Cinematic Titanic // 2009 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // May 7th, 2010
"Careful navigating by the stars this time of year. You'll end up in Bethlehem."
There is an epidemic sweeping through Hollywood. Frenzied studio heads, devoid of fresh ideas and afraid of sinking millions into unproven franchises, are greenlighting remakes of old movies and television shows. News pops up daily about the latest ingenues cast as characters that were last popular decades before they were born. Although they make money at the box office, most movie fans agree that remakes are bad for the art form and the industry. But what if that didn't have to be the case? What if someone came up with a way to make an old movie new and exciting? And what if they wrapped it in bright, shiny paper and slapped on a big red bow? Sounds pretty good, right? Well, if those "someones" were the folks at Cinematic Titanic and that movie was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, it would be very good indeed. You might even call it the greatest gift of all. Of course, you'd have to be both blasphemous and given to hyperbole.
Hyperbole and blasphemy aside, Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is both a bizarre experiment and a huge success. For their fifth straight-to-DVD episode, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein (a.k.a. the "Titans" of Cinematic Titanic) decided to tackle a sacred cow of their own making. The Santa Claus Conquers the Martians episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 stands as not only a fan-favorite, but is thought of so highly by its creators that it is one of the two episodes on a DVD set called simply "The Essentials." It was certainly one of my favorite episodes. I practically wore out the heads on my VCR playing it over and over -- and not just at Christmastime. It's one of the few episodes where the host segments are as solid as the movie riffing, and is the episode I'd recommend to anyone who's never seen the show before.
When I heard that Cinematic Titanic were planning to re-riff Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, my first response was "great!" After all, it's not like the reins had been handed over to some other comedy troupe. These are (a lot of) the same people who made the MST3K version so awesome, and, as their other Cinematic Titanic releases have shown, they are just as sharp now as they were then. Why not go back and take another stab at a movie -- especially a movie as dripping with cheesy awfulness as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians?
There's something sublimely off-kilter about watching the Cinematic Titanic crew tackle this holiday classic. The movie is the same, but the jokes are different. They make fun of the plot, the costumes, and, of course, the low-budget special effects. Frank marvels that a Christmas movie wouldn't be able to get enough Christmas lights to make a starfield for the Martian spaceship to fly across, and when the guy-in-a-suit polar bear shows up to terrorize Billy and Betty, he asks why the Minneapolis North High mascot won't leave them alone.
Showing just how much the pop culture landscape has changed in the last 18 years, the Titans drop a ton of post-'90s references. The make jokes about Lipitor, Google Earth, Jar Jar Binks, digital converter boxes, the Patriot Act, Dane Cook, "Don't taze me bro!," and Harry Potter. When the ancient Martian oracle Chochem appears in a puff of smoke, Trace says: "If you haven't seen Dumbledore's cabaret show, you're in for a treat!"
There are other updates as well. J. Elvis not only gets his first shot at riffing this movie (having left MST3K two seasons before the episode was made), he also brings a much-needed Jewish perspective to the unified Christmas front. Perhaps the biggest change from the Mystery Science Theater version, though, is that the Titans actually show the entire movie. To fit within MST3K's 90 minute format, whole scenes were cut out to save time. The excised scenes were mostly exposition, but having them in place makes a ridiculous story slightly easier to follow.
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode had classic host segment bits like the Mads' "Wish Squisher," the bots leafing through holiday gift catalogs, and Crow's "A Patrick Swayze Christmas" carol. Cinematic Titanic doesn't get caught up in the glitz so common in holiday specials. They stick to the same austere formula as their other releases. The opening walk down to the theater runs a little bit longer than the others -- to make time for Trace to run away when he finds out what movie they're watching, and for J. Elvis to gloat about never having watched it before -- but that's it. The lone movie-pausing sketch is a funny bit about Joel giving his pals expensive gifts that may or may not be real. Otherwise, it's all riffs all the time. You know what? That works just fine for me. The Titans are clearly about making fun of bad movies, whether those movies happen to be about vampires, mad scientists, or aliens kidnapping beloved symbols of childhood.
Like their other releases, Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians looks nice and clean. Well, the silhouettes and wrap-around graphics do anyway. The movie print looks suitably awful, but that's part of the fun. In case you were wondering, there are no extras.
My fur-lined red hat is off to the Titans of Cinematic Titanic. By deciding to revisit one of the high-points of their early careers, they invited fans to make comparisons, knowing full well they might not be favorable. Instead of crashing and burning, or coming off as has-beens, their take on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians proves that Trace, Frank, Joel, Mary Jo, and J. Elvis are as funny as ever. This might be the perfect way to introduce lapsed MST3K fans to Cinematic Titanic, but the Christmas miracle here is that the Titans have made the movie their own. Again.
Put down the lump of coal, buddy. This movie's not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinematic Titanic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site