It could be the plot to some cheesy sci-fi movie that Mike and the ‘bots would make fun of on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — two identical alternate universe, one where everything is happy and cheery, the other where we see those exact same events through a much darker and more sinister lens.
Those two universes, as it happens, are the two “making-of” featurettes that appear on the Shout! Factory DVD/Blu-ray release of “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie,” which just came out this week after a long, long wait from fans. Taken together, the extras provide an instructive lesson in dabbling with potent forces of evil — in this case, a major motion picture studio.
The movie came out in 1996, somewhat bridging the gap between the cult TV show’s Comedy Central and Sci-Fi Channel years. Universal Pictures thought they could turn the TV show into a cheap but profitable franchise for themselves, while the creators of the show thought that successful live “riffs” of the show before audiences proved that it could work in a group theater setting.
The first featurette, released at the time of the film’s release, shows a Satellite of Love crew happily working on the film. The second, made for this Blu-ray release, delves into the constant struggle that the MSTies had with Universal executives to make the film. Having signed onto the film, Universal insisted on having input into seemingly every decision, including approving or vetoing individual jokes (a Bootsy Collins reference was changed, bizarrely, to a Leona Helmsley reference) and test-screening rough drafts of the film to death. (It’s grimly ironic that the movie trailer touts that the MST3K crew “can make jokes without a censor” in the film, since the meddling from Universal was much more pervasive than anything the show had gotten from Comedy Central or Sci-Fi.)
Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy, along with showrunner (and UW-Madison grad) Jim Mallon, complain openly about the arduous process, and it’s clear that they regard the finished product as a compromised thing. “The joy of doing this was strained terribly through this odd, arbitrary process.” Mallon said.
That said, the movie itself comes off, as Murphy puts it, as a “better-than-average” episode of the TV show, with significantly better production values given to the host segments, which were shot on a much bigger studio space. The movie that the guys riff on, “This Island Earth,” is actually a pretty good scifi movie, and overall the image pops on Blu-ray in a way most episodes of the TV show just wouldn’t. The release also includes deleted scenes (axed by the studio, naturally) and you get a taste of the cover version of the MST3K theme song done for the movie by Dave Alvin.
In the end, I’ll bet the experience of making the movie was so painful for Mike and the gang that I doubt they’ll ever pop in a copy of the Blu-ray release. But for fans, its an essential part of the collection, and a surprisingly revealing look at the hazards of letting outsiders into your strange little world in the hopes of achieving mainstream success. Better to stay on your own Satellite of Love, unreachable by the mad scientists down below, doing it on your own terms.