"Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie," which opens today at the Charles, is about a third as funny as it thinks it is. Still, that's pretty funny and about twice as funny as most American comedies these days.
In fact, it's four times funnier than "The American President" and nine times funnier than "Dunston Checks In."
The gimmick, if you have an actual life and don't watch Comedy Central on cable, is that a bunch of wacky guys send up a hopelessly dated, pathetic old sci-fi movie, like "The Brain that Wouldn't Die" or "Teen-agers From Outer Space."
The concept originated among some media hipsters in Minnesota who rapidly proved too cool for a prairie state with all that snow and so many deer hunters, you betcha, and expanded their empire to New York. Reaching a national audience via Comedy Central, they've been building a fan base since 1989. This is their first foray into the features.
The gag takes much too long to set up. It involves characters evidently familiar from the televised outings but somewhat exaggerated for the big screen: mad scientist Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), who wants to take over the Earth by subjecting it to bad movies. Yeah, right. If that were possible, someone like Ronald Reagan would have ended up as president!
He has started by ordering captive orbiting-astronaut Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) and his two chipper robot-pals (voiced by director Jim Mallon and Kevin Wagner Murphyto watch one.
Getting this cumbersome apparatus in place seems to take lame hours. And the point is, finally, to put us in a theater in which A) a really bad movie is screened and B) in the front row, three really funny comics comment on the action and the dialogue.
In this case, the film the MST3Kers have chosen is Joseph Newman's 1956 "This Island Earth," which, particularly when subjected to the MST3K-treatment, seems achingly inane.
Still, I remembered it with some nostalgia, and it has its backers. "Halliwell's Film Guide," for example, judges it "absorbing science fiction with splendid special effects and only one mutant monster to liven up the last reels."
Of course, "splendid" by the standards of 1956 is almost unbearably tacky by the computer-driven, morph-crazed, liquid-metalized standards of today.
One generation's genius is another generation's reeking mega-Velveeta cheesiness, all of which goes to prove what these young men seem desperately intent on proving: Yes, they are smarter than their fathers.
So in the background of the new movie, the old movie unreels, with a beefcakey clone of Chuck Heston named Rex Reason (he has a voice that sounds like an FM DJ on testosterone injections) and a siren named Faith Domergue (she seems badly hung over) being kidnapped by alien Jeff Morrow.
Morrow is the movie's best toot: He has a prosthetic square forehead about a foot tall, sort of like a Conehead that stood under a light too long. But at the same time, he has distinguished silver hair and talks like Lew Ayers on the subject of war.
Anyhow, he takes Rex and Faith off to his planet, which looks like a button mounted on velvet. There, meteor bombs are blowing up the atmosphere and, I guess, Jor-El has already sent Superman to Earth. So it's too late, and everybody goes home.
End of story.
With its junky gizmos and dorky alien clothes and dialogue written by guys who had gotten no closer to outer space than a pickle from the other side of 42nd Street, it's pretty silly, even without the parody.
In fact, the real thing is frequently funnier by accident than the hipsters on purpose.
Generally, though, the boys up front are smart and merciless as they send up the idiotic tropes of ritualized '50s outer-space melodrama. That's particularly so of Reason's earnest statements and Morrow's Nobel Peace Prize-winning dignity.
Odd, though, that certain things are beyond their reach, and it's kind of a small victory for the old guys that the three smart-alecks finally just shut up and let "This Island Earth's" one stirring illusion work its still-clammy magic. That's the mutant.
He haunted the dreams of all us '50s boys, let me tell you. With a skull-less, bulbous, veiny pudding of raw, crinkly gray cerebellum over two red insectoid eyes, a muscular, definition-rich exo-skeleton that looked like Dennis Rodman on equine hormones, and two long arms that climaxed not in hands but in pincers that snap-snap-snapped through anything, he was the original Ed Scissorhands.
The movie, in its one wise decision, lets him approach poor Faith Domergue, who is magnetized to some kind of aperture and completely helpless, while frantic Rex Reason whines piteously in the background.
In the '50s, this was pure nightmare with an odd, evil sexual current to it, almost undiscussable then and nearly so now, but any boy who saw it had it haunt his virgin dreams for days, weeks or, as in my case, decades.
"Mystery Science Theater 3000" has the sense to keep its yap shut during this sequence, suggesting that the smart boys of the '90s still might be capable of learning a trick or two from the primitives of the '50s.
'Mystery Science Theater 3000'
Starring Trace Beaulieu, Michael J. Nelson
Directed by Jim Mallon
Released by Gramercy
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 5/10/96