By Matthew E. Owen, Contributing Movie and TV Critic for SatelliteWerx.com
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is the continuation of the cult hit television series from the late 1980’s. Running for over 10 seasons, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a great success due to word of mouth and its niche appeal. Both MST3K and MST3K: The Return are unapologetic in their reference to all things nerd geek. Centered around poorly produced, acted, and directed B-movies, the cast riff and joke along as the films are played. It’s a classic formula of commentary, and it worked incredibly well in the late 80’s and 90’s. 18 years after the original show’s finale, does MST3K still hold up?
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Like most cult pop culture revivals, MST3K: The Return exists due to support from fans and prospective viewers. The reboot concept was pitched on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to great response, pulling over $5,000,000 from over 48,000 backers. With that kind of turn out, it’s no surprise that MST3K: The Return feels like a love letter to fans first and foremost.
The show’s actual plot is pretty thin, used mainly as a container for the cast to watch bad films. When a space research scientist named Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) receives a distress call from a nearby planet, he abandons his job at Gizmonic Institute to help. Unknowingly, Jonah falls into the hands of Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” (Patton Oswalt). Forrester and Frank aim to reintroduce her family experiment (aptly named “Mystery Science Theater 3000”), using Jonah as a unwilling participant.
In said experiment, Jonah is forced to watch a collection of B-Movies in an effort to drive him insane. To keep his sanity, Jonah makes fun of the films as he watches. He’s joined by robotic sidekicks Crow (Hampton Yout) and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), both of whom provide just as much witty and topical commentary. The entire film is broken up with additional segments throughout. These play out like talk show bits, with segments like “the invention exchange” being highlights. In these segments, Jonah and pals present an invention to Forrester and Frank, whom present their own in return. The inventions are often comical and irreverent, like a hot water gun that dissolves potential ship-wrecking icebergs.
The real bulk of the show are the films and the comedic commentary from Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo. Most of the fun of MST3K: The Return is experiencing these films fresh, with little to no context. Because of that, I’ll try not to spoil much. As far as a collection of films, MST3K: The Return does a good job including all types of genres. There’s a good mix of sci-fi, monster films, horror, and wacky adventures. Films span the 60’s to the late 80’s, with some of the mid-80’s films being stand outs. I particularly enjoyed Episode 2, Cry Wilderness, which sells itself as a family film featuring Bigfoot.
As far as the jokes and commentary go, things can be hit and miss. In the original series, Jonah and the gang would usually only quip out, playing things a bit more reserved. With the new season, I occasionally felt like they were talking a bit too much. There were times where a line of dialogue from the movie was lost under the joke, or every quiet moment in the film was occupied by an attempt at humor. Since a lot of the comedy is based on pop culture references, not every joke will land universally. While I found myself consistently chuckling, I also sometimes got annoyed. Jam packing a commentary with as many jokes as possible does not always make it funnier, unfortunately.
As an attempt to please fans of the original series, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return does a good job respecting its roots. The new seasons isn’t streamlined to appease mainstream audiences, nor should it be. The show is still tons of fun for those who don’t have nostalgia for the original, but it might take a bit of getting used to. Not every single joke is funny, but with 14 full episodes, I didn’t expect them to be. Regardless, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is a good time and an entertaining watch, probably best viewed with a group of friends.