How an actually good movie got marooned in the cheesy world of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”

marooned

A movie directed by the guy who made “The Magnificent Seven,” featuring the stars of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The French Connection.”

Doesn’t sound like standard fodder for Joel and the ‘bots, does it?

And yet “Mystery Science Theater 3000” somehow found itself riffing on 1969’s “Marooned” in a strange and memorable episode from the original cult series. Because of its pedigree, I assumed Shout! Factory would never get the rights to release the episode on DVD. But it’s part of the latest 4-DVD release, “Vol. XXXII.”

Now “Marooned” is by no means a great movie. But it is the sort of movie that will suck you in on a Saturday afternoon watching TCM or TBS, an old-fashioned pressure cooker of a drama. Three astronauts (Gene Hackman, James Franciscus and Richard Crenna) are about to head back to earth after months in space, only to find their retro rockets won’t fire. Back on Earth, Mission Control chief Gregory Peck has to figure out how to rescue the crew before their oxygen supply runs out. Oh, and there’s a hurricane bearing down on Mission Control.

“Marooned” is definitely slow-paced at times — this is no “Gravity” — but it does build suspense, has solid visual effects for the era (it won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, making it the only Oscar winner get MST-ified) and strong performances, especially Hackman as the unhinged astronaut with a bad case of space fever. In other words, it’s not the sort of movie you expect to see on a basic-cable show that makes fun of “Gamera” movies.

But, as an accompanying documentary on the DVD explains, “Marooned” somehow got swept up amid a glut of bad movies with unsure copyright status that were bought up by a company called Film Ventures International. Looking to make a fast buck, the company would buy the films for next to nothing, retitle them, stick cheesy new opening titles on them and sell them super-cheap to TV stations for syndication. (It was Film Ventures who turned a European “Alien” ripoff into one of “MST3K”s all-time classics, “Pod People.”)

Somehow, Film Ventures got its hands on “Marooned,” gave it the generic name “Space Travelers” and shoved it out the door for next to nothing. Which is how “MST3K” somehow ended up getting the rights to make fun of it.

What’s interesting about the episode is the clear discomfort that Joel and the robots exude in poking fun at the movie. In fact, one of the running gags in the movie is how good Hackman is it (“Gene Hackman’s even good in this scene!” Tom Servo exclaims when the screen shows an exterior shot of the rocket.) During his introduction on the DVD, “TV’s Frank” Frank Conniff confesses that he never quite felt good about sullying what was a pretty decent movie.

The other movies in the “Vol. XXXII” set are much more standard “MST3K” fare, including the original “Hercules,” a corny ’70s TV movie called “San Francisco International,” and a boring ’50s crime movie called “Radar Secret Service.” Nobody will have qualms about mocking those.

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