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TV Review: Mystery Science Theater 3000 Returns Yet Again for “The Gauntlet”

on November 25, 2018, 4:00pm

The Pitch: In a not too distant future,
next Sunday A.D.,
There was a guy named Jonah
(Jonah Ray),

not too different from you or me.
He worked at Gizmonic Institute,
Just another mug in a yellow jumpsuit –
A distress call came in for him at half-past noon
That’s when an evil woman trapped him on the dark side of the moon!

Well, Jonah’s still there, along with robot pals Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount) and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), for a second season of the Netflix revival of the long-running cult series. This time around, the half-season is a bit more serialized: Mads Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) scheme to put Jonah and the Bots through “The Gauntlet” – a back-to-back marathon of six terrible movies, from E.T. ripoff/McDonald’s commercial Mac and Me to the Conan the Barbarian knockoff Ator, the Fighting Eagle.

Now in Our 30th Year!: Mystery Science Theater 3000 has endured for three decades through sheer will of fandom (the revival, after all, is one of the great successes of the crowdfunding era) and its inimitable, simple formula. That said, the new MST3K leans heavily into the new formatting Netflix provides: “The Gauntlet”, after all, is just a means to put the characters through the same binge-watching model their audience would end up enjoying.

To be honest, it doesn’t really change the stakes of the host segments that much: you can easily skip around in the season without losing its self-imposed sense of serialization (like the kind that plagued the early Sci-Fi Channel years). While it could have been an intriguing experiment to put the characters through a bit of an endurance test – to struggle more and more the longer they stay in The Gauntlet – that might be a bit too much narrative heavy lifting for a show that urges you to “really just relax.”

After all, the host segments are just a vehicle for that kind of charming, lo-fi Midwestern humor that glues the riffs together, and head writer (and Flop House co-host) Elliott Kalan’s fingerprints can be found in everything from the invention exchanges (Supposi-Stories!) to attempts both earnest and cynical at matching last season’s hit musical number “Every Country Has a Monster” – including one Music Man riff in The Day Time Ended about the film’s concept-heavy script.

No Riffs, Hands or Butts: Sure, the host segments are neat, but what about the riffs themselves? The six episodes of The Gauntlet are decent fodder for the MST3K treatment, featuring all the unevenness that came with the old show. The season gets off to a great start with Mac and Me, an already ridiculous film on its face made even better by Jonah et al. being utterly incredulous at all the product placement and rare moments of darkness (the cute kid gets shot by the cops!). There are some other great candidates in the middle, especially when they dabble in the high-concept sci-fi mindscrews of The Day Time Ended and Lords of the Deep.

The real stinker, though, is Atlantic Rim, the Asylum mockbuster of Pacific Rim. Like most of MST3K’s misfires, the problem lies in the uninspired nature of their source material – what can you really do with a cynical dollar store remake of Pacific Rim? Try as they might, Jonah and the bots can only eke out a few intermittent laughs (“Get on the horn!” is a common dig at poor Graham Greene’s blustery general) between bouts of murky CG and David Chokachi as one of the most unsympathetic protagonists in recent memory.

MST3K can only do so much with films that try far too hard to be so bad they’re good, which is The Asylum’s stated business model. There’s no misguided artistic intention to mock, no out-there performances to lampoon – just a dry, dull film meant to bilk the elderly into renting the wrong movie from Redbox by mistake. Here, it’s clear that even the finest turd-polishers in the business can’t make that watchable.

Still, that’s the only real misfire: Lords and Time are lovely prods at B-movies too conceptually ambitious for their own good, and Killer Fish is an endearingly bizarre heist/piranha thriller starring Lee Majors that might even be entertaining enough on its own. And don’t forget Ator, which treats us to some of the greatest faux-fantasy male haircuts and adorable sidekick bear cubs in cinematic history.

The Verdict: While the “Gauntlet” experiment doesn’t do much to shake up the show’s formula, it’s a quaint vehicle for jokes about Netflix’s binge-watching model in the middle of a revival that grows more confident with each season. Jonah’s finding a strong dynamic with the Bots, the riffs are tighter, and the shorter episode order allows for a more eclectic (if uneven) batch of enjoyably bad movies. It’s a bit disappointing to see MST3K go after low-hanging fruit like Asylum mockbusters – films effectively wrought by the so-bad-its-good culture the original show popularized – but they still spin comic gold from cinematic straw.

Review: B

Where’s It Playing?: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return: Season 2 – The Gauntlet is flashing movie sign over at Netflix now.

Trailer:

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