Cinematic Titanic // 2010 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // April 23rd, 2010
"Oh, why did I skip 'door opening' in driver's ed?!"
The Case Since its inception in 2007, Cinematic Titanic -- the movie riffing brainchild of Mystery Science Theater 3000 alums Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein -- has released a steady stream of episodes both on DVD and as digital download, available for purchase from their website. For nearly as long, the group has performed versions of those movie-skewering shows live in theaters across the country. Like the in-studio episodes, the live shows feature the five Titanic members, spread out on either side of a screen, hurling zingers at awful movies. Until recently, the only fans able to enjoy the live Cinematic Titanic experience were those who lived within driving (or, in the case of some rabid supporters, flying) distance of the venues they played. That situation was rectified with the release of the Titans first "live" DVD, Cinematic Titanic Live: East Meets Watts in December of 2009. Building off its success, they continue with their second live disc, a slice of Baltimore godawfulness called The Alien Factor. Whether you've been following the group around like a comedy nerd deadhead, have only seen the in-studio DVDs, or had no idea the MST3K gang had a new project, this latest is another stellar release from the folks who made "riffing" a verb.
Filmed near Baltimore on a budget so small someone should have paid the director to stop making it, The Alien Factor is the story of a small town in the grips of an alien invasion. Townspeople are dying. And walking through the woods -- endlessly walking through the woods. None of the round-faced residents know what to do. Not the sheriff, not his pimply deputy, not the token woman reporter, and especially not the round-faced mayor who's worried about how teens getting slaughtered will affect an entertainment complex (don't you dare call it an amusement park!) that's going to be built outside of town. When a stranger with the suspicious name of Benjamin Zachary shows up and offers to help, the mayor eagerly agrees. The pair head out into the woods, looking for a meteor but find a downed spaceship instead. They also find a dying alien who telepathically tells Zachary that the ship was on a zoological expedition, and that when it crashed, the intergalactic beasts on the ship escaped. Armed with this knowledge, Zachary offers to find and kill the aliens. Once again, the mayor agrees -- unaware that the heroic star-gazer may not be who he claims to be.
Walking. There is so much walking in this movie. At least the MST3K classic Lost Continent had rock-climbing. How I wish the characters in The Alien Factor had a rock to climb; one of them might have fallen off and gotten hurt. Instead, this movie is filled with careful, plodding shots of people carefully plodding through the snowy woods of Maryland. It's also full of plodding dialogue that wasn't written nearly as carefully. The "actors" all seem like friends and relatives of writer-director Don Dohler (it would certainly explain the fact that so many of them look the same). Plus, a lot of the movie was shot in the dark, making what passes for action even harder to see. Simply put, this is a terrible, terrible movie -- making it perfect fodder for Joel Hodgson and crew.
I can see why the Cinematic Titanic crew enjoys doing these live shows. The audience is primed from the get-go, and nearly every quip is answered by howls of laughter. It helps that the performers are in fine form. The Alien Factor gives these comedians plenty to work with, from softballs like the director's decision to shoot so much of the movie in the dark ("Why did they even bother taking off the lens cap?") and the overbearing synthesizer soundtrack ("You have just entered Minimoog National Forest"), to more general observations about the obviously low budget ("I'm surprised they didn't write 'Ambulance' on the side in a Sharpie"). The writing is bad, the acting is worse, and the twist ending telegraphs itself a half hour out. You could argue that making fun of a movie this bad is easy, but as lesser riffers have shown, choosing the right movie for this brand of humor is almost as much of an art as actually writing the jokes.
If you've never seen Cinematic Titanic's live set-up (and before watching this disc, neither had I), it's pretty straightforward. Joel comes out and introduces everyone, they take their places at music stands on either side of a movie screen, the lights go down (except for the ones the Titans need to see their scripts), and the show begins. The set-up is enhanced for DVD by dividing the widescreen picture into three parts. The center portion is the movie, presented in full screen size. On either side -- where the black bars on a pillar-boxed movie would be -- are the riffers, filmed from a more head-on view than they would appear to the live audience. It's a little hard to describe, but works perfectly on DVD.
For all the benefits of watching these Titans of comedy perform live, there is something disconcerting about being able to actually see them do it. Mystery Science Theater 3000 had its movie seat silhouettes, and the Cinematic Titanic releases have the flanking platforms where the blacked-out performers sit. Since they need to be able to read their lines onstage, the comedians are well-lit throughout the live performance. It's fun to watch them laugh at the jokes and interact with each other and the audience, but seeing them flip pages of the script they're all carefully following makes the whole thing feel less spontaneous. Their past releases are just as scripted, of course, but they could hide it. Here, it's out in the open -- the curtain pulled back on the magic-makers; the casing stripped off of the sausage. On the other hand, this live performance is more intimate than the episodes proper. There's no chance for them to go back and rerecord flubbed lines, and there are a few. Like all great performances, the risk of failure makes their success even sweeter, and the added bonus of hearing the crowd respond so strongly makes it feel like you're watching The Alien Factor with one hundred of your closest friends. When's the last time that happened?
The only problem with these Cinematic Titanic releases is that the presentation doesn't match the quality of the writing. Even on this latest release, the opening menu screen is pixilated and about as basic as you can get. The movie and the live footage look fine, but you can tell that this has been made by people who are did it without big studio money. That's not a complaint, though. It's a reminder that Cinematic Titanic is an artist owned and operated project, and all sales of these DVDs go right to the people who make them. That's a good thing. If you want future releases to look better -- and have more bonus features than previews and trailers -- invest in their current catalog. If The Alien Factor is any indication, it's going to be smooth sailing ahead for the crew of this Titanic...Too soon?
What's the judicial equivalent of a standing ovation? Oh, yeah: Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinematic Titanic
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site