By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 19, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

For anyone who’s already a fan, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie may prove a slightly discomfiting experience: It feels bigger than the original show — and smaller, too. Here, as in any of the program’s 120-odd episodes, we watch as an unspeakably horrendous grade-Z movie — in this case, the 1954 utopian sci-fi potboiler This Island Earth — unspools in its entirety. Balsa-wood acting, no-tech special effects, aliens who look like Silly Putty thumbs in white televangelist pompadours — on its own, the film would be all but unendurable. But in the corner of the screen sits our defense against the trash: three tiny silhouetted figures, a space prisoner (played by head writer Michael J. Nelson) and his robot pals, who supply an exuberantly sarcastic running commentary on the awfulness of what we’re seeing. ”Hey, they’re landing in Tommy Chong’s backyard!” remarks one as a spaceship approaches a planet’s fake-smoke atmosphere. An alien is accused of having ”visible panty line” (he does, too), and two characters decaying into skeletons prompt the eager observation ”It’s Christy Turlington and Kate Moss!”

If MAD magazine turned nose thumbing into a generational tic, Mystery Science Theater elevates it to an art form. The writers, who might have spent their adolescence holed up in a basement watching Woody Allen’s deconstructive dubfest, What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), are sophomoric geniuses who seem to have a direct pipeline into the stoned outer limits of their own wise-guy ids. On television, they create a kind of couch-potato anarchy, a snarky postmodernism in which we’re watching ourselves watch comedy writers watch a bad movie on TV. It turns out, though, that when you take MST3K out of the living room, transforming it into cinema, the sophomoric devilry seems less casual in its glee. Mystery Science Theater: The Movie has more than its share of gonzo laughs. You still feel that every delirious allusion, every snidely on-the-mark observational quip, is tickling a different part of your cerebral cortex. Yet the movie lacks the manic highs of the show’s best episodes; it’s a bit too rote and becalmed (perhaps because This Island Earth is too). What’s lost as well is the series’ weirdly subversive undercurrent: that the only reason we’re even bothering to make fun of a movie this bad is, quite simply, because it’s on. And the mystery — the true joke — is that it ever got made in the first place.