgson left the show and its production company, Best Brains, Inc. Hodgson's press release cited the need for new creative challenges, though in recent years he's admitted that the primary reason was not wanting to star in the MST3K movie that executive producer Jim Mallon was determined to make. Hodgson was replaced by head writer Michael J. Nelson, thus creating a "Mike vs. Joel" schism among online fans that rivaled "Kirk vs. Picard" in sheer stupidity.

By the time the truncated, six-episode season seven began in 1996, these things were known: Comedy Central would not be picking up season eight, but the Sci-Fi Channel just might; and Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was a real thing that existed.

April 1996 was an embarrassment of bittersweet riches for the devoted. The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide was published on April 1, the first six episodes of season seven had already aired — the final episode, stone-cold classic and potential series finale, Laserblast, wouldn't be seen until May — and on April 19, MST3K: The Movie hit theaters.

Well, some theaters. Not many. The distributor, Gramercy Pictures, put it into a very limited release, bouncing around the country here and there, making it difficult for fans not living in major markets to actually see the movie. Gramercy also poured the majority of its money and attention into promoting its other spring release, the Pamela Anderson Lee boobs 'n' collagen-fest Barb Wire. On a per-screen basis, the much less expensive MST3K: The Movie did far better than Barb Wire, surprise surprise. (For reasons that escape me now, Gramercy sent me a bunch of promo material for MST3K: The Movie — maybe because I had a website, which was still a big deal in 1996? — and someone also slipped in some Barb Wire swag. I still haven't seen the latter film, and probably never will, until Rifftrax finally decides to get revenge.)

A joint subsidiary of Universal Pictures and PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Gramercy didn't have the first clue how to promote MST3K: The Movie. Visible in Steve Carell's bedroom in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the MST3K: The Movie poster combines the original art of This Island Earth with the familiar iconography of the MST3K silhouettes. The stunningly tone-deaf tagline — "Every year Hollywood makes hundreds of movies. This is one of them!" — survives to this day, stinking up the cover of Shout! Factory's otherwise exemplary new release.

Probably the Gramercy marketing department's attempt at cleverness, that tagline belies the fact that, like the series itself, MST3K: The Movie was filmed in Minnesota by Minnesotans — the silhouette sequences were filmed at Prince's Paisley Park! — and Hollywood had nothing to do with the making of the movie, beyond putting up the money . . . and doing everything it could to make the film as flawed as possible.

The folks from Best Brains have never been shy in describing how lousy an experience it was to work with Universal Pictures, and they continue to describe it in the making-of DVD extra "The Motion Picture Odyssey." Rather than just let the people who'd been producing the show for years do what they did best, the studio executives constantly rewrote the script. Most famously, they demanded that a reference to Bootsy Collins be changed to Leona Helmsley, because the executives had never heard of the Parliament-Funkadelic bass player, while Leona Helmsley was a reference that would never, ever seem dated. Kids, ask your parents to Google her for you.

The Brains also were limited in their choice of movie to heckle. It had to be an existing Universal picture, it had to be in color, and, perhaps most crucially, the movie had to be not all that bad, one that had its own inherent entertainment value. The MST3K series had done dozens of low-budget, nigh-unwatchable movies over the years, and those often resulted in their best episodes, such as Monster A-Go-Go, The Creeping Terror, and fan favorite Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Universal had no shortage of cheapjack made-for-TV movies in their vaults, but that sort of thing would simply not do for a big-screen version, especially when the studio hoped to attract audiences unfamiliar with the show. Process of elimination brought the Brains to This Island Earth, which resulted in howls of protest from that movie's fans, a large subset of whom had always been opposed to MST3K's movie-riffing on a philosophical level.

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Sherilyn Connelly is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.