The Thinker

A riffing good time (and a review of “Starship Troopers”)

If you are going to watch a bad movie, why not do it with laughs and commentary? It’s hardly a new idea but it sort of went away in 1999 when Mystery Science Theater 3000 died on what was then the Sci-Fi Channel. You may have slept through the 1990s if you don’t remember Joel Hodgson (1989 – 1993) and later Michael Nelson (1993 – 1999) and his crew of compatriot robots (Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy) endlessly “riffing” (making fun of) bad movies from their “space station” usually parked on Comedy Central. You basically saw their silhouettes in the foreground while some dreadful movie generally from 1960 or earlier played in the background. Their wisecracking “live” commentary was usually great fun, and the films they “riffed” tended to be crap that the original producers didn’t care were riffed, mainly because they were now dead.

It had a good ten-year run but it definitely became less entertaining when Hodgson left the show and Nelson took up his slack. You can still find MST3K (as it is commonly known to its fans) online at the Rifftrax site. Rather than ripping off these riffs, devoted fans will get the DVDs instead, including whole seasons.

Or if you are more interested in the personalities than in the robots and the silly staged setting aboard a space station, you can watch Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy at your local theater instead. No you don’t watch them perform live, unless you are lucky enough to be in a city where they do this, but you can see their shows streamed live at many local theaters. You can also see rebroadcasts courtesy of Fathom Events. That’s what we did last night with maybe a hundred others (mostly local college kids) at our local Cineplex in Hadley, Massachusetts, where we enjoyed a rebroadcast of their 2013 riff of Starship Troopers (1997).

In some ways I do miss the robots because the personalities behind MST3K are now fifty-plus with bellies that generally precede them, often by a considerable amount. Their funding comes from devoted fans that sponsored their Kickstarter campaign. Presumably they also make money from these remote broadcasts. Seeing these riffs in a theater actually is better than seeing them alone, as you are more likely to laugh along. The tickets were a bit pricey ($12.50 each for us) but well worth the price of admission. This rebroadcast was typical: Mike, Bill and Kevin provided commentary in pop up windows on the right side of the screen whilst the movie occupied the rest of the screen.

Many of these bad movies can stand by themselves as stinkers without the commentary. That was certainly the case with Starship Troopers. I would have preferred to see it first without the commentary, then have gone back to see it with the commentary. Wow! Starship Troopers is really quite a stinker, and that’s not just because of all the oversized bugs that get dismembered! Allegedly based on the novel by the late Robert Heinlein, this is a movie only Donald Trump could love. That’s because with a few exceptions it stars an all-Aryan cast of trim and handsome men and puffed-lipped beauties with flawless skin, mostly blondes. You get an odd combination of “talent” like Jake Busey as Ace Levy with his famous spiked Marine haircut, Neil Patrick Harris as Carl, Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico (perhaps the central character) and Dina Meyer as Dizzy who ends up in Johnny’s squad fighting together.

It’s hard to know when this convoluted plot is supposed to take place, but it’s presumably at least a hundred years in the future. The “federation” (our world government, with a vaguely Nazi-like symbol) is apparently at war with distant bugs from other worlds. We send vast spaceships across the cosmos to do battle with them, but for the most part we send in storm troopers to dry class M planets who use machine guns at close range to destroy these oversized insects. Strangely enough, fighting in these wars seems to be optional, as is the case for our young heroes here, who fight to kill bugs and to become “citizens” as opposed to being a lesser boring “civilian”.

What you get in this movie is weird vision of the future, shot in 1997 that epically fails to imagine what the future will look like. We still play football, but in indoor gyms with silver footballs where they keep score on 1990s technology dot matrix clocks. There are weird scenes of kids stomping on insects, Dizzy losing her lunch during biology class, where students dissect the insects from other worlds. Rue McClanahan in there in a bit part as their teacher wearing weird looking sunglasses. You also get an odd scene where teacher, also a veteran, points with the stub of his arm.

You get a space opera that basically makes no sense, but with tons of gore and CGI. These new recruits are off for the ride of their abbreviated lives, and that’s because most of them will end up dead with insect stingers through their innards. I’ll stick to being a civilian, thank you. You get a planet Earth apparently overwhelmingly Caucasian, even in Buenos Aires where the flaxen haired Johnny is apparently from. Given their short mortality, one can at least rise quickly in rank. It helps if you don’t mind seeing lots of dismembered storm troopers or having your brains sucked out by these insects.

The plot basically makes no sense at all. Carmen (Denise Richards) wants to be a spaceship pilot but I guess they haven’t invented shields yet. Worse, all these spacecraft stay in close proximity to each other, so they are frequently crashing into each other. Their tactics for defeating the bugs make no sense. It’s clear their machine guns are not quite up to the task and only occasionally does their air force (space force?) drop a bomb. A brave trooper will occasionally get an opportunity to lob a grenade down a bug’s throat, but mostly they are dismembered or pierced long before then. The bugs sure look lethal, but not so much if you are pretty. At the end of the movie Carmen gets a stinger through the chest but walks away firing back.

So Starship Troopers can stand on its own and doesn’t need the riffers, but the MST3K crew keeps the one line commentaries coming so quickly it’s hard to appreciate just how appalling this movie actually is. So lesson learned. Next time I got to one of these events, I’ll try to see the movie first and then enjoy the movie with the riff, its own special art form worthy of enjoyment.

And we’re likely to be going frequently as they release a new movie riff or a rebroadcast about once a month. It’s a highly entertaining way to spend an evening with fellow bad movie compatriots and an opportunity to get out of the house. Fathom Events is clearly exploring a new revenue model for movie theaters that might just give live events some competition to these bloated Hollywood features.


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