Jan 16th, 2008, 02:27 PM
Rifftrax, Cinematic Titanic, and The Film Crew: A Comprehensive Review
Ahh Mystery Science Theatre 3000...Could any show be more perfect for the classic B-movie fan? Of course not. MST3K provided the sorts of things B-movie fans craved in the days before the internet. It provided the movies, to be sure, but it also provided wonderful jokes, delightful commentary, cute sketches, and a tight-knit community of fans who really helped extend the mileage of the show. In fact, that's the only reason it exists today, is because fans meticulously recorded every show onto VHS tapes, and they continue to follow Joel's invitation to "keep sharing the tapes!"
It was long rumored after the show's cancellation that there would be some sort of great heir to MST3K, but not on television. The television networks had long since decided that a two-hour show that required lots of contract negotiations with small, crappy film studios was not worth their time, no matter how high the ratings were. For much less money, after all, they could create reality TV shows about people eating animal genitalia, and this would cost a lot less money. Also, I get the feeling that the hollywood types in charge of the networks didn't like the thought of a TV show from the midwest dedicated to pointing out how many truly awful films there are in existence.
And so, with the help of the internet (which makes promotion easy and lets people the world over buy from you), and the development of DVD technology (which has a very small production-per-unit cost) the heir of MST3K came to pass: Rifftrax! No, wait, The Film Crew! Wait, maybe Cinematic Titanic? Who knew that we'd be getting not one, not two, but THREE heirs to MST3K? So, which one is the TRUE heir? The fact that they are all so similar, and all contain former MST3K writers and performers, makes the "one true heir" decision somewhat complicated.
Let's start with The Film Crew, since it was developed first. It stars veterans Michael J. Nelson (Mike Nelson), Bill Corbett (Tom Servo after Season 1) and Kevin Murphy (Crow T. Robot from season 8 on), who have been given an assignment to watch and provide commentary for truly pitiful movies. The show plays almost exactly like MST3K, from the beginning intro, to the sketches, to the riffing. It even has, in place of The Mads, a faceless, angry boss named "Bob Honchoo" (who is very clearly just Mike trying to sound like someone else). Because of this, a lot of people would argue that it is the true heir of MST3K. But I disagree, because it just isn't near as funny as MST3K. I think a big part of it is that the boys are massively out of practice, and also that the movies they have worked with so far do not lend themselves to riffing very well. There's way too much dialogue, and when The Film crew talks over it, you're unable to figure out what's going on in the movie, and so the riffing doesn't make much sense. In fact, there is alternatively too much and too little riffing. I hate to knock on The Film Crew, because it comes so close to the legacy of those late MST3K episodes from seasons 8-10, but it just has so many little things wrong with it that I can't recommend slapping down $20 for each of the DVDs they've put out so far. I wouldn't be surprised if they found their groove and put out some really solid releases soon, but as of right now, the "Wait And See" attitude is best.
By contrast, "Rifftrax," which very often features the exact same three people, has proved to be much, much funnier, and the nature of Rifftrax (it is an .mp3 that is synced with a movie you already own) means that a lot of situations for "little mistakes" are removed. Also, they're easier to make, and since there's no need to negotiate rights to any of the movies, Mike and his co-stars can mock big-budget films that they would otherwise be unable to go after, like "Battlefield Earth" or "Star Wars Episode I." The nature of Rifftrax, since it permits only voices, also forces the action on the riffing, which is what most people came for anyway. While early episodes had weak riffing, bad guests or no guests, Mike has paid attention to his fans, and the vast majority of Rifftrax are worth owning. My only real complaint is that a lot of Rifftrax are for perfectly good movies (such as Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring) because most people don't own copies of really bad movies, and therefore have no use for Rifftrax. This brings me to Rifftrax's big, inherent shortcoming: you must own a copy of the film being riffed, and you must sync it with the Rifftrax. This is no easy task, as a number of Rifftrax will drift considerably, and soon you'll find yourself hearing jokes for things that have not happened yet, or happened a good while ago. Mike has recently released the "Rifftrax Player," which syncs the riffs automatically, but unfortunately it is limited in its abilities and requires a legitimate copy of the movie. I don't know about you, but I flat-out refuse to own a legitimate copy of Battlefield Earth, and some of what he mocks has no legitimate release at all. While some people have tried to correct this shortcoming by providing pirated films with embedded Rifftrax, Mike has discouraged this, partly because it means you're not buying the Rifftrax, and partly because he's afraid that Rifftrax may be held responsible for the piracy. A legitimate version of this, known as "Rifftrax On Demand," which features movies that are in the public domain, has recently become available. However, as the main point of Rifftrax is to mock movies and shows that should have never been made in the first place (Star Wars Holiday Special anyone?) riffing cruelly on some of these ultra-low-budget films feels a bit like beating up a hobo. Fun at first, but then you feel really bad about it.
By contrast, Cinematic Titanic seems to mesh very well with B-movies. While there has only been one release as of yet, "The Oozing Skull," (a retitling of "Brain of Blood", done so at the request of the film's owner) it shows surprising promise, and a hearkening back to the old days of MST3K, when Joel was in charge of the ship and Dr. Forrester was in charge of the DEEP HURTING! Speaking of those two, the actors who portrayed them (Joel Hodgson and Trace Bileau respectively) are both on board with Cinematic Titanic. In fact, it boasts a rather robust crew, including J. Elvis Weinstein (Season 1 Tom Servo), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) and Mary Jo Pehl (Mrs. Forrester). Because of the large staff of five comedians, there is almost always a joke or a riff coming out of someone's mouth, and the timing and jokes are spot-on, thanks to extensive testing and reworking beforehand (they riffed the movie live several times to test out the jokes, and reworked or replaced many of them). The movie they selected is a laughably bad exploitation film intended to shock by the virtue of the fact that it shows an actual human brain in a salad bowl, and the cast of Cinematic Titanic is lovingly playful with the film, making fun mostly of its absurdity instead of the inherently low production value. The production value of Cinematic Titanic, however, is actually quite good, and despite the fact that when you buy the DVD all you get is a burned disc in a sleeve (the very same sleeve that, in fact, the DVD is shipped in) the actual video is very finely crafted and well recorded. The resolution is good, the voices are crisp and clear, and they even go so far as to turn the movie down when a riffer speaks so that they don't have to yell over the dialogue or explosions. Cinematic Titanic is also deeply dedicated to its fanbase, and before the DVD was released, a lot of effort went into gaging fan appeal and ensuring that the people who paid for this would get what they wanted. They even hearken back to the old MST3K, making a few allusionary jokes that only a true fan would get.
So which one of these is the TRUE heir to MST3K? Which one is worth owning? Well, to be honest, all of them are. Yes, The Film Crew has a number of faults, but each volume that comes out gets better, and a die-hard MSTie would be able to love it in spite of those. Yes, Rifftrax is more targeting big-budget films, and is also cruel and vicious in a way MST3K never was. Yes, Cinematic Titanic has almost too many performers, and you almost need to already be a fan of the show in order to be a fan of the show. But the way I see it, each one of these heirs of MST3K is good in its own way, and is useful for specific purposes. The Film Crew is perfect for B-movies even a B-movie fan can't love, becuase they're horrible above and beyond the fact that they have no budget and no talent. Rifftrax is what makes movies like "Transformers" or "Trolls 2" bearable, and its cruelty is appropriate (even necessary) for a lot of today's shitty big-budget motion pictures. Cinematic Titanic is perfect for movies which aren't that bad, but are hampered by a weak plot, poor production values, and limitations of the time, namely the sort of B-movies that true B-movie fans crave.
Granted, not everyone will like all three. I, for example, really don't get into The Film Crew. I have another friend who can't stand Cinematic Titanic, yet owns almost a complete collection of Rifftrax. I have another friend who insists up and down that The Film Crew is The One True Heir to MST3K and refuses to watch Cinematic Titanic or use Rifftrax. But really, I think every movie buff and B-movie fan and drunken guy in a college dorm should give all three a chance, as they each have their own charm and their own strengths. I'm sure that most people will decide that they like one or the other, that they love the way Rifftrax digs its fangs into complete crap, or the way that Cinematic Titanic plays around with B-movies, or even how The Film Crew mocks movies so bad and so obscure they don't even have a Wikipedia entry. With three options to choose from, just about any B-movie fan or hardcore MSTie can't help but find something they enjoy.