Back in 1996 when the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” guys decided to do a big-screen “movie” version of their snarky TV show and chose the 1955 science-fiction thriller “This Island Earth” as their subject, I skipped it.
“This Island Earth” is actually a pretty good science-fiction thriller and was quite an influential film in its time. It was a big-budget picture released by a major studio (Universal) and I still had — and have — fond memories from my childhood of seeing it in a theater and having a great time.
This isn’t “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “The Green Slime,” for crying out loud.
For those unfamiliar with “MST3K,” the format has a rather dim character played by Mike Nelson aboard a satellite where he is forced by a mad scientist to watch bad movies in the company of automatons Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, as they riff on the films, crack one-liners, make silly jokes and reference lots of pop culture.
It should be noted that this was not a particularly new idea when “MST3K” began in 1988. There were several TV and film precedents to making old movies look ridiculous: the 1963 TV series “Fractured Flickers,” with classic silent films; the 1966 Woody Allen movie “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” with a Japanese spy flick; the 1979 film “J-Men Forever,” with cliffhanger serials; and the 1985 TV series “Mad Movies With the L.A. Connection,” with public-domain sound films.
The major difference was that each of these examples, instead of having someone simply make wisecracks through the film, created entirely new soundtracks with ludicrous new storylines.
Anyway, this week, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie” (Shout!, two discs, Blu-ray/DVD combo, $29.93) has been reissued with a high-definition upgrade and some new bonus features. So this time I watched it.
And while I will concede that some of it is pretty funny, I also know that anyone — especially in this day and age, when everyone thinks of himself as a hilarious sarcastic comic — can make fun of anything and make it look silly.
Heck, when my kids were young we would sometimes turn down the sound on the TV and make up our own dialogue for whatever show happened to be on.
In fact, the “MST3K” guys now do something called “RiffTrax,” downloadable audio tracks that run the length of the movie being lampooned, and since you run it with your own (or a rented) disc of the film, there’s none of that pesky copyright business to worry about.
Among the “RiffTrax” titles you can get are “Halloween,” “X-Men,” “Jurassic Park” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” These are all good films but they seem quite absurd in the mouths of the “RiffTrax” guys.
Some years ago, when Steven Spielberg’s version of “War of the Worlds” was about to be released, I had my adult kids over to watch the 1953 version, a personal favorite of mine. My two oldest sons, perhaps having overdosed on “MST3K” episodes, riffed through the entire film, leaving their siblings in hysterics. I laughed too but afterward was a little annoyed that the movie had been ruined for all of them. (And these are kids with a healthy respect for older films, having grown up watching them.)
Anyway, I watched “This Island Earth” again in its original form, then watched the “MST3K: The Movie” version, and while some of the latter’s verbal darts are amusing and on target, more are just lame and puerile. Worse, the bridging sequences with “MST3K” characters are awful, easily as bad as any of the movies they routinely eviscerated on their TV show.
But one of the new Blu-ray/DVD featurettes is quite surprising, a straight-forward making-of salute to “This Island Earth.”
And during that 36-minute featurette, one of the interviewees, filmmaker Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), takes the MST3K guys to task for choosing “This Island Earth” to rip into. Dante feels the movie is pretty good and doesn’t deserve to be butchered the way it is here.
Dante also points out that “This Island Earth” is a great-looking Technicolor film, but the MST3K version is soft and washed out, and that it’s been edited so that it doesn’t make sense out of its original context. Indeed, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie,” which runs 82 minutes, is shorter than any of the “MST3K” TV shows, and it only uses 55 minutes of the 86-minute “This Island Earth.”
None of this is to say that I’m deluded about where “This Island Earth” stands today. The movie is dated and has its goofy elements. (It’s not as good as, say, the 1953 “War of the Worlds.”)
Watching it again, I groaned at a line that would never fly today (except maybe on the cable TV show “Mad Men”). After two Earth scientists, the male and female protagonists, are kidnapped and whisked away to a far-off planet, the most sympathetic alien answers their protests by addressing the woman: “Ruth, don’t tell me that as a woman you aren’t curious about our destination.” Ouch.
One more thing about the film’s visual quality: For some reason, the only available version of “This Island Earth” is a full-frame DVD, but the “MST3K” version is widescreen.
And I couldn’t help but think that a new high-def widescreen version of “This Island Earth” might have been a wonderful bonus feature on the “MST3K” disc.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent's Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com