Friday, April 29, 2011

This Island Earth – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1955) – MST3K Review

Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is your classic 1950s scientist. He’s big, he’s bold, he’s brave and he’s probably atomic. He’s also been selected by a group of aliens to help with a little project they’ve got cooking. Cal is tested in his lab by the mysterious Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to build a machine called an Interossitor. Cal is able to do just that, and so Exeter is convinced that Cal can help. Cal is spirited away to a out of the way farm in Georgia where he meets fellow scientists Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson).

At first everything is swell, even if Exeter and his folks have huge foreheads and white hair. But alas happy times to not endure and before you can say ray beams and flying saucers, Ruth and Cal are abducted from earth and taken to the planet Metaluna. Exeter explains that his people need Uranium and gigantic quantities, and that Ruth and Cal can help them. But can Exeter be trusted? Is a Mut-ant just like insect life on our world? Will our scientists ever return to This Island Earth?

Movie Review:
When it came time for the folks at Best Brains to pick a riffing movie for their feature film debut, they settled on This Island Earth. It’s big, its colorful, its got memorable characters, a fun story and is silly enough in that 50s kind of way to provide plenty of riffing material.

This movie sports all the features of a classic 1950s flying saucer film, but with a bit more creativity packed into the story. I like how Exeter is actually a decent guy. He only wants to protect his planet, and he wants to work with the Earthlings to accomplish this. It’s his superiors who are bent on destroying Earthlings and repopulating Earth. I thought the test that Exeter comes up with was clever. I even liked the whole concept of the tubes and pressures.

But there are also all kinds of wacky “science” going on, including that odd metal toaster thing that Cal works with in his lab. You’ve got the Interossitor, a machine that can do just about anything. It just begs the question, if the Metalunans have this kind of technology how can they be getting their butts kicked so badly?

There are also some odd moments in the script to This Island Earth that leave you scratching your head. Why the cat Neutron? Why the mut-ant? Why introduce the character of Joe and then just leave him behind? Why blow up all the scientists before leaving earth? Some of these issues were addressed in the unedited version, but some are still puzzling if you’ve seen the whole film.

Cal is one of those heroes who is pretty silly the more you think about it. People keep saying how brilliant he is, but he doesn’t do much but look handsome, speak in his low sonorous voice and every once in a while (when he feels like it) perform some kind of action. Things just happen to Cal, and since he’s one of the few males left standing at the end of the film, he becomes our hero by default.

But one of my favorite characters is the nebbish Joe played by Robert Nichols. He’s a 1950s style nerd if you’ve ever seen one, and actually reminds me of a more realistic scientist than Cal is. This Island Earth could have been more fun with Joe in the lead role, but here he is the voice of caution. Still his nerdy vibe is missed after he vanishes after the first act.

Visually the film is bursting with color and motion. The visual effects are impressive for the day. Even the Mut-ant costume became a classic monster of sorts, with its exposed brain and huge eyes. The Interossiter is filled with blinking lights that wouldn’t be out of place in an original episode of “Star Trek”.

I even enjoy the music, credited to three composers on IMDB including the famous Henry Mancini. It’s bold brassy and dramatic but not in that ponderous Albert Glasser kind of way. And hey, it’s got Theremin in it!

This Island Earth is fun sci-fi stuff. It’s not really a bad movie, more of a pulp classic that you can enjoy on a lazy Sunday. But it also provides Mike and bots with a lot to work with and seemed ripe for the riffing.

Episode Review:
Whenever Mystery Science Theater 3000: the Movie is mentioned around the more hard core fans of the series, it is usually with dislike. Many of these fans know what the movie could have been, and what it ended up being after behind the scenes wrangling by the studios and issues among the cast is less the sum of its parts. What should have been one of the funniest episodes of the show turned into a fun movie that falls short.

But talk to any fans who started their love affair with the show because of this movie, or anyone who is a casual fan, and this is usually one of their favorite versions of MST3K. In fact I find it to be one of the best ways to get new viewers into the show.

This Island Earth is that perfect combination of watchable and yet cheesy enough to make fun of. It’s not as god awful as Manos: the Hands of Fate and has more appeal than something from Ed Wood’s bizarre mind. It really is a perfect pick for a larger audience who is not familiar with the premise. Yes, I wish the studio had allowed the crew to riff on the entire movie. The final presentation is well short of the running time for an actual episode of MST3K, and the film was only 87 minutes long to begin with.

But most of the editing is done with care and you don’t lose any key plot elements. Mostly you miss some of the more explosive special effects from the final portion of the film. Still, all the real goofiness of the movie is concentrated in the first two acts and that’s where the riffing gold begins.

Cal and Joe’s antics provide some serious laughs in this section. Cal finds himself spiraling out of control in a jet when a mysterious green beam of energy saves him. As the jet glows green, we see a POV shot of the cockpit, bathed in green light. Tom quips “Early LSD tests in the air force.” Joe jumps into his jeep and drives off as Crow yells, “Into the weenie mobile! Weenie-man away!” As the jeep rolls up to the landed jet Mike adds, “Nerdy Joe action playset. Nerdy Joe not included.”

And it just gets better from there. Cal’s experiments with his metal toaster causes all kinds of breakfast related humor. When the boys start to build the Interossitor, we are given one of the lines that is most used in my house “We start here, at goofy clown face.” – a riff that has to be seen to be enjoyed.

Sure the appearance of Russell Johnson as a man of science unleashes “Gilligan’s Island” jokes, but they keep those pretty low key. More often they are riffing on Exeter, his lumpy head and his assistant Brack. There is also the infamous picture in Exeter’s office that leads to the line “Who we are? Why we’re here? And why do I have a picture of a burger on the wall.”

For my money Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was the funniest movie I saw in theaters in 1996, easily beating The Nutty Professor by a mile. It gave me so many quotable lines and is a favorite around our house. One of the comfort food episodes that we watch when need a good laugh or just want to hear Mike yell in a commanding voice “ACTING” when Exeter flails about at the end of the film.

If anything is amiss it’s the fact that the host segments are all over the place. The movie starts with Dr. Forrester explaining the premise. He goes way over the top and then right back around again. I know this actually freaks new viewers out a bit. But as the credits roll with the 2001 inspired jogging scene, it comes back down to a guy interacting with puppets and just being silly. Crows escape attempt is good for some laughs. As is Tom’s experience with suction. The first break occurs when the film snaps and Mike and the bots get to talking about flight. Mike ends up trying to fly the Satellite of Love and crashes in to the Hubble telescope. There is a neat call back to one of the more infamous episodes from the show. The next break occurs when Tom reveals that he has an Interossitor in his room. We then see Tom’s underwear collection and meet a Metalunan! When the movie ends Dr. Forrester tries to gloat, but Mike and bots are having a Metaluna Mixer and you’re invited!

But one of my favorite moments of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is when Mike and the bots sit down and riff on the credits to their own movie. It’s such a fun twist and the riffs are hilarious -easily one of the highpoints of the series.

Hardcore fans love to hate this movie. They claim the riffing is too slow, too subpar, and too lowbrow. They say the movie selection isn’t bad enough. They say that making this movie drove creator Joel Hodgeson from the show. They say the studio ruined the final product.
I say they’re all nuts. This is easily one of the most fun offerings of the series. It’s a great introduction to the concept and it remains one of the most accessible ways to get a taste of the series. If it proves anything, it proves that the team was able to handle anything that was thrown at them. And even if the experience of making the movie was pretty nightmarish, the final result was still a good time. And isn’t that why we watch the show in the first place.

I give this five Dr. Meacham (glad to Meet-chams) out of five.

This episode is available as Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

1 comment:

  1. Hard core fans often make a point of taking critical stands that first and foremost demonstrate their inside knowledge. These may or may not be fair. This Island Earth is easily bad enough: I laughed at it as a kid long before MST3K. Good call.