“IDIOT CONTROL NOW”: THE FILMS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 – THE GAUNTLET

Following a triumphant return in 2017, MST3K is back for another go-round on streaming service Netflix, and this time, they’ve bowed to the expectations of an audience that is keen to binge-watch. Season 12 is a tight six episodes, and the show’s already thin plot has been tweaked to explain that Jonah, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot––and you—are going to be subjected to this latest series of world-shattering bad movie experiments in a row, force-fed in one continuous orgy of cinematic incompetence.

Still from "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet" (2018)

This doesn’t technically matter as concerns the real heart of the series: bad movies being riffed. But it is significant because the format has encouraged the producers to select movies that will speak to the greatest number of subscribers: they’re newer, they’re genre, and—unfortunately for us here in the land of weird movies—they’re pretty easy to digest. In the campaign to make the show a success, it feels like some of the inherent weirdness has been bleached out.

Mind you, they haven’t skimped on the awfulness. Our season kicks off with one of the most notorious bad movies of recent vintage: the blatant E.T. ripoff/unsubtle McDonald’s promotional cash-grab Mac and Me (1988). Unlike a lot of copycats, you can really feel the stress of trying to hit all of the original’s story beats while trying to heighten them for maximum payoff. Lonely fatherless child? Let’s put him in a wheelchair. Everyone loved E.T. dressed as a ghost? Wait till they see MAC in a bear costume leading a full-on dance number. Oh, and that other film moved truckloads of Reese’s Pieces? Think how much Coke we’re gonna sell. What makes Mac and Me weirdest are the gallons of flopsweat being generated by filmmakers who are desperate to surprise you into forgetting about the vastly superior predecessor. It’s a feature-length version of Daffy Duck’s ultimate trick.

If there is a more mercenary approach to filmmaking than the one exhibited by Mac and Me, it lives and thrives at The Asylum, and their ticket to the party is MST3K’s newest subject ever, Atlantic Rim (2013). A half-hearted riff on Pacific Rim with roughly a thousandth of that film’s special effects budget, the movie isn’t so much strange as it is sad. Like most Asylum mockbusters, it’s a con job designed to fool people who can’t quite remember all two words of the title of the movie they want to see, and as such isn’t really worthy of this show’s attention. The film goes through the motions while trying to show as little action as possible. Most of the fun to be had comes in the form of a gleefully cast-against-type Graham Greene, chewing scenery in a way he knows he’s unlikely to come by again.

Lords of the Deep (1989) is another movie hoping to piggyback on another film’s ambition (in this case, The Abyss), but hampered by what it can’t afford to show. There’s some entertaining sniping amongst the crew of an overworked underwater base, and star Priscilla Barnes’ interaction with strange ocean-dwelling creatures takes the form of trippy drug-like scenes that come as a surprise. Throw in a comically obvious villain, a body count that rises and falls, and a stilted distaff version of HAL 9000 and you get a movie that’s pleasantly odd, but not especially high on the WTF meter.

If Season 12 comes anywhere close to weirdness, it’s thanks to The Day Time Ended (1979), in which a family out west finds their new home is the nucleus of a dimensional intersection, leading to multiple alien contacts and giant monster battles. More than any other movie this season, The Day Time Ended benefits from not really being like anything else you’ve seen. A little bit of Close Encounters, perhaps, but with so many other plots and sci-fi elements thrown in (to say nothing of horses) to make the whole thing a great big B-movie bouillabaisse. Bearing, as it does, the imprimatur of -aspirant Charles Band, it’s all rendered in low-budget, goofy ways, but there’s a charm to the ramshackle nature of the production, so much so that even the Bots call out some of the more fun moments. Time doesn’t really end in The Day Time Ended, but the conviction of its forced happy finale does the job nicely.

This episode also features the return of the revived MST3K’s greatest hidden weapon: Paul & Storm. The comic songwriters who scored an immediate smash in the previous season with their global kaiju tribute “Every Country Has a Monster” return several times this season, including once inside the theater as well as a parody of their own previous success, mocking the futile nature of any attempt to catch “Every Country’s” lightning in a bottle a second time. But then they go and do the damn thing for real with their Music Man pastiche “Concepts”, which justifies every off-the-wall moment in The Day Time Ended as a piece of scriptwriting brilliance.

Killer Fish (1979) has a lot of what we look for in an MST3K experiment: a big dumb hero, a deadly-if-not-outwardly-intimidating threat, and a whole lot of pointless plot getting in the way of those two things meeting up. If anything, Killer Fish is too aware of itself, with the dim-bulb model, the comic relief fey photographer, and the amusingly low-stakes evil of villain James MacArthur. This is another movie that ends with a late plot twist that rolls eyes more than it blows minds.

The season wraps up with a return to glories past. Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982) reintroduces us to the hero of one of the series’ first incarnation’s biggest hits: the sword-and-sorcery goof Cave Dwellers. This time around, the filmmakers are trying to get in on some of that sweet Conan the Barbarian loot, and a charmingly low-budget sword-and-sorcery lark ensues. But it suffers not only in comparison to better movies, but even to its terrible sequel, which manages to up the crazy with out-of-left-field references to atomic power and hang-gliding.

It’s a completely suitable set of films, and the crew remains as funny as ever. Everyone feels more comfortable in their roles and the writing staff takes it a little easier with the joke ratio. But there’s a weird sameness to the season’s films. All color, all relatively recent, all from traditional genres for bad films. (What’s a nontraditional genre for bad films? Try Hamlet.) And most of them trying to steal some of the glory shining upon other films, but lacking the skill, budget, or desire to reach similar heights. “The Gauntlet” is never anything but entertaining, but there’s none of the joy of a surprise discovery or a nugget of weirdness brought into the sunshine.

In reviewing the roster of the previous season, I made a fateful prediction: “Perhaps a Season 12 will give the producers room to expand the scope of movies selected. Jonah and the ‘Bots staff seem well-armed for the challenge.” Didn’t happen that way. “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet” retrenched, leaning more on films like Starcrash and less on curiosities like Carnival Magic. As a fan of these funny riffers, I hope their gamble works and Netflix rewards them with additional seasons; I’ll be back for more. But as an aficionado of the cinematically surreal, et al, I’m crossing my fingers for a looser leash. There’s gold out there. Joyfully incompetent, mind-blowingly unconventional, very weird gold, just waiting to be found. And mocked.

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