Monday, May 8, 2017

Netflix and Chill...of the Future! The Return of MST3k, Part 2

Huzzah again!

The first couple episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return sold me on the strength of Jonah Ray's captive Everynerd, the quirkiness of their featured movies and the rat-a-tat barrage of riffs courtesy of the new writing team. I forgot to mention the overhauled movie sign countdown, which includes bedroom and maintenance rooms, as well as the fact that Joel "Movie in the Hole" Hodgson himself plays the keeper of the liquid media Kinga Forrester has patented, Kingachrome. But enough about those, here are my impressions of Episodes 200(!) and 201, which are, respectively, another quirky sci-fi project from the 1960s and a star-studded nadir of the disaster movie genre from the 1970s. 


Brief plot synopsis: A trio of scientists at a university, as well as a gawky lackey, are stranded in a post-apocalyptic future after stepping through a time portal. Evading hostile mutant troglodytes, they end up in an underground bunker populated by a few remaining humans and their troop of androids. But the chances of survival for both factions start to dwindle.

Ib Melchior may have gotten the shaft more than once in his career. His name was on the screenplay for Reptilicus, but that was primarily a bad experience for Sidney Pink. Melchior, meanwhile, once wrote a screenplay called "Space Family Robinson" which Irwin Allen nicked without accrediting and turned into the beloved Lost in Space TV series. Yes, the very program which inspired Joel Hodgson's surname during his tenure on MST3k was the brainchild of Mr. Melchior, and he essentially got screwed out of the show's legacy. And from what I've heard, FX artist David Hewitt made 1967's Journey to the Center of Time specifically to film his own version of Melchior's The Time Travelers, whose story he co-wrote.

Besides giving Allen another opportunistic "brainstorm" (cf: The Time Tunnel), Hewitt also incorporated footage from Melchior's The Time Travelers into his later film, as well as another title familiar to MST3k history: 1952's non-Chuck Norris vehicle Invasion U.S.A. Melchior took all these plagiarisms in stride to continue making a living, but time has vindicated him as being a talent of some merit. 

The Time Travelers is most beloved for the way it ends, its team of present-day scientists having returned home after a disastrous trip 107 years into the future only to find their options terminally limited. As the movie opens, they inadvertently full-power their way into not just conjuring up images of the world-to-be, but also stepping into this impending alternate Earth. This revelation is discovered by the odd man out among the techies, wisecracking nebbish Danny McKee (Steve Franken), who has been sent by his superiors at the front office to cut off their juice box. Dr. Erik von Steiner (Preston Foster), Steve Connors (Philip Carey) and Carol White (Merry Anders) follow Danny, but the warp is unstable and implodes, thus setting up the conflict between them and the occupants of this radiated future world, which apparently includes Devo in their "Freedom of Choice" make-up.

No, those are the robots. Must be Kraftwerk instead.

The music-based riffs here skew more contemporary hipster than old MST3k, which loved name-dropping Tom Waits and The Replacements as well. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Electric Six, Joanna Newsom, and EDM in general all get brought up for chuckles, and the TV/movie references are also up-to-date, the most esoteric being 1986's Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Crow imagines Carol being transformed into "a Furiosa-style killing machine" out of Mad Max: Fury Road. Jonah looks at the static-flickering window of time and thinks out loud "Tim & Eric got really abstract." There are also hilarious references to more old-school geek pleasures like Planet of the Apes, Super Mario Bros., Star Wars, and Looney Tunes. 

The Time Travelers, with its 2071 chic augmented by lumichord-scored rec rooms and horizontally correct, upright tanning booths (the latter drives Crow & hover-skirted Servo mad with lust), actually does have a decent production design worthy of vintage Star Trek. The first part of the movie has solid pacing, and a great introduction to the bunker council presided by Dr. Varno (veteran John Hoyt, here looking like the lovechild of Rutger Hauer and Susan Powter as Crow puts it). We learn that the possibility of a new solar system supports human life in the presence of extra-distant planet Alpha Centauri Four. The point when Danny takes the tour of the android-building facilities and falls for eyeball handler Reena (Delores Wells, Playmate of the Month, June 1960) puts a wrinkle in the space-time flow, as do the exposition and vignette-based content which follows.

Thankfully, it does yield some priceless back-and-forth between Jonah and Tom Servo, who is not only unimpressed with the in-camera trick of a detached 'droid head but also indignant at the belief that damaged parts are reconstituted as flower pots for Goodwill. Crow mostly uses it as a chance for a Jim J. Bullock-style Anthony Daniels impersonation, but he comes up with the best new term for a cyborg's pubic region. The many sardonic jokes lobbed at Danny's expense improve upon the appearance of the bumbling Petersen from Reptilicus, especially when a sentient robo-hand latches onto Danny's hinder. Just as potent are the potshots taken at Dr. Varno and his "vacillating sexuality."

Host segments include a live time portal safety demonstration, Servo & Crow taking a bat to Jonah's various new robotic creations and head writer Elliott Kalan & Joel Hodgson playing intergalactic Butabi brothers who turn up on rocket #9. Also, watch for Tom Servo's observation of Forrest J. Ackerman, which isn't a joke and marks Forry's second appearance in an MST3k experiment besides playing the park victim in Future War.

Even though it can get silly and draggy between the crackerjack opening and the fatalistic finale, The Time Travelers thus far emerges as the most proficient movie this Kickstarted MST3k: The Return has mocked, with echoes of the theatrically-distributed riff on This Island Earth. And between the consistent hilarity of the jokes, which take off into delirious sub-textual tangents, and between-movie sketches ("We're scientifically testing the limits of physical pleasure"), I have to say MST3k: The Return keeps getting better with each episode. I'll let Kinga Forrester have her 200th episode "legacy dollars."

(I also just realized that Gypsy's puppeteer is Tim Blaney, of all people, whom you may recognize as the voices of both Johnny Five and Frank the Pug. More input coming up.) 


Brief plot synopsis: Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow do the McClane-Gennero tango, only instead of a terrorist takeover of Nakatomi Plaza, a massive landslide of snow descends upon Rock's posh resort. With Robert Forster as the photographer whose premonitions go unheeded, Jeanette Nolan as Rock's dotty mother Caroline and...Danny from the last movie! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Damn it, Steve Franken! I guess this really isn't an Irwin Allen movie, after all. This film's director, Corey Allen, is of no relation to the mogul of all-star destruction behind The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. If Corey Allen is remembered for one thing, it's as Jimmy Dean's chicken race foe from Rebel Without a Cause. Instead, Roger Corman produced this, a pricey flop for his New World Pictures even after being scaled down from its initial budget of $6.5 million. Despite Allen's previous job for Roger directing Thunder and Lightning, it was the upstart team of Joe Dante and John Sayles who got all the glory when Piranha outperformed Avalanche within the same month.

This, of course, led to Alligator, which was a better use of Robert Forster than Avalanche is, even if there was no Mia Farrow for him to seduce.

Although the first three episodes of MST3k: The Return restore Joel Hodgson's simple charms, Avalanche harkens back to one of the very best elements the of the entire Mike Nelson era: the closing credits riff-a-palooza. Remember the chick flick insult contest between Mike and Crow during Alien from L.A.? The pop song powwow which capped Werewolf? The bots' elaborate coda of humiliation and alcoholism which picks up where Soultaker left off?

Avalanche seizes upon that tradition with gusto, although I'm not referring to the actual final moments in the theater. The new MST3k team abandons ship once the end credits begin rolling, which is disappointing given how Cry Wilderness goes out on an inspirational C&W ballad as ripe for disassembly as the boogie rock theme from that other Joe Don Baker classic, Final Justice ("Pass the gravy now!"). Jonah and the bots brainstorm several TripAdvisor reviews in the last stretch, which is good as far as it goes, but it's a host segment 65 minutes into the episode which perked me up considerably and reminded me of those classic Mike Nelson credit cookies.

Jonah, Crow and Servo decide to poke overdue fun at the trend of "hybrid B-movies," that peculiar breed of Asylum productions which combine natural disasters like shark attacks and tornadoes to peddle "deliberately stupid junk disguised as sincere, heartfelt junk." The kind of movies which curry Twitter favor by stunt casting scores of mostly has-been pop icons, a trick no more sophisticated than the Friedberg/Seltzer "parody" mold of association-over-satire. Even RiffTrax has fallen for them on more than one occasion, never once discriminating between Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda and, say, Godzilla vs. Megalon.

The Satellite of Love won't get fooled again. Jonah and pals decide to copyright as many possible hybrid movies as they can, from Snowcano and Volcanosaurus Rex to Mecha Flood vs. Clone Snake. Pushing the joke even further out there, Kinga and Max smell conspiracy on Jonah's end ("He must have hacked our video plumbing!") and try to come up with some of their own to save their profiteering posteriors. 

Avalanche also contains the first musical number since Jonah's Kaiju Rap from Reptilicus, with Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt and special guest N-i- -at-ic- Ha--is (would you like to solve the puzzle?) bridging the gap between long-distance love ballad and unrequited torch song, the latter given to Oswalt, who shines in this episode more than he does in the previous episodes. He truly lives up to Max's would-be name of "TV's Son of TV's Frank," from his excitable reaction to the bots' Mad Men re-enactment to the way he belabors a joke during the Mads' contribution to the invention exchange, the Don LaFont-aine 3000.

There's really nothing worth discussing about Avalanche in itself besides the fact that star attractions Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow are curiously uncharismatic leads, that the supporting players are basically more of an unfortunate inspiration for the Roland Emmerich movies to come (there's both a skiing and an ice-skating contest to contend with) and you can tell that Corman slashed the budget down to $1.7 million whenever the unconvincing catastrophe of the title arrives. Also for an MST3k episode, the language is considerably racier and the Shadowrama comes into shrewd use during some brief nudity (remember the umbrella gag from City Limits?).

Among the choice riffs include another callback, this time to Sidehackers, in the non sequiturs Jonah and friends lob as play-by-play commentary during a nervous figure skater's (Peggy Browne) fleeting moment of glory before the avalanche. You can bet there's a Better Off Dead reference thrown in the mix, too. A disco dinner party ("It's like a '70s kitchen got up and danced!") is ripe for wisecracks from the Baked Alaskas on down to the suggestive banter. And it all wraps up in another showcase for the SOL's resident femme bot, a la "Gypsy Rose Me," named after one of Jeannette Nolan's catchphrases from the movie.

So with four episodes down, I have to say that The Time Travelers is my favorite thus far, although the other three have plenty of inspired and delirious moments to keep them above average. I'll be digging into the first appearance of Caroline Munro in the next rundown, real rocket fuel for this Santa Claus, and also along the way we'll get a medieval fantasy that's like The Final Sacrifice at the Ren Fair, a bizarre "family film" from another infamous B-mogul, a long-awaited Christmas episode, and the bittersweet season finale. Until then...

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