The Enduring Legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000

Thoughts on the world a group of film geeks created as their flagship series returns on Netflix

This editorial original ran in April 2016. We’re reposting today as Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return debuts on Netflix. 

While 1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was hardly a financial hit when it came out (making only about a million dollars domestic), the big-screen adaptation of the beloved Midwestern cult comedy show was a sign that it had arrived, at least in some way, in the cultural discourse. The failure seems paradoxical at first glance: How did a show with such a devoted following fail to support its move to the big screen? While the main answer is certainly a lack of studio support from Universal, another important factor is the show’s intensely cult appeal: How do you market a big-screen adaptation of a show whose fans largely enjoyed it through the large-scale circulation of bootleg tapes for free? MST3k fans at the time were vocal, but few in number, and that same interest in the show didn’t quite translate into mainstream box office success.

Twenty years after that release, the DNA of MST3k can be found in just about every aspect of modern film criticism, particularly as it shifted to the Internet as its primary home. While Mystery Science Theater’s special brand of Midwestern obliqueness and snarky sass helped spawn a new generation of film critics, it’s also important to consider the ways in which such critics may have taken the wrong lessons from it.

While the film critics of the baby-boomer era were inspired by everything from Andrew Sarris to Cahiers du Cinema, ‘90s kids grew up learning how to watch and interpret film through the lens of Joel Hodgson (and later, Mike Nelson) and The Bots’ wry commentary as a prime educational source. Through their spot-on impressions, impeccably written satire, and goofy earnestness, the crew of the Satellite of Love heartily lampooned bad movie after bad movie and built a staunchly dedicated cult audience who used its jokes as their own kind of secret code to identify fellow devotees. It’s no surprise that MST3k is largely responsible for the “so-bad-it’s-good” cinema culture of today – without the phenomenon of hate-watching bad films, would we have three Sharknadoes? Would Tommy Wiseau have any money?

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Laughing at bad movies was obviously A Thing before MST3k came along, but the show offered an innovative template for that experience – a way to enjoy those bad movies that was accepted and even entertaining. The formula is simple: Mercilessly point out plot holes and bad special effects, shout out a pop-culture reference that fits what’s happening on screen, jokingly repeat silly lines from earlier in the film, rinse and repeat.

The ephemeral nature of MST3k’s humor worked well for its format. The jokes weren’t always referenda on the film itself; they were spur-of-the-moment gags that worked well with what you were seeing. The show’s writers and performers found that perfect balance between critiquing the film (e.g. Pumaman’s silly rear-projection flight scenes) and just throwing out an obscure pop-culture reference (e.g. repeating “fields of wheat” in a Woody Allen voice when a film shows, natch, a field of wheat), which is essential to MST3k’s genius.

However, in between the gut-busting yuks, young audiences were learning things about the medium of film and how to view/interpret it. Much like The Simpsons, MST3k cultivated a new kind of media literacy that allowed movie viewers to understand not just whether a film was good or bad, but why. When Mike pointed out a recycled shot in Space Mutiny featuring a woman who died in the previous scene, we learned about continuity errors. Their jabs at the prissy, shovel-chinned Nick Miller in Time Chasers taught us about what does and doesn’t work in a movie protagonist. The endless grunts of “Mitchell!” during their episode on the titular Joe Don Baker film pointed out the inherent ridiculousness of cheesy ‘70s theme songs. MST3k didn’t just make us laugh; it made us think, and our ability to read and interpret films grew as a result.

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However, as with insecure bros and Fight Club, some misinterpretation is to be expected. Thanks to the Internet, the democratization of media has made it so anyone with a website and some time on their hands can become a film critic. For many, the major source of inspiration (and film education) instilled upon them at a young age was and is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was always a comedy show before it was a film class.

Even in the vast, over-saturated field of Internet film criticism, there are some wonderful examples of film critics who use comedy well: Red Letter Media’s Half in the Bag and Best of the Worst, for instance, deftly manage to work a similarly Midwestern brand of cynicism and wit into their thoughtful rundowns of films both new and old. Even Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers are much less mean-spirited than they used to be and freely admit in their newer works that they like many of the movies they’re lampooning.

However, for every insightful Internet film critic inspired by MST3k, there’s a baker’s dozen of cheap hot-take websites and YouTube channels dedicated to smirking at the camera and cracking wise. Throw a rock around YouTube, and you’ll find a million channels that run too far with MST3k’s patented snark-based approach to film criticism. Applying the same holier-than-thou cynicism to AAA movies like Marvel flicks, action movies, and blockbusters (but hardly ever art house fare), the MST3k approach of thumbing one’s nose at a movie becomes a lot less charming when the targets are so well-known. Aside from the now-common bad-movie zeitgeist classics like Birdemic and The Room, bringing the same level of snide judgment to something like Interstellar feels like it misses the mark a bit and gives off the distinct impression that films can only be enjoyed through a thin filter of smug commentary.

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This is the downside of the impact of MST3k on Internet film discourse: For better or worse, it spawned a generation of people who see films as comedic targets first and as subjects for criticism second. Rather than engaging with a film on its own terms, critics of this ilk (we won’t name names, but come on) approach films as setups for their next joke and will often willfully misread said film in order to make it land. A quick scan through MST3k successor Rifftrax’s selection of fan-made riffs (many by those with their own YouTube film “review” channels) only confirm the rare, singular wit that Nelson, Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Bill Corbett, and the many other writers and actors brought to the table.

Where MST3k allowed for insightful observations and complicated jokes about their targets, many of the “iRiffs” feel self-congratulatory, coasting by on weak-sauce jokes and repeated gags they might have even learned from MST3k episodes themselves. Joel/Mike and the Bots worked tirelessly to craft smart, daring jokes, utilizing decades of history in stand-up and TV comedy writing (and their own singular wit) to actually do good comedy. Instead of going off and doing their own thing, some critics want to be Mike and the Bots.

As MST3k as a brand continues to expand and grow through outlets like Rifftrax, Cinematic Titanic, and the upcoming, Jonah Ray-hosted revival, the impact of the show on the world of online film criticism will continue to be felt. Luckily, it feels as though the 2000s-era culture of bitter, snarky film criticism is abating somewhat, with formerly characteristic outlets (the aforementioned Red Letter Media and Screen Junkies) aspiring to a new level of sophistication and discourse, so they don’t stagnate as one-joke yuksters. Hopefully, in the free market of ideas that the Internet brings to film criticism, the cream will continue to rise to the top. The series may have been too singular for a Hollywood studio release, but its legacy continues everywhere.


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