If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, then repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax…”
These are the last lyrics of the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000. This caveat exists because the premise of the show isn’t about the setting or characters or universe. It’s about making fun of bad movies. You don’t need an aesthetic for that (and in fact, RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic have proven you don’t). It’s just some pleasant decoration around the content. A wrapper. It’s not meant to be thought about.
And yet people do.
Remember when Star Wars premiered? (No, probably not.) It was popular, but it was still a movie. A combination of samurai cinema and war films dumped into science fiction and goofy shit like space apes and robots with anxiety and cinnamon bun heads.
I mean, think about Darth Vader without any context. Hard to do, I know, but look at him standing there. Black boots, bulbous helmet out of Mars Attacks, laser sword, and a cape. Kinda goofy, isn’t it? Then thirty years later happened and now the red & white droid that breaks down as Luke and Uncle Owen are walking away from the Jawas has a backstory. It has a backstory!
The whole reason I’m thinking about this is because of the “Movies with Mikey” video essay about “Bill & Ted” in anticipation of the third movie. He’s a great analyzer but one of his repeated motifs through the piece is “don’t think about it”.
The reason is that the premise is silly. Two stoner rockers need to pass history class with an awesome presentation or the band will break up. This is a problem because, in the future, they write the song which unites the world in love and peace.
So a representative of that future gives them a time travel device so they can retrieve historical figures for their report. Straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will.
Immediately, discerning minds among you will have several questions. Is this really the best way to help Bill and Ted? Will abducting historical figures disrupt the past? Will giving them information about the future affect their work from thereon? Why are there no records of the figures talking about their adventures at the San Dimas mall? Do they need supervision operating a device that could wipe out space and time? Why is it a phone booth? (Besides ripping off Doctor Who.) How can a ten-digit number signify an exact place and time from at least 1 million BC to 2655 AD? Any point on Earth, any point in time, down to the…day? Because Rufus says to get to tomorrow, you have to dial one number higher. But then a clock for “present” San Dimas is still running? And I’m not even going to get into the fundamental questions which plague even the best stories about time travel. There’s very little about the story that makes sense (but that’s par for the course in any story involving time travel).
What does Mikey say? Don’t think about it.
Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me lampshades this specifically. As Austin is trying to understand the causality of time travel before he goes back to 1969, his boss says “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.” Austin himself turns to the camera and, with a wink and a nod, agrees.
But I can’t enjoy myself! Because I do think about those things! My mind is trained to. It comes from all those games like Dungeons & Dragons and Chess and Magic: The Gathering where you have to remember a hundred different conditions and reactions and bonus effects and strategies that are all going on at the same time. It comes from my education as a programmer, where you’ve got to remember what fourteen million lines of code do because it’s all a Jenga tower made of spaghetti. I have to think about these things–it’s what I do!
I’m not a fan of the idea “don’t think about it” axiom when it comes to consuming media. That’s a bad path to go down.
For one thing, it lets bad media “get away with it”. Crap TV and movies only meant to exploit your attention and take your money (stuff like Reefer Madness, Mac and Me, Catwoman, Gigli, Glitter, Showgirls, Batman & Robin, and The Land Before Time 87).
For another, it’s used as a defense against people who say “How can you like this? X, Y, and Z are wrong with it. If Q is true, nothing in the plot works. How can character R be so stupid? All these plot holes and character mistakes make no sense.”
“Don’t think about it.”
For another, people love thinking about it! They must–that’s why there are shows like Nostalgia Critic and Lindsay Ellis and The Game Theorists/Film Theorists and Cinema Sins and Mythbusters. That’s why there are DVD commentaries and “behind the scenes” documentaries. Who thinks about how long Bill Murray was in a time loop in Groundhog Day? Millions of people, that’s who!
Knowing how the trick works doesn’t necessarily take away the magic. If you turn off your brain, you can’t appreciate it when they do get things right. It’s the little touches that show that people put EFFORT into the creation of the piece. That means they cared. And if they cared, you should be allowed to.
So there’s the question: Should you think about it? Should you not? Is it up to you? Does the combination of viewer and thing-being-viewed make the difference?
I think the key to remember is that no story is flawless. (“No movie is without sin.”) Citizen Kane, always considered the best of the best of the best in cinema, has a huge plot hole: the whole movie hinges on discovering the meaning of “Rosebud”, his last words. But Kane dies alone, so how does anyone know what his last words are? None of the movie should have happened.
Gone with the Wind has an electric lamp and It’s a Wonderful Life has a disappearing wreath between shots. How does Andy Dufresne reattach the Raquel Welch poster so securely after his escape in The Shawshank Redemption? In The Karate Kid, the referee explicitly states that hits to the face are not allowed. How does Daniel-san win? A glorified kick to the face. And we shall forever debate whether Jack could have fit on the door next to Rose.
Did any of these mistakes affect your enjoyment of the film? Did you even notice them? You probably will now, but how much will it change your enjoyment? Not much, I wager. Fiction helps us understand reality. Just like kittens play-fighting or your kids playing with action figures. It’s a safe space you can explore ideas or simulate new ones without hurting anyone. Everything from Casablanca to Bill and Ted.
It’s the movie’s duty to create more good parts than bad. That doesn’t mean expensive special effects or complex acting nuances. It means creating a playspace with emotional investment, rather than logical. Movies with nonsensical premises, like Mrs. Doubtfire or Edward Scissorhands or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs don’t get trashed because the story pulls you in. (And if I knew how they do it, I’d bottle it up and make a million dollars.) But I do know that without investment, your attention wanders away to the problems.
It’s like ants in your sugar. One ant can be picked out. But the more ants you have to pick out, the less appetizing the sugar gets. Or like a diamond ring–if you don’t like the husband, you start seeing the flaws in the rock.
Now, you can get TOO emotionally invested in a movie, like Star Wars or Harry Potter where it becomes your whole identity. (Also applies to things like music, sports, YouTubers, female pop artists, and podcasts–anything with a toxic fandom.) A good story brings characters to life. But when you confuse those characters with reality or choose to give up on reality and live in the illusion, that’s a problem. Especially when it starts hurting others. You choose the movie, don’t let the movie choose you.
But to say about any movie “don’t think about it” is to let others get away with poor quality and low effort. It gives carte blanche to bad actors, malevolent producers, maniacal writers, and anyone who uses story-telling to exploit people and gain money. If you don’t care about the obvious distracting flaws, why should they? That’s why people get away with The Human Centipede and Caligula and Old Fashioned (or any Pureflix movie) or The Oogieloves. They advertise nasty sex or gore-riffic violence or reaffirmation of your Christian values or 90-minute distractions for your kids.
I’m going to watch Bill and Ted 3. And I am going to think about it. And it’s up to the movie whether or not it’s earned the right to rise above the flaws & mistakes. To create give & return in the characters so that I’m no longer looking for the strings holding the flying saucers.
You can think about it too much, but you should always think about it.