Mystery Science Theater 3000 was perhaps the most ingenious television program ever aired. It took old B-movies and "completed" them, as some might say; that is, it introduced entertainment where, despite good intentions, none previously existed. By adding an audio commentary track, MST3K lampooned the film, pop culture, and themselves more quickly and effectively than an average viewer could irritate his audiencemates with his own jokes.
Even constrained by copyrights and other legalities, the show trashed enough duds to last ten memorable years. It's now been eight years that we've been without MST3K. Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese and Kevin Murphy's A Year at the Movies were great books — but they still left me wistful for the days of yesteryear.
Fortunately, the Best Brains crew reunited in 2006 to launch RiffTrax. For $3/pop, they'll sell you an MP3 to play alongside a DVD that you provide. Since RiffTrax isn't selling the actual movies, there's no licensing fees, thus opening a trove of previously untouchable titles for them to mock.
This was how I recently watched X-Men (click for sample) and The Matrix. My DVD's audio output piped into 5.1 surround sound, and iTunes connected to the normally-silent TV speakers. There was an occasional syncing issue (the movie and MP3 must be started at the same time; the MP3 provides regular cues to verify this synchronicity) — some my fault, some not — but otherwise, the setup was easy to establish.
The concept behind it all, however, could potentially be flawed: these are not necessarily bad films the expatriates of the Satellite of Love are now targetting. Despite having seen both films multiple times, I was more drawn to the actions of the X-Men than I was the verbiage of the peanut gallery. If we were watching Manos, Hand of Fate, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, or X-Men 3, I'd not be terribly vested in the cinematic travesty to which I would otherwise never expose myself. But the original?
Fortunately, I had far fewer compunctions in watching The Matrix. This extremely entertaining film is, like Independence Day, best watched with the brain turned off. And who can't laugh at Keanu Reeves and his string of bombs? Were I not hesitant to disrupt the timing between the MP3 and DVD, I would've paused to provide enough time to finish laughing before the next witticism was unerringly delivered.
RiffTrax is not MST3K: it has the same potential, but in a completely new medium. Please do check them out; new MP3s are released on a regular basis.
Incidentally, TeeVee.org, a blog and podcast, has an audio interview with Mike Nelson (also available in transcript form), in which Mike talks about MST3K, RiffTrax, and more. I was pleasantly surprised that one of his own admissions could've come from my own mouth:
I don't have TV, and I haven't had TV for years… But I do watch TV in that all the good stuff — and a lot of bad stuff — is available on DVD… I'm on, like, a large time delay, where people are excited and talking about a certain show, and then two years later I'll go, "Hey, have you seen this show?" Because I'm just now watching it on DVD… I'm on an extreme-delayed TiVo system, is basically how I look at it.
I ask you: could I be in better company?