In the years leading up to The Simpsons Movie, it was said repeatedly that the writers were apparently saving up all their best jokes for the film, leaving the TV series to languish in apparent disrepair. The truth of that theory is entirely subjective, but if it makes people feel better about the relative quality of either, que sera. What comfort can come from a feature-film spinoff that was produced while the creators were truly hitting their stride on the TV side but wilts and dies on the silver screen? In the case of Mystery Science Theater 3000, perhaps the act of putting the show’s hot-glued and duct-taped scenario—a man is forcibly marooned in space and submitted to a never-ending string of bad movies by mad scientists, which he gets through by cracking wise with his two robot pals—back in a movie theater setting just added one too many layers of meta to the entire postmodern enterprise. After all, hadn’t Joel Robinson (and, later, Mike Nelson) and the ‘bots already spent six seasons making a comedic case for the idea that basically anything up there on the big screen is worthy of being taken down a notch with a few well-placed pop-culture references and panicky reactions to anything vaguely resembling male-on-male skin contact?
That said, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie doesn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with many episodes of the TV show when viewed on home video. It’s not so much that the movie “experiment” here, This Island Earth, is too good a film to get the MST3K treatment, which more than a few critics cited at the time when trying to figure out how the dependably consistent show couldn’t make the transition. It’s simply the fact that the format depends quite fundamentally on the push-pull relationship between theatrical and home video viewing, between communal experience and private enjoyment. The dud jokes (and there always were plenty of those even in the show’s best episodes) almost leaven the whole on TV. In the theater, whenever Mike, Crow or Tom Servo flub a punchline or resort to a fart joke, you almost want to lean forward and shush them. And it’s unfortunate that it served as perhaps the only exposure to the MST3K universe seen by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Chris Fujiwara or any of the other people who take film art too seriously and apparently think that if you insult the least movie, you insult movies in their entirety.