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Deep Ape Review: Doomsday Machine

When I reviewed Cinematic Titanic’s first episode, The Oozing Skull, I ran into a bit of a dilemma: It was the first episode of the series, and I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. After all, it would be unfair to compare it to Mystery Science Theater, the pinnacle of movie riffing. So, I simply had to give it an arbitrary grade. Now, however, with three new episodes of Cinematic Titanic on the way, two of which have been released, we can finally start to gain some perspective.

For their second episode, the Titanic crew chose a late-’60s sci-fi clunker that makes it hard to believe that, while it was having its run in theaters, George Lucas was probably starting to dream up Star Wars. (The bulk of the movie was filmed in 1967, but it wasn’t finished until 1972.) Doomsday Machine is a bland, woeful film, salvaged only by… uh, Ruta Lee’s prettiness? Oh, I don’t know.

By now, you probably already own this episode, but in case you don’t, or in case you give a flip about my opinion, hit the jump for my overanalysis of the film and the episode, both of which have 100% fewer hippies than Oozing Skull.

If you’ve studied up on your MST3K, watching Doomsday Machine for the first time should immediately bring you back to season five of the original series. Specifically, episode 524, 12 to the Moon. Both films feature a somewhat similar selection of men and women on a risky space voyage that, ultimately, doesn’t bode well for most of them, nor for the earth itself. They also both have similar production values although, amazingly, Doomsday manages to end up looking slightly less ridiculous. However, 12 to the Moon is a likable c-grade movie, whereas watching Doomsday Machine is like watching detestable, unpleasant, barely-tolerable paint dry.

The film starts with an odd sequence involving spies sneaking into a Chinese facility. Inside, they spy the titular doomsday machine. Some creepy-looking US government types become worried by these findings and proceed to take over a space mission to Venus, titled Project Astra. They replace half of the all-male crew with women (BROADS! DAMES!) and send them on their way, unaware that they’ve become Project Adam, Adam, Adam, & Adam, and Eve, Eve, & Eve. Needless to say, the earth blows up, the crew freaks out, and there’s a suitably bizarre, out-of-left field ending involving aliens. So, yes, it really could have been called 7 Idiots to Venus.

Grant Williams is in this. You’ll remember him as the protagonist of The Oozing Skull. He’s no protagonist here, however. Here, he portrays Major Kurt Mason, a thoroughly loathsome, unstable jackass who should never have passed his NASA exam. In fact, most of the astronauts, save for the “gay elder statesman of the group,” seem to be fairly unprofessional. In fact, nearly their entire time on the ship is spent either flirting or reacting to being flirted with. It’s a thoroughly uninteresting, unpleasant atmosphere made worse by Williams’ detestable Mason and Lori Scott’s skanky Katie Carlson characters. Thankfully, they are both dispatched in a downright incredulous zero-gravity sequence.

As I mentioned above, the film began shooting in 1967, but was unable to be completed until 1972, due to a lack of funds. This results in an out-of-joint ending that leaves one wondering if this was anything like the director’s original vision. The ending erases three of the film’s semi-likable characters with barely an explanation or a shred of reasoning, and the crew members you thought were dead are now the only survivors of earth, aided by the powerful Johnny Cash-voiced Venusians who just erased their friends. In the hands of competent writers, directors, and actors, you might get something from that. Sadly, esas manos no estaban allí.*

While I wouldn’t call The Oozing Skull a return to the top of their game, it was certainly a pretty damn good first episode of Cinematic Titanic. Sadly, Doomsday is a little bit of a step down from Oozing Skull as far as The Funny is concerned. There are fewer laugh-out-loud lines this time, but on the plus side, the crew seems to be handling themselves much more confidently. They’re much more polished, but the riffs just seem to lack a lot of the punch I’m accustomed to. There’s still a fair share of zingers in there though, like the line quoted in the above graphic.

One large quibble I, and others, had with the first release was the “host segments,” the skits they would perform in-theater. Unfortunately, the quality of the skits hasn’t really gotten any better in this outing. Thankfully though, they do seem to have reduced the number of skits, with only two that involve a break in the film, and a third that occurs while the film roles on. And the most painful of the three, which involves Joel repeatedly interrupting a speech by Trace, is actually saved at the end by Josh seemingly pointing out the skit’s weak premise.

The first season of Mystery Science Theater is, arguably, pretty shoddy. In fact, with any new series, it takes a while to find its “groove.” As such, Cinematic Titanic is still in its grace period and, given the gaps between releases, that grace period may last a while. As such, a less-than-incredible outing like Doomsday Machine is forgivable. That’s not to say that Doomsday is a bad episode, though. It’s just not the crew at the top of their game. They’ll get there eventually, I’m sure. In the meantime, however, episodes like this one will at least make the wait pretty darn entertaining.

It’s worth noting that this episode marks the introduction of some sort of premise for the series. The episode opens with them being brought into the riffing chamber by two men who could be generously described as the series’ “Mads,” such as they are. They even offer them “new robots” — a silhouetted R2-D2, the Lost In Space robot, and… what was the third one? Anyone know? Anyway, it’s all a nice touch, but I hope they expand on it over time.

Can we talk about how sloppy this movie is? The spaceship’s “dopplerscope” is labeled north, south, east, and west, for frak’s sake! Much like 12 to the Moon, the interior of the ship also has some questionable design choices. The seats on the bridge are recliners, and the folks at NASA have also apparently been hitting the acid a bit much, as the ship’s walls are perpetually covered in psychedelic lighting. Such funky lighting is in pretty stark contrast to the dullness of everything else. Also, the movie features no less than four completely different models meant to depict the same ship. Oy.

The CT crew really needs to relearn that old skill of not carrying on a riff for too long. In Oozing Skull, Joel took his Slinky riff a little too far, and in Machine, an impersonation of two random NASA gatekeepers goes on way too long. I mean, hey, they’re the professionals, not me. But when a joke starts to make you feel awkward for the teller, it’s probably past time to end it.

This episode needed more hippy riffs. Seriously. I still giggle thinking about Trace’s “Just another hippy with a sasquatch story” line from Oozing Skull. So, Cinematic Titanic: More hippy jokes, please. Got it? Good.

If you like gratuitous semi-nudity, loathsome characters, dialogue like “We’re picking up a bomb of static. Must be due to the Van Allen Belt,” and tacked-on non-endings, then Doomsday Machine is for you. As for the meat-and-potatoes of this dish, the riffing, it’s good. The gang’s done better, but this disc is definitely worth purchasing. (And, you know, not torrenting.) A solid effort.

Also, sorry for making these reviews so long. Quite frankly, I still never manage to touch on all the points I want to cover, such as how fickle the gravity is in this flick. Anyway, thanks for reading… or just skipping to the end for the grade. Whatever.

* Or, in English, “those hands were not there.” I only wrote it in Spanish so I could use the word “manos.” Doomsday isn’t quite as bad as Manos, as Frank has suggested — but it’s close.

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