1/9/07

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie

(1996, SciFi-Comedy, color), featuring:

This Island Earth
(1955, SciFi, color)

It’s the Amazing Technicolor Cheese Wedge!

Rating: ***

In a nutshell:

Big-foreheaded aliens abduct nuclear physicists to help save their planet.

Summary:

Watching interocitor-based video on a normal, rectangular screen must really screw up the aspect ratio.Deep-voiced nuclear physicist Cal Meacham returns home from a high-level government meeting/press junket in a borrowed single occupant jet plane. He buzzes the control tower just for fun, accidentally flaming out the engine of his jet. Fortunately, off-screen aliens are standing by to save him from his own stupidity. They turn his plane green and set him gently on the runway.

Apparently unmoved by this experience, Cal and his assistant Joe resume their experiments with steel toaster waffles. Someone has sent him some shiny alien beads and a catalogue with metal pages. Cal orders everything in the book and then puts it together into an “interocitor,” or a boxy cabinet with a wedge-shaped screen on a pole above the top. The prosthetic-foreheaded Exeter appears onscreen to declare that Cal has passed an aptitude test, and will be recruited to join their crack team of nuclear scientists. Then he burns up the catalogue and self-destructs the interocitor.

Despite Joe’s well-reasoned objections, Cal decides to take Exeter up on his offer, accepting a lift in an unmanned plane a few days later. He lands in a matte painting many miles away, where a former colleague named Ruth greets him at the runway. Despite their prior romantic history, she pretends not to remember him. Exeter himself greets him at the mansion, and pitches his group as working with atomic energy towards vague but noble goals.

Questioning his host at dinner, Cal becomes suspicious when he discovers Exeter is not familiar with Mozart. He invites Ruth out for a walk. Co-scientist Steve (Russell Johnson, a.k.a. The Professor from Gilligan’s Isle) tags along. They discuss such plot developments as their inability to escape the mansion, the absence of practical (i.e., non-nuclear) scientists, and the prosthetic foreheads of Exeter and his assistants. They steal a car and try to drive to safety.

Meanwhile, Exeter and his assistant Brak have received orders to terminate their earth installation and return home. Exeter prepares for liftoff while Brak rains fiery death down on our heroes with his interocitor. Steve makes Cal and Ruth pile out of the car and drives away, sacrificing himself to Brak’s death rays to save them. Cal and Ruth make it back to the airfield and take off in a light plane. A flying saucer appears and pulls their craft inside, while the mansion explodes beneath them.

Exeter tries to explain, but Cal and Ruth are understandably upset by the mass murder of their colleagues. Eventually, they agree to put aside their differences and climb into some magnetized pressurizing tubes to adapt them to the alien planet’s gravity. Exeter wakes them up again when they get in sight of his planet, called Metaluna, and explains he was using the Earth scientists to help him discover a new source of power for his planetary shield. It’s too late now, unfortunately. Their Zagon enemies are stepping up their bombardment, and the shields are failing.

On the planet’s surface they meet the Metalunan Monitor, who informs them that he will relocate his entire planetary population to Earth and enslave the minds of its current inhabitants. He orders Exeter to take them to the “thought transformer.” Cal jumps Exeter along the way, but is stopped from escaping by a MutAnt, or a giant rubber insect with an exposed brain and sensible slacks. Fortunately, a Zagon meteor comes down and collapses the passage on it, allowing them to get away.

Exeter catches up with them, promising to help them escape. He helps them board the spaceship past a wounded MutAnt, getting himself eviscerated in the process. They take off just in time to watch Metaluna disintegrate behind them. Despite their best efforts, the MutAnt has gotten on board, threatening Ruth as she comes out of the conversion tube. It dies and evaporates completely as they reenter earth’s atmosphere. Exeter sends them back down in the light plane, and then crashes his ship into the ocean.

Introduction:

Among its myriad other uses, the interocitor can apparently be used for peeping.Dr. Forrester welcomes us to his lab, performing an elaborate series of pratfalls while he explains the premise of the show. “I will rule the world!” he proclaims. “I’m a naughty boy! Naughty, naughty, naughty…” while he spanks himself with a photo of Mike.

Host Segment One:

Mike jogs in a giant hamster wheel through the opening credits, while a 2001-esque shot of Gypsy’s eye looks on. Tom shows up to ask him about that rhythmic pounding noise in the background. They find Crow in the basement with a pickaxe, attempting to tunnel his way back down to earth. Though Mike tries to stop him, he breaches the hull. Tom is sucked towards the void, but gets stuck in the hole, saving them all. Crow tries to explain; quoth he, “I calculated the odds of this succeeding versus the odds I was doing something incredibly stupid, and I went ahead anyway.” Gypsy repairs the hull while Dr. Forrester sends Mike, Tom, and Crow into the theater to watch This Island Earth.

Host Segment Two:

The film breaks, setting Dr. Forrester’s arm on fire. While they’re waiting him to fix the problem, Mike and the ‘Bots discuss the movie. When he makes fun of Cal’s piloting skills, Tom and Crow goad him into flying the Satellite of Love. Mike takes the controls from Gypsy and immediatey runs into the Hubble Telescope. He tries to remove it with the manipulator arms (a pair of robotic remote control arms labeled “Manos”), causing further damage. He eventually removes it from the satellite, and attempts to put it back into orbit. It falls as soon as he releases it, burning up in the atmosphere.

Host Segment Three:

Tom remembers he has an interocitor in his room. They leave the theater to look for it. Crow finds a chainsaw. Mike finds a wall of underpants. Eventually they find the interocitor. “I’ve been using it to make hot chocolate,” says Tom. They call up a random Metalunan while he’s in the shower. The big-foreheaded alien isn’t very helpful, and has no idea how to work it. He presses several buttons, but each one blows up Tom’s head. Dr. Forrester cuts in to declare, “Who doesn’t have an interocitor?” He uses its death ray capabilities to harry them back into the theater.

Host Segment Four:

Dr. Forrester dials them up on his interocitor to see if Mike’s will has been broken yet. It hasn’t. In fact, they’re having a “Metaluna Mixer,” with Crow in a conversion tube, Gypsy dressed as Ruth, and Tom dressed as a MutAnt. Dr. Forrester tries to fry them with his interocitor, but pushes the wrong button and accidentally teleports himself into the shower with the random Metalunan.

Thoughts:

Suddenly, I have a refreshing mint flavor.Coleman Francis, the scourge of Yucca Mountain himself, is in this movie for about thirty seconds. Look for him to deliver the metal-paged catalogue to Cal’s lab a short ways into the film.

Cinematic scientists have no survival instincts. Whether reanimating the corpses of deceased mass murderers, growing giant killer shrews just to see if they can, or climbing into unmanned planes piloted by aliens of unknown intent, there seems to be no experiment too risky, no task too foolhardy, no act so blatantly ill-advised that it would make them stop and think, “Hmm, maybe the world will be better off if I don’t create this species of ravening, locomotive-sized locusts.” Granted, Cal’s crimes against common sense are relatively minor, but the fact that so many of his colleagues accepted Exeter’s invitation as well makes me fear for the survival of scientists as a species.

It’s actually not that bad a film, otherwise. To be sure, it’s got some silly faux science (hands are drawn towards the magnetic bars) and some overwrought acting (Exeter’s admonition to the last MutAnt is especially, um, moving), and it takes a very long time for the supposedly brilliant scientist characters to catch on that their hosts are aliens (“Note the peculiar indentations in both their foreheads,” says Ruth, about halfway through the movie), but the script is neither too talky nor too sparse, the visuals are good, and the movie as a whole never wastes time. As Mike says at the end, “This movie was a breeze.”

The Satellite of Love shown in the host segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie look much more elaborate than the one shown on the television series. This is probably due to the higher budget, which seems to have been spent mainly on sets and props, since the ‘Bots and the film segments look pretty much the same. Not only do we get to see the desk, but also the bridge, the basement, and Tom’s room. My favorite segment was the first one, when Crow tries to explain his escape attempt to Mike, though the “Manos” control with the subtle reworking of the Torgo theme from Manos: The Hands of Fate, was a nice touch as well. In general, Mike’s performance seems a little flatter than usual, though that may just be his normal understated style not working as well in the larger format. I love it when, in lieu of a stinger, the cast comes back after the last host segment to mock their own credits.

In the film segments, the comments come at a slightly slower pace than they do on TV, and occasionally they recycle jokes from the television show, but the whole thing works overall. When we see the interocitor fire up for the first time, Tom calls it “The Amazing Technicolor Cheese Wedge!” When Cal and Joe work their way through an obviously fake experiment, Crow tells them to “Increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around.” Mike calls the bombardment of Metaluna, “The Jetsons II: After the Armageddon.” With fewer host segments and shorter film segments, the big-screen adaptation of MST3K comes in twenty-four minutes shorter than your average television episode. It’s big(ger)-budget as well, but comes down in the middle of the road in terms of quality. It’s fun to watch, but doesn’t outshine the best of the television series.