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Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Blu-ray Review)

11 Sep, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Shout! Factory
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some sexual humor.

Though someone will doubtlessly now tell me of a hundred other examples that have done exactly the same thing, this is the first home release I can recall that takes considerable pains to rectify the historical damage the movie it showcases perpetrated when playing (however briefly) theatrically, in this case 17 years ago. But to momentarily go the other way, let’s not put too fine a point on any mea culpa aspects here because the MST3K target in this case — Universal-International’s This Island Earth from 1955 — is, on certain levels, undeniable cheese to anyone not among, say, the nine billion members of the sci-fi geek community. Still, Earth was “2½ years in the making,” as its print ads trumpeted — a major production with distinctive and even memorable art/set decoration in its later scenes. Thus, it is considerably removed from the piñata fodder that the TV version of “MST3K” regularly whacked (of which Joe Don Baker’s Mitchell is my favorite).

Of course, no one would ever pay theatrical admissions to see a ripped-apart Mitchell or The Slime People, so you can understand how this big-screen project would have fallen apart immediately without something close to an “A” picture to skewer — and, in fact, Universal (co-founder of MST3K’s distributor, Gramercy) mandated that the target plucked from the vaults be in color, that it be handsome to the eye and that, naturally, it be a Universal film. Well, that studio turned out a lot of horror and sci-fi during the 1950s, but Earth was one of the very few examples in color (also its first, I’m pretty sure).

The Earth-ling cast included mid-‘50s stalwart Jeff Morrow (who could play good guys or heavies); Rex Reason (memorable voice but otherwise a Sequoia); Russell Johnson (several years before he got cast as “The Professor” on "Gilligan’s Island"); and, for the era’s obligatory science-chick pulchritude, Faith Domergue — the actress portrayed as something of a vengeful road hazard in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. This wasn’t exactly A-list, and, in fact, Domergue hit her career peak in ’55 not only in Earth but also by doing her best to combat a mutant octopus in Ray Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Sea, where the creature had only five or six tentacles, budgets being what they were. Morrow plays an alien here, which we don’t know for a while, though we can guess; there’s something about the oddness of his white hair plus the screen’s most memorable airstrip of a forehead — which is to foreheads what Jimmy Durante’s nose was to schnozzes and porn legend John C. Holmes’s … well, you can see where I’m going with this. Morrow and his outer space cronies are desperate for cheap energy and recruit electronics whiz Reason for help at lavish HQ in Georgia and later on the home planet. It is on the latter that matters go awry, including some mischief with a creepy-looking mutant wearing slacks (which does not go unnoticed by Mike Nelson and the other MST3K wags observing the action from the front row).

At only 74 minutes, MST3K is a spotty affair and, in fact, barely received a theatrical release because the studio elected to throw its limited advertising dollars into the concurrently released Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson (talk about throwing bad money after bad). What makes the disc interesting, though, are a couple supplements. The filmmakers are surprisingly frank about how studio suits watered down the hipness that made the TV show so great (which is why they were suits) and persistently failed to get the wisecracking cultural references. As one who once buried my head in hands at USA Today because a “poll of the office” determined that no one there knew what Cinerama was, this is all very credible.

The other key extra devotes 36 minutes to director Joe Dante (who knows formative ‘50s movies like few others) and several more to defend the ’55 Earth and lambast what MST3K did to it — starting with plain old butchery typified by the fact that the newer film’s full running time is 13 minutes shorter than the original feature was, even with all the MST3K material added to the mix. Thus, the Earth we see doesn’t even make rudimentary sense, nor does it look too hot as rendered on the MST3K screen. Back when I was programming the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C’s Kennedy Center, I once saw a 35mm original of Earth, and it was a looker. And this was before U-I entered its inferior Eastman Color era, so this was a three-strip Technicolor rendering, in fact — just before three-strip came to a halt with Universal’s own Foxfire, which came out two months after Earth, later in the same Chuck Berry/Maybelline summer.

“Spotty,” however, means that there are also a fair share of laughs — starting right off the bat with Earth’s U-I logo and the comment: “Doesn’t the fact that it’s Universal make it International?” I also like the comparison of Morrow’s looks here to Charlie Rich’s. For MST3K completists (or close), Shout! Factory also has a slew of boxed sets devoted to the TV version. I’m not holding my breath until the Factory folk release 1980’s The Gong Show Movie (also originally from Universal), but a guy can hope.

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