If Only I Could Forget
Mystery Science Theater 3000, Season 11, Episode 7: "The Land That Time Forgot"
By the standards of the kinds of movies Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix., The Land That Time Forgot really isn't that bad of a movie. That is certainly damning with faint praise as a "good" movie by MST3K's standards is a movie like The Beast of Hollow Mountain or Mac and Me -- they aren't good films, but they are the best of a collection of truly terrible films.
Honestly, in a different setting I could have seen myself watching The Land That Time Forgot. It's a decently-produced film with enough flair that I could honestly see people watching it just for the hell of it. It's one of a number of movies that juxtapose "modern" characters against a prehistoric backdrop (a la all the various incarnations of King Kong), and for fans of those kinds of movies (enthusiasts of stop-motion dinosaurs), this movie is not without its charms. It's certainly not great, and doesn't hold a candle to the greats of the genre (Kong has nothing to worry about), but it's fun for what it does.
Set during World War I, the film captures the story of two crews, one English and one German. At the start, a German U-boat blows up an English civilian ship under suspicions the ship was secretly transporting munitions for the Allied war effort. The surviving crew of the ship manage to board the surfaced U-boat and take it over. The two sides then try to outmanuver each other which, eventually, leads to the crews getting lost on the high seas. They stumble upon an uncharted island and head in to explore, whereupon they find an island populated with dinosaurs and prehistoric forms of man. The crews will have to find a way to work together and create the fuel they need from the resources around them and escape the island before the creatures (and the island itself) destroys them all.
The biggest knock against The Land That Time Forgot is that it has a rather formless plot. Well known entries in this genre (like the Kongs as well as various Joruney to the Whatever films) usually have a certain mission in mind for the characters -- the island is already known and the crew is going there to capture a certain beast and conquer a certain land. The characters are directed by a need to complete a mission, to find a thing and capture/kill it for the good of whatever or whoever. This direction helps to keep the story moving forward, always towards the goal in mind. Often, then, the movie is able to comment on the hubris of man in the process -- they came for a beast and the beast won -- but always through the lens of the story.
What The Land That Time Forgot is missing is that goal. The combined crew here has no reason to go to the island in the first place; their finding it was a fluke. Because of that the crew has no goal for being on the island, no mission to follow. The island simply exists to drag out the plotline and give the audience things to look at. Without a direction the movie basically boils down to "crew arrives, looks around, shrugs, then tries to leave". That's not much of a story to hang a movie on.
It doesn't help that the film really doesn't have the budget to make the dinosaur action interesting. The original King Kong came out in 1931 and managed to find a way to get the giant ape to directly interact with the human characters. Here, though, the dinosaurs are always clearly shown on a screen in front of the actors, or via different intercut shots, with barely any direct interaction. The action is never thrilling because it's always filmed at a remove, a pantomime. There's nothing viceral about it, blunting the impact. And since the dinosaurs are the big draw, this ends up cutting on of the biggest supports out from under the movie.
But then, the film really isn't aided by its politics, either. The film has a distinctly colonial/imperialistic feel to it. All of the crew memebrs (English and German) are white while all the characters they interact with on the island are brownish prehistoric men. These islanders are treated as inferior by the military crew, as less than, and the movie never corrects them on the matter. Sure, the film is a period piece set in World War I, but it was made in the 1970s and you'd think someone would have clued in the crew at least a little about the optics of the movie they were making.
Just all around the film manages to hobble itself. It can't quite figure out the story it wants to tell, how to convey the action it wasn't to showcase, or how to bring it all together into a cohesive story. Even the ending of the film is a let down, just beasically ending without really ending, setting up a closed-loop of a story that brings us back to the beginning all over again. It's irritating instead of satisfying.
So yes, The Land That Time Forgot is a bad movie, just not as bad as some. There's just enough talent in front of and behind the camera that you suspect with a different script, or a little more money, the producers could have made something actually decent (you know, by 1970s B-movie standards). It's not so amateurishly bad that it would go down in imfamy. It's just tolerably awful, acceptably bad.
Which is, of course, why the MST3k crew took it on. I'm starting to realize that the best episodes of this series require a tolerable bad movie -- if a movie is too awful the whole episode struggles to come together. Here the crew is in fine form, riffing steadily on the movie but able to coast when the film picks up. The Land That Time Forgot needs the MST3K treatment to be at all watchable (especially for modern audiences), so it's a good thing we have this version to watch. I couldn't imaging watching this movie without Jonah and the bots carrying us through it. I'm not that big a fan of this genre of monster movie, not so I can watch the really bad entries.