Like many of you, I'm sure, my first encounter with 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' came via the Comedy Central cable channel in the early 1990s. The discovery was merely by chance, flipping through stations one night and coming across what I thought was just an old B-movie. It took a few seconds for me to notice that there were silhouettes at the bottom of the screen making snarky comments about the film. I was immediately hooked.
The idea to do a movie version of the series came along when the cast did a live version of the show and saw how great the concept played in front of a crowd. After a few failed pitches at some of the big studios, they finally found a willing partner in Universal as well as a movie they could showcase: 'This Island Earth'.
However, as the extras on this release detail, studio tinkering was a contributing factor in the movie not going as well as hoped. To begin with, almost all of the jokes and one-liners needed to be approved, and if anything was too obscure or potentially offensive to a person or group of people, the powers-that-be at Universal would ask for a change. Additionally, while the cast and crew wanted to feature the full-length version of 'This Island Earth' in the finished film, Universal wanted to cut the run time of the movie down, resulting in a butchered cut of the movie. As a result, the final film is actually shorter than any of the episodes that aired on television.
When it came time to release the movie, Gramercy Pictures (the studio doing the distribution) decided they'd rather use their marketing budget to promote the release of Barb Wire over MST3K. The result was a release that most of America couldn't find – opening in just 26 theaters and grossing just over $1 million during its entire theatrical run. By the time the first DVD version of the movie was released (by Image Entertainment) in 1998, so many 'MSTie' fans hadn't seen it in theaters that the initial DVD version sold out, with Image never pressing additional ones and making even the DVD version a hard-to-find item (Rogue Pictures finally released it again on DVD in 2008).
Even with all of the above in mind, the movie turns out to be fairly entertaining. The new sets built for the film, although primarily just as cheap and cheesy as the ones on TV, give viewers a chance to see some areas of the ship the television version never had the time or space to build; and most of the one-liners and jokes provided by Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu (performing Crow T. Robot), and Kevin Murphy (performing Tom Servo) are still funny over 17 years later (although younger viewers might not 'get' a couple political ones directed at the Clinton Administration).
As funny as the movie can be at times, it's still quite average compared to some of the superior episodes that were made for television. While this movie version is rated PG-13, the humor doesn't seem quite as edgy as many of the episodes I've seen – again, most likely due to Universal's oversight of the film production. It's also a shame that the original creator and star of MST3K, Joel Hodgson (who left the series of his own accord in 1993), didn't get a chance to be part of the theatrical film. In fact, other than his name appearing in the credits as the creator, he's never mentioned in the movie nor in the extras of the Blu-ray.
Although MST3K has gone the way of the dodo, the concept has survived via both RiffTrax (which showcases MST3K alumni Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) and Cinematic Titanic (which showcases MST3K alumni Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and virtually every other writer involved with the series other than the three members of RiffTrax). So although the days of Mike, Crow, Servo, Gypsy, and Dr. Clayton Forrester are long behind us, making fun of the movies with running commentary should be around for a long time to come.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie' arrives from Shout Factory as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack. The discs are housed in a standard keepcase (including a slipcover) with the Blu-ray on the inside left and the DVD on the inside right. Content-wise both discs are exactly the same, including the menu design and the fact that neither disc has any front-loaded trailers.
The cover slick is actually reversible, with the opposite side featuring artwork by Steve Vance that matches the style of covers he has done for single-movie releases of MST3K on DVD. The menu on the discs (again, both identical) is also a lot of fun, featuring a short motion-animated segment with Mike and the robots.
Obviously, the 'This Island Earth' portion of the movie showcases a print of the film that is both faded and contains tons of dirt and print damage. That's part of the charm, and naturally, those portions of the movie don't look significantly better than how they look on DVD, although there is some improvement thanks to the high-def upgrade. The nice surprise is the non-'This Island Earth' portions of the movie, whose sharpness and color are better than I would have thought. Which is not to say the movie looks fantastic – there's still an overall softness to the picture and the occasional brief instance of dirt on the print, but there's also a big jump over the quality of the DVD (easy to compare with, since one is included in this combo pack).
Of course, sharper doesn't necessarily mean better, as the low budget production values of the sets are even more obvious in HD, as are the strings holding up the 'Satellite of Love' in space as well as the ones used to operate the robots. The movie was shot in 35mm, so there's noticeable film grain in the picture throughout, although it's been nicely pushed into the background. The picture also seems to lack any obvious artifacting or aliasing, which was nice to see. Overall, a better transfer than I expected.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track seems a bit of an overkill here, and offers very little in terms of either directionality or noticeable use of the rear speakers. With that in mind, the audio is free from any pops, hissing, or dropout issues – with the exception of the soundtrack related to 'This Island Earth' itself. Again, that's not only to be expected, it's part of the charm of the whole MST3K experience. Even then, the overall audio quality of 'This Island Earth' is pretty good.
The disc offers no subtitle options, but has been coded for closed captioning.
Please note, that while all extras have been rendered in 1920 x 1080p by Shout Factory, the archival featurette, deleted scenes, and original trailer are essentially upconverted standard definition materials that still very much retain the look of SD. For that reason, I listed those extras as 'SD' below.
Despite not being the most entertaining example of 'Mystery Science Theater 3000', it's hard to imagine any fan of the series won't want to add this new Blu-ray to their collection. The A/V quality is a noticeable (if not outstanding) update from prior DVD versions of the film, and the new extras here are worth a look. Recommended.