This week marks the 25th anniversary of the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (commonly known as MST3K). The show’s premise is that a man has been captured by an evil scientist, the obvious plan of whom is to find the worst movie ever, and use it to numb the minds of all humans. So in each new episode the man, together with two robots, is forced to watch one more B movie. The TV audience see the same film, but in the foreground we see the three beings watching, and we hear their comments.
MST3K became a cult favourite, and it was very good in many ways. It was funny, thought provoking and highly original. Even so, I dislike watching it. But why?
The show’s problem is that not every movie featured is rotten throughout. In fact, a number of them are really good, but when you watch them through the MST3K filter (especially since some films have been cut to fit the show’s program slot) they become bad. And people who have seen an MST3K episode unreflectingly assume that they watched a bad film.
By all means, there is certainly opportunity for satirical snides at Rocketship X-M, which is the subject of today’s post, and which opened MST3K season two in 1990. But Rocketship X-M was also a unique and inventive film, with many interesting qualities.
Decades before the term was invented, Rocketship X-M was an early “mockbuster” (possibly the first). It was produced extremely quickly in order to beat George Pal’s Destination Moon to the theatres, and ride on its marketing. The budget was only about one fifth of the Pal movie. Because of the fast production, there are a few really stupid moments in the film, not least so in the noticeable lack of all scientific sensibility.
The successful race against Pal’s movie made it the first outer space movie after World War II. It thereby became the masthead of the long range of sci-fi movies that followed in the coming decades. I have written in connection with Battle Beyond the Sun about the way that the Cold War was reflected in many of these movies. Rocketship X-M is no exception, but it is not the communist fear that is the driving force here. Rather it is an anti-war analogy, said to have been the first film to fictionalise the effects of all-out nuclear war.
It was also the first science fiction film with electronic music in the soundtrack. Composer Ferde Grofé added a theremin to the orchestration, for excellent effect. The theremin was later used in many sci-fi movies, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Rocketship X-M was the first American movie to feature a female astronaut. This, however, does not earn it a place in the history of movies questioning traditional gender roles, since the only reason to include Danish actress Osa Massen (except maybe for her good looks) was to tell the message that a woman’s place is at home, not aboard a spaceship or even in a laboratory. This sexist crap would be disturbing to say the least, except the film is over 60 years old, so I mostly find it a little amusing and somehow touching.
The film also has a very interesting ending, unexpected and certainly not standard Hollywood. This, too, makes it worth watching.
This film is best enjoyed in its original clothing (or the 1970s recut, which I believe is the one available at the Internet Archive), not the MST3K garb.
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Kurt Neumann
Stars: Lloyd Bridges, Osa Massen
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (693×576, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (699 M)