Judge Mike Rubino would like to be put on a satellite and forced to watch MST3K episodes.
Crow: Hey, it's Jean-Claude Van Damme!
It's hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the dawn of Mystery Science Theater 3000. That modest show gave credence and respect to the art of movie riffing—something that was previously annoying to most folks but is now considered a great social talent. Well, after years of expensive and elusive DVD sets released by Rhino Entertainment, MST3K gets a fresh and honorable treatment from its new masters, Shout! Factory, in this special 20th anniversary edition.
Facts of the Case
The setup of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), for the uninitiated, is pretty simple: a guy trapped on a spaceship is forced to watch crappy movies. He builds some pithy robots, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, and together they riff on the movies. It's a simple premise born on a Minneapolis public access station and nurtured into ten seasons, hundreds of episodes, and a very devoted cult following. Throughout its life, the cast, back story, and network changed, but one aspect of the show remained constant: it was freaking funny.
This latest collection features four MST3K episodes:
Hyperbolically speaking, no matter which way you slice it, MST3K is an indelible part of pop culture and one of mankind's highest achievements in humor this side of Swift's A Modest Proposal. Everyone makes fun of movies, but the show's sequential hosts, Joel Hodgson and Michael J. Nelson, make it a crazed art form by amalgamating insanely precise references, well-timed observations, and hot-glued robots.
One of the most impressive aspects of the show is its broad sense of humor—it's not just a bunch of dorky movie references. The writers of the show pack in so many one-liners and jokes, both observational and esoteric, that it's hard to not find something to laugh at. And then, after you think you've figured out every joke they could tell, the writers crack wise about the very thing you happen to be thinking of, creating a connection that draws you into their world. You're not just watching a television show, you're participating in it, and that's one of the big reasons why this show lasted for ten years.
The four episodes contained within are classic in their execution and style. For the newcomer, this is a good set to start with—mainly because the other ones aren't so easy to get a hold of. Shout! Factory assembled three Michael J. Nelson episodes (which come from the latter half of the series' run) and one Joel Hodgson episode (taken from the second season). Fans of the show like to argue about which host is better, but, for me, that's like arguing over French vanilla and vanilla bean ice cream—they're both great with sprinkles! In this set, however, Nelson walks away with the better episodes.
First Spaceship on Venus is the earliest episode of the bunch, and, sadly, the least funny. The movie itself is a German/Polish space adventure from 1960 involving some scientists who travel to Venus. The movie is the classic sort of cheese that fits the MST3k mold—it reminded me a lot of This Island Earth, which was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie—but the jokes don't come frequent enough. What's there is certainly funny, especially when the astronauts finally make it to Venus and run into all that Venusian slime. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a show that was constantly growing and finding its voice—oftentimes in different places depending on the host, network, and film of the day—so it's understandable that an early episode may not be up to snuff when placed against some of the later stuff. On its own, the episode isn't bad, it's just not nearly as strong as the other three included on the set.
Laserblast, featuring Michael J. Nelson, was the last episode of MST3K to air on Comedy Central. The movie is hysterically awful, featuring claymation aliens, pot smoking cops, and an idiot running around with a laser that looks like it was made from a CD player and a Pringles can. It also features the debut of that iconic twerp Eddie Deezen (Grease) and an extended cameo from Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes). Adding further to the humor is the oft-repeated fact that Leonard Maltin gave the movie two and a half stars in his movie guide. During the end credits, Crow, Servo, and Nelson read off a list of other movies that share the same rating from Maltin's book, including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Unforgiven.
Werewolf (pronounced "wahr-wilf!") is a classic from Season Nine. The film has something to do with werewolf bones being unearthed in Arizona and Joe Estevez wandering around for the first half hour or so of the movie screaming at people. The film's major characters have strange European accents, the villain's haircut changes every scene, and the werewolf itself looks like a hand puppet tacked on to a gorilla suit. To top it off, the film features an uncanny scene in which the director uses a blue filter over the camera to suggest that it's nighttime—despite the fact that the sun is shining right in the actors' faces. This episode, along with the next one in the set, ranks as one of the best of the Mike Nelson years, if not the entire series.
Future War, from the show's final season, has the distinction of being the most recently released film to be featured on the show—the movie came out in 1997 and was riffed to death in 1999. A human slave from Earth's future is chased back in time by some dinosaurs and a mullet-sporting cyborg. Thankfully, a nun-in-training and some local drug dealers come to his aid and fight back the evils of forced-perspective dinos. Mike and the Bots are in full effect here, calling on the show's ten years of experience to thoroughly skewer this steaming pile. I can't believe this movie was made, but I'm sure glad MST3K was around to make fun of it.
Needless to say, this is another incredible MST3K release. In terms of episode selection, it's perhaps better than most. Of course, everyone's got their favorites, but getting three top-notch episodes in a box is remarkable. Shout! Factory presents these episodes in a way that not only props them up for the fans, but also introduces this series to a new generation.
All four episodes come in their own slimline cases complete with cool new artwork for each episode. The DVD menus also echo the look and feel of the movies featured in the episode. The actual episodes themselves look decent, with the host segments coming in crisp and colorful. You can't expect much from the actual movies, however, which look horrendous. The sound is all basic stereo, essentially what you'd expect from a '90s television show.
This set comes with a notable dollop of special features, including an "oral history" of MST3K. The documentary runs over 80 minutes and features interviews with pretty much everyone involved with the show over its 10 years. While it's an incredibly interesting story, there were almost too many talking heads and not enough footage from the show. The documentary is broken up into three parts across the First Spaceship, Laserblast, and Werewolf discs. On the Future War disc is a video from the 2008 San Diego Comic Con Reunion Panel. The discussion features all of the major players from MST3K and is hosted by comedian Patton Oswald. It's a fairly entertaining panel, despite covering much of what's discussed in the documentary, although not as cool as it could have been due to some sporadic audio issues. Also included on the disc is a little feature called "Variations on a Theme Song," which runs through all of the theme songs over the years. Finally, each disc contains the original trailer for the featured movie.
The Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition was also released a month ago as a "Collector's Edition." The DVDs are the same in each set, but the fancy edition comes with a Crow T. Robot toy, postcards, and a tin to hold everything.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition is a great first release by Shout! Factory that more than carries the torch lit by Rhino Entertainment. The selections for the set are great, even if the lone Joel episode is a tad weak, because even a weak MST3K episode is better than none. I really appreciated the attention to detail that Shout! gave to the release, especially in the individualized packaging. Now perhaps it's about time to start including more than just four episodes per release, huh?
If you're a MSTie from way back, you've already picked up the collector's edition or plan on getting this one. But if you've been on the fence about whether or not to check out this series, Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition is a great place to start.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• "The History of MST3K"
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