NEW YORK — The screen fills with a slowly spinning globe, suspended beneath a sky that's cloudless everywhere in sight. Too cloudless to be believed? "This is the best weather Earth's ever had!" mumbles a skeptical voice on the soundtrack.
Then the logo of a classic Hollywood production company materializes over the planet - Universal International Pictures - and another voice chimes in. "Doesn't being universal make it international?"
Something strange is going on here, but connoisseurs of the cable-television scene will recognize it in a flash. "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie" has arrived in multiplexes everywhere, bringing moviegoers a megadose of the proudly cheap thrills that living-room viewers have been enjoying since 1988.
That's the year when MST3K made its TV debut, dreamed up by two Minneapolis movie mavens who'd found yet another way of packaging old Hollywood pictures for a new generation of couch potatoes. Their inspiration was to add a gaggle of on-screen spectators who make irreverent jokes, puns, and wisecracks that are often more entertaining than the movie itself.
The theatrical version of MST3K is identical to its TV cousin except for the size of the screen. The preposterous premise of the peanut-sized plot is that a mad scientist named Dr. Forrester has kidnapped an earthling named Mike Nelson and imprisoned him on a rather cheesy space station. Forrester's purpose is to test his plan for world domination via a particularly insidious weapon: campy old movies, which Mike is forced to watch in marathon viewing sessions with some robots who also happen to be on board.
This is slim stuff, even by the notoriously low standards of slacker-style cable programming. As someone who loves many archaic Hollywood films, I've always turned up my nose at MST3K, since it fosters the unfortunate habit of mocking movies not because they're bad but just because they're old.
I'm especially miffed at the theatrical edition for aiming its smart-alecky remarks at "This Island Earth," a nifty science-fiction epic about a nuclear scientist spirited to a dying world that needs his expertise to save itself from extinction. Made in 1955 and still available on video, it's a splendid specimen of the speedy, unassuming entertainment that parents of today's MST3K fans cheerfully grew up on.
Then again, we made smart-alecky comments of our own back in the '50s, and sometimes we even watched the MST3K equivalents of that bygone era - such as the late-night moviefest presided over by Zacherley, a TV host as horror-comic silly as Dr. Forrester could ever hope to be.
Now that I'm a grumpy old critic, I'd prefer audiences to watch fantasy classics like "This Island Earth" with the respect due to any picture that still looks halfway decent after more than four decades. I'm also peeved with MST3K for trimming the picture by about 20 minutes, so it isn't even the genuine movie that's being heckled. I have to admit the MST3K guys are pretty funny in their way, though, and I'd like to think that enough of the old movie's quality shines through to encourage more thoughtful viewings after the current version has worn out its welcome.
MST3K:TM was directed by Jim Mallon, an originator of the TV series, from a screenplay he wrote with no fewer than six partners. Not all their gags strike pay dirt, and parents may wish they'd toned down their off-color innuendoes enough to merit a rating more kid-friendly than PG-13.
Still, the show provides a prodigious number of giggles, and it's so short (well under 90 minutes) that you'll have plenty of time to rent the original "This Island Earth" and test out wisecracks of your own. MST3K has drawbacks, but it isn't as if the gang aimed its irreverence at "Citizen Kane," which would be going too far. I mean, that would be outrageous, right? Come to think of it....
* 'Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie' has a PG-13 rating. It contains vulgar jokes and sexual references.