Mystery Science Theater 3000: Season 12 – The Gauntlet, 2019.
Directed by Joel Hodgson.
Starring: Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Rebecca Hanson, Felicia Day, and Patton Oswalt.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is back for a six-episode twelfth season dubbed The Gauntlet. Jonah and the bots must endure all of the movies in one sitting, an obvious nod to today’s binge-watching culture, and you can do the same on Netflix or with this new Blu-ray set from Shout! Factory. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 has long been a happy place for me. Whereas my other geeky pleasures, like Star Wars, tend to be a mixed bag of uneven content and sometimes-toxic fans, MST3K has always been my go-to if I’ve had a crappy day and I just want to unwind. I can pick pretty much any episode at random and know that I’ll have an enjoyable experience.
Sure, MST3K fandom has its share of obnoxious folks, like the person who mailed the “I hate Tom Servo’s new voice” banner to Kevin Murphy (he hung it in his office during the entire run of the show). However, I haven’t interacted with them much, either online or offline, so I’ll just pretend they’re mostly cool people who don’t stress out over things that really aren’t important in the grand scheme of the universe. (Refer to the show’s theme song.)
I’ve reviewed many of the series’ home video releases over the years, culminating in 2017’s Volume XXXIX from Shout! Factory. Shout! has continued to reissue the old Rhino collections, though, and they’ve also put out the two new seasons from Netflix, including this new edition of season 12, known as The Gauntlet. I was happy to see the show revived, and while it has taken some time to get used to a new host, along with new mad scientists and new robot voices, all of them feel like old friends now.
And that’s the way MST3K should make you feel: like you’re hanging around with some fun friends who enjoy snarking on cheesy movies and who share many of the same cultural references you do. I’ve never been one to engage in “Which host was better?” debates (I also roll my eyes at “Which Star Trek captain was better?”), so I’ll just say that I appreciate what each of the three has brought to the show: Joel with his deadpan banter, Mike with his “aw shucks” Midwestern charm, and Jonah with his “Now what the heck is going on?” attitude that seems perfect for the world we currently live in.
Whereas season 11 was 14 episodes that pretty followed a similar formula as the old show, the new twelfth season is dubbed The Gauntlet and features a run through six crappy movies. The conceit is that the mad scientists have challenged Jonah to endure all of the films back-to-back, which of course is a nod to today’s binge-watching culture. Personally, I usually barely have the time to sit through one movie, so taking in all six of these episodes at once wasn’t possible for me – I wonder how it was for viewers who tried to replicate what Jonah had to endure.
(Yes, technically Jonah is running a gantlet, not a gauntlet, but, again, let’s remember the show’s theme song.)
The movies are of 70s and 80s vintage except 2013’s Atlantic Rim. (Why does the Pacific Ocean get all the mech vs. monsters action, right?) The most recognizable one to Gen Xers in the audience (like me) is probably Mac and Me, an E.T. clone from 1988 that was pretty notorious when it came out, thanks to its blatantly obvious product placement. When a movie includes a dance number in a McDonald’s, is it really a movie anymore, or is it a commercial bookended by an inane story?
Compared to season 11, The Gauntlet finds the new cast hitting their stride. While both of the new seasons are equally funny, season 12 has a better-measured pace to the jokes, so you have more time to absorb them. MST3K is no stranger to that kind of thing, since its earliest seasons had the opposite problem: jokes had too much silence between them before the cast figured out how to ramp them up a bit.
Here are the movies that comprise The Gauntlet:
- Mac and Me: This 1988 release holds the honor of a 0% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, thanks to a storyline that’s a pretty blatant copy of E.T. and overly obvious product placements. The plot involves a wayward alien who befriends a wheelchair-bound boy while trying to escape from NASA agents. One bright spot: Alan Silvestri did the soundtrack.
- Atlantic Rim: This is one of The Asylum’s infamous quickie rip-offs of big-budget films. In this case, they transplanted the monsters vs. mechs fight to the ocean on the other side of the United States. Unsurprisingly, the movie’s $500,000 budget didn’t allow for great CGI sequences, nor much in the way of passable acting performances.
- Lords of the Deep: Long before The Asylum got into the mockbuster business, Roger Corman was doing quickie rip-offs of popular movies. This 1989 release borrows pretty heavily from James Cameron’s The Abyss, among other bottom-of-the-ocean movies of that time period. The story involves the crew of an undersea lab being attacked by alien creatures.
- The Day Time Ended: Released in 1980, this movie doesn’t have a story so much as a series of things that happen to people. In this case, a family spends the night in their isolated desert home under attack by various creatures. The story feels like it was created by using a wandering monster chart from Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s notable for having decent special effects, including some good stop-motion monster work.
- Killer Fish: Released in 1979, this Italian production takes its inspiration from both Jaws and Piranha, the Jaws rip-off made by Roger Corman. In this film, a thief has hidden a stash of stolen loot at the bottom of a reservoir that he has stocked with piranha. A group that includes Lee Majors, Margaux Hemingway, and former NFL player Dan Pastorini must try to retrieve the treasure without being eaten alive.
- Ator, the Fighting Eagle: Another Italian mockbuster, this 1982 film uses Conan the Barbarian as its, er, inspiration. It’s the first in a series of four movies featuring director Joe D’Amato’s Conan-like character – MST3K riffed on the sequel during its third season.
Unfortunately, there are no bonus features in this three-disc set, which is a bummer. I always enjoyed the extra materials that Shout! put together for previous MST3K releases, particularly the historical overviews that put the movies in context. While many of the movies that the show has skewered were made for pretty basic reasons – mostly a desire to capitalize on a trend and make as much money as possible – the folks involved in their creation were often earnestly trying to create something good. Many times they were doing their best with the limited resources they had, and those bonus features often highlighted that fact.