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"MST3K: The Movie' launches into orbit

Published Apr. 19, 1996|Updated Sep. 15, 2005

(ran GB edition)

If the acronym MST3K doesn't ring a bell, then you might not be aware of a couple of important facts: 1) the funniest show on TV comes from Minnesota, and 2) it has been canceled.

But serious fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the very hip, very smart spoof of the worst movies Hollywood ever made, are no doubt already lining up for the show's jump to the big screen this month with the aptly titled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. Cable's Comedy Central may have booted this cult favorite off the air after seven seasons, but the show's creative team is undaunted and ready to take a crack at the American box office. Good news for loyal viewers from Minneapolis to Micronesia.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a brilliantly simple idea: a hapless earthling, Mike Nelson, and his two robot companions, Tom Servo and Crow, are marooned on a space station by a mad scientist and forced to endure truly awful movies. The bulk of each episode consists of screenings of such grade-Z flicks as Attack of the Eye Creatures and Teen Age Crime Wave while our heroes sit silhouetted in the corner, hurling insults and wisecracks at the lamentable celluloid. It's the ultimate fantasy of anyone forced to watch a bad movie: talking back to the screen. And it's very, very funny. Dipping into the bottomless grab bag of American pop culture, Mike and his pals crack literally hundreds of jokes per show. In a typical episode, featuring a skewering of the cloddish beefcake epic Hercules, the references flew fast and furious: Clay Shaw, The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet, Heathers, Fellini, The World According to Garp, Andrea Dworkin, Irish Spring, Sophocles and the Bataan death march . . . on and on for two hours.

Such a hip, knowing embrace of esoterica makes MST3K a must-see for college students, but the show's fan range is surprising. "The Vice President is a fan," says Trace Beaulieu, a member of the show's writing team and the voice of Crow (he also plays mad scientist Dr. Forrester). "Al Gore watches it with his kids. He's mentioned it a couple times in reference to the V-chip. Apparently, he doesn't think we're too violent." Unless you count all the savagely sharp one-liners.

"Steven Spielberg watches it," adds Jim Mallon, co-creator of the show and director and producer of the movie. "Also, the show is taped religiously and sent all over the world. During the Gulf War we got letters from soldiers on ships. It became very popular while they were waiting for things to happen. We like to think we did our small part for the war effort."

The move from the small screen to feature films seemed a logical leap. "The premise of the film," Mallon says, "is that the more people you get to watch it, the funnier it is. Hence, a movie theater." The film follows the same format as the cable show. Mallon and friends have chosen a wonderfully cheesy '50s sci-fi epic, This Island Earth, as their target. The story, about scientists shanghaied by aliens to defend their planet, has all the right elements. "It has rubber-suited monsters," Mallon says. "That's always a plus." The film is also just plain unbelievable: "The aliens in This Island Earth have foreheads that are 6 inches higher than ours, yet no one in the movie seems to notice. That's just wonderful." And, Beaulieu adds, "It's got Russell Johnson, who played the Professor on Gilligan's Island. Any time you can reference something else the actors have done, you create an immediate bond with viewers who recognize them."

By the time of MST3K's final cable season last year, it had an estimated weekly audience of 250,000. That's good enough for cult status, but the big question is whether MST3K can attract enough new viewers to make the film a hit. Although the budget of just over $2-million is minuscule by Hollywood feature film standards _ "That's about Kevin Costner's allowance for cologne," Beaulieu cracks _ the film is still seen as a risk by movie moneymen who, by nature, don't see semi-obscure cable shows as potential gold mines. But when movie executives paid a visit to the first MST3K convention in 1994, they were impressed with the show's loyal following. Gramercy Pictures is backing the big-screen release.

Making the film required some adjustments. "Comedy Central executives would rarely travel to our set," Mallon says. "Maybe due to the fact that it gets really cold in Minnesota in the winter. But when you take millions of dollars from someone in Hollywood to make a movie, well, it turns out they want to keep tabs on it."

"Gramercy assigned not one but two executives to us," Beaulieu says, "and all of a sudden we found them in the middle of our writing room."

Inhibiting perhaps, but not too surprising given that few on the MST3K crew had any experience with actual filmmaking.

"At the beginning it was weird," Mallon says. "We had our own internal rhythms and checks and balances. But the executives brought some good ideas to the table." The MST3K crew says they understood why certain changes had to be made. "We've got a core audience that responds to those real arcane and esoteric references we use," Beaulieu says, "and now we need to take it to a larger audience."

"With the movie, we've only got one chance," Mallon notes. "We can't think, If they don't like the first one, just wait until the next one."

But crucial elements of the show were deemed untouchable by its creators, which is why an earlier attempt to make the film with Paramount fell through. "If they didn't like Trace's rendition of Crow," says Mallon, "they wanted to be able to bring in Dan Aykroyd or some such actor to play him. This made no sense to us, so we said no. People thought we were nuts. But we knew we couldn't compromise like that or alienate the core audience."

The recent cancellation of the cable show by Comedy Central surprised many TV critics _ and obviously disappointed its fans, given MST3K's steadily growing profile. "It's sort of like being dumped by a girl you never really liked to begin with," Mallon says. "We always had kind of a rough road with those guys. They never really got us." Mallon plans to shop the show around to other networks. "The Sci-Fi Channel would be an obvious home. We haven't had a paycheck since December, and it'd be really nice to get one."

In the meantime, MST3K hopes to establish a lucrative orbit around the U.S. box office. If the movie is a hit, say its creators, they might do a film a year. And if the big money comes in, they hope to get a shot at a higher caliber of films to have their way with. "There are dream films we'd love to do," Mallon says. "We see 'em all the time. That Robert Redford-Demi Moore film Indecent Proposal . . . We came close with a John Travolta-Lily Tomlin vehicle, Moment by Moment. Just godawful. But we lost it at the last minute."

"It'd be nice to get a Star Trek V or a Highlander 2," Beaulieu muses.

"The great thing about having made this movie," Mallon says, "is that now Hollywood trusts us with a camera and film. There's still enough Midwesterner in us to be amazed at what's happened."

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