FUTURAMA: THE BEAST WITH A BILLION BACKS (2008)
**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B-
screenplay by Eric Kaplan
directed by Peter Avanzino
FUTURAMA: BENDER'S GAME (2008)
*½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
screenplay by Eric Horsted (parts one and two), Michael Rowe & Eric Kaplan (part three), David X. Cohen & Patric M. Verrone (part four)
directed by Dwayne Carey-Hill
FUTURAMA: INTO THE WILD GREEN YONDER (2009)
*/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras C
screenplay by Ken Keeler
directed by Peter Avanzino
by Ian Pugh While Matt Groening with "The Simpsons" had an incalculable effect on how I perceived movies, television, and just about everything else in life, truth be told I probably love his "Futurama" more. What can I say other than that it came at the right time in my life--it was my "Star Trek", my "Buffy", my "Doctor Who": the first sci-fi property to capture my heart, and the avatar into which I poured all my nerdy obsessions. I appreciated its ability to strike a perfect balance of comedy and characterization that legitimized its silliest scenarios. Who would have guessed that the search for a long-lost seven-leaf clover could turn into a touching tribute to brotherly love? Subplots often wore thin and jokes fell flat, but looking back, there isn't a single half-hour in its initial 72-episode run that can be considered an outright failure. Unfortunately, the show never got a chance to shine, placed at a ridiculous timeslot on Fox--Sunday at 7PM, where it was certain to be either pre-empted or overshadowed by Sunday Night Football (jocks vs. nerds!)--and thus doomed to an inevitably short life. The final episode of the fourth season promised that "Futurama" would "see you on some other channel," but the initial salvation came from Fox's home-entertainment division: The producers were offered the chance to do a direct-to-video movie, which was eventually negotiated up to four movies, made and released over a span of three years. Of course, the success of these paved the way for a sixth season due to air on Comedy Central beginning this week, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Fry (the great Billy West) and the rest of the gang still work for Professor Farnsworth (West) at his lowly delivery company, Planet Express, although more than two years have passed since they were "cancelled" by the fiendish idiots at the "Box Network." But they're back, baby, and so begins Bender's Big Score. Despite hilariously incessant references to the (fired and/or dead) executives who left them out in the cold, this first stab at a feature-length "Futurama" feels, to its credit, like a lost episode. It's now the year 3007, and the title deed to Planet Express has been accidentally signed over to a trio of nudist Internet scammers, with our heroes falling under their control--lovable rascal Bender (John DiMaggio, in top form) and all. Soon these hustlers discover a tattoo on Fry's ass, a portrait of Bender that holds the secrets to instant time travel...and they abuse that knowledge in a bid to steal history's greatest treasures. Bender's Big Score explains that its characters' subsequent trips through time are equipped with "self-correcting paradoxes," giving the writers ample opportunity to mess around with established continuity and kill off major cast members several times over. Flagrantly ignoring commonly-held rules of time travel, the movie takes almost perverse pleasure in tearing apart "Futurama" touchstones. Nothing is sacred: even the death of Fry's dog Seymour--perhaps the most affecting moment of the original series--is re-imagined here as a crude afterthought.
It's like a sci-fi nerd's wildest dream and greatest nightmare: the resurrection of a venerated franchise that doesn't settle unanswered questions, but instead creates a whole new slew of inconsistencies. (The actual origin of Fry's tattoo is never explained.) Frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. When it came to popular science-fiction tropes, "Futurama" always walked a perilous tightrope between deference and irreverence, and Bender's Big Score follows in that grand tradition proudly. Why shouldn't that double-edged appreciation be aimed at its own history? And yet, this antithetical response to Back to the Future Part II also manages to capture the heart that tied the show's cheekier moments together. Leela (Katey Sagal) falls for head-museum employee Lars (also West), much to Fry's consternation--and one more layer is added to "Futurama"'s central relationship. How do you change yourself to win the heart of the woman you love? Who and what are the obstacles that stand in your way? How does the passage of time better you as a person? Ambitious, complex, and simultaneously cozy, Bender's Big Score is a rousing success that, sadly, would not be repeated in this ersatz fifth season.
The consequences of time-travel eventually manifest in the sort-of-direct sequel The Beast with a Billion Backs. Bender accidentally rips a hole in the fabric of time and space--which, after much fear-mongering, is revealed to be a gateway to a sentient universe called Yivo (David Cross). Yivo has fallen in love with the inhabitants of our universe and uses the anomaly to send a swarm of tentacles that force mankind to fall in love and/or mate with him/it. At the outset, this "courting ritual" may resemble Invasion of the Body Snatchers (mental indoctrination as a physical violation), but it ends as a satire of obsessive relationships. There are secondary narratives that correspond neatly to the main one: Fry shacks up with a woman (the late Brittany Murphy) whose taste for multiple boyfriends eventually parallels Yivo's efforts to transform the universe into its hiveminded lover. Bender assumes the role of Calculon's "official stalker," netting him membership into a robots-only gentlemen's club and in turn becoming a convenient metaphor for the attempt to claim ownership of a significant other. But though all the pieces fit together nicely, there's something forced and ultimately meaningless about The Beast with a Billion Backs. If Bender's Big Score is the greatest "Futurama" story never told, then this follow-up suggests leftover "B" stories patched together with scotch tape. (Probably not helping matters: another subplot dedicated to Kif (Maurice LaMarche) and Amy (Lauren Tom), whose relationship is easily the show's least interesting recurring element.) The movie's jibes at romance don't have much to do with anything else--and they certainly aren't worth the tossing of Fry and Leela's relationship into the mental recycling bin.
Bender's Game is the only one of the four movies to boast as many as three credited teams of writers, and, appropriately, it's also the most disjointed. Bender goes crazy playing "Dungeons & Dragons" (just like your mother warned you) while Professor Farnsworth struggles to wrest control of spaceship fuel prices from the evil Mom (Tress MacNeille). The premise is running on fumes by forty-five minutes in, but Bender's Game would be an acceptable instalment of "Futurama"...if not for that last half-hour. Another scientific anomaly throws the heroes and villains into another alternate dimension; Bender's "D&D" fantasies are brought to life as the characters are recreated as centaurs, Gollums, and water "nymphos." It's an overlong paean to The Lord of the Rings and "D&D" creator Gary Gygax--not to mention The Empire Strikes Back in a tired send-up of its big twist --that would probably play like gangbusters as a six-minute sequence in the "Anthology of Interest" series. (Doubly infuriating: the entire fantasy sequence is crammed into the story indiscriminately, only to be abandoned with similar haste.) The appeal of the show's geek humour is that it's flip and, especially, esoteric--where's the fun in telling ancient watercooler jokes about the fantasy genre? Bender's Game may represent the first time "Futurama" ever felt compromised--trapped by the expectations of some hypothetical audience of easy-to-please Star Wars fans.
Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. The fourth and final movie, Into the Wild Green Yonder, basically represents everything we feared about this new iteration of "Futurama": it's precisely as corny and irrelevant as "The Simpsons" is today. Not only has the humour devolved from absurdity into mere wackiness, but virtually everything it has to say was already said, and better, by the series proper. Environmentalism (rehashed from "The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz") and feminism (rehashed from "Amazon Women in the Mood") receive redundant lip service as Leela joins a radical protest group to stop Amy's father (West) from bulldozing half the Milky Way. Meanwhile, Fry inadvertently gains the ability to read minds, attracting the attention of some crazy hobos who want his help defeating an ancient evil (rehashed from "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid" and "The Why of Fry"). The two stories eventually intersect when primitive life is discovered on a soon-to-be-demolished planetoid, but despite a number of boring, expository monologues, there's no telling why we should care. Did the Great Writer's Guild Strike of 2007 adversely affect the production? All signs point to yes. Regardless, Into the Wild Green Yonder is an uncharacteristically lame platform for futuristic-pun humour more suited to "The Jetsons".
Yet the biggest kick in the ass arrives at the eleventh hour, as the film frantically ties up loose ends. Fry's purpose in the universe, his unrequited love for Leela, and several other long-standing plotlines--you know, those storylines that were steadily avoided over the last three movies--are clumsily shoved into a two-minute climax that explains nothing. What Bender's Big Score parodied as lazy and intentionally aggravating Into the Wild Green Yonder tries to pass off as a compelling final chapter. That Groening, et al thought this would be a reasonable ending to the series doesn't bode well for Season Six, but 72 episodes and Bender's Big Score have earned them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe "Futurama" can only consistently achieve brilliance in its original half-hour, broadcast-TV format. Whatever happens, let's hope they write this sucker off as a mulligan.
The four "Futurama" movies are now available on DVD; as of this writing, Fox has brought Bender's Game and Into the Wild Green Yonder to Blu-ray as well. We at FFC were able to get our hands on the first three on DVD and the last on Blu-ray. On DVD, each film receives a 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer marred only by slightly washed-out colours--a minor problem that has plagued "Futurama" throughout its tenure on the format. Although the DD 5.1 audio of the DVDs is consistent from one film to the next, The Beast with a Billion Backs and Bender's Game have a negligible edge on Bender's Big Score--the back channels are utilized a little better, and the bass is a touch more powerful. Still, Into the Wild Green Yonder's 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray rendering is stunning by comparison: Boasting a darker-than-usual palette (scenes in the deep recesses of space are complemented by the deep neon purple of "Mars Vegas"), the image nevertheless reproduces every detail with crystal clarity; the characters outlines are sharp and the pastel colours really pop. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is likewise richer and clearer.
All four movies include commentary tracks, naturally. Creators/exec David X. Cohen and Matt Groening are mainstays along with John DiMaggio; several other participants--crewmembers and voice actors--are staggered across them. Bender's Big Score (which adds Billy West, Phil LaMarr, Ken Keeler, producer Claudia Katz, and director Dwayne Carey-Hill to the line-up) boasts a yakker that is hands-down the most energetic of the four--everyone's still buzzing from the sugar rush of "Futurama"'s resurrection. My favourite observation: no less than the writers themselves, self-proclaimed "sci-fi nerds" that they are, became bothered by the plot's time-travel inconsistencies! Indication, methinks, that they hit the nail right on the head.
Yakkers for The Beast with a Billion Backs (West, Maurice LaMarche, Katz, writer Mike Rowe, producer Lee Supercinski, and director Peter Avanzino), Bender's Game (West, Rowe, Katz, Carey-Hill, and Tress MacNeille) and Into the Wild Green Yonder (Rowe, LaMarche, Supercinski, Avanzino, and Patrick Verrone) aren't nearly as edifying, unfortunately, but you're treated to a lot of great, albeit irrelevant, anecdotes and vocal impersonations from the cast. It's enough to imagine that these lesser movies were a cheap excuse to reunite old friends, which I can't really argue with on principle. Not to be missed: imitations of Groucho Marx and Larry Fine as old men in Bender's Game. (Note that the Blu-ray editions have audio and video commentary.) Other supplements common from disc to disc: 3D models of CGI vehicles and props, though only entries two through four adorn these with (very dry) animators' commentary. Exclusive to the last three platters: storyboard animatics for the opening twenty-two minutes of their respective movies.
Starting with extras exclusive to Bender's Big Score: in "Futurama Returns!" (9 mins.), West, Sagal, LaMarche, and DiMaggio perform a live read-through of a special "Futurama" comic book recorded at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con. It explains how Planet Express was picked up for another "season"--in other words, it's a bunch of self-conscious, tortured metaphors that once again rework the show's network troubles into the fiction itself. The premise is clever enough, but it's the voicework that makes it a pleasure to sit through. "Everybody Loves Hypnotoad" (22 mins.) is supposedly an uncut broadcast episode of the 31st-century's most popular program. As you may have guessed, it's a mostly-unbroken shot of the Hypnotoad staring at his captive audience. Glory to the Hypnotoad!
The trio of "Deleted Storyboard Scenes" is negligible, but be sure not to miss "A Terrifying Message from Al Gore" (1 min.), a 2006 Internet promo for An Inconvenient Truth starring Gore and Bender. You get a pretty good feeling for Gore's acting chops from his later appearance in Bender's Big Score, but believe me, you haven't lived until you've heard him describe himself--with infinite contempt--as a "streetwise pimp with a hybrid pimpmobile." A video commentary from Cohen, Groening, and Gore doesn't reveal too much beyond the surprising camaraderie the producers share with the former Vice-President, whose daughter Kristin was a writer on the show. "Bite My Shiny Metal X" (26 mins.) is a "math lecture" from professor Sarah Greenwald of Appalachian State University, who apparently uses "Futurama" as a launching point into educational territory: the definition of Pi, how the alien languages were crafted, and numbers that are expressible by the sum of two cubes. This might be my math-phobic self talking, but although I realize the significance of the concepts and theorems being referenced, rehashing them in this form comes across as a cynical attempt to make mathematics seem hip and cool. Finally, three stragglers further demonstrate the crew's excitement to return: the first draft of the script (divided into episodes and acts), "New Character/Design Sketches" (notice how Lars compares to Fry), and the "Original 5-Minute Comic-Con Promo" that officially announced the show's relaunch. There's also an Easter egg on board: selecting the Bender tattoo on the second special-features menu will reveal a "Time Logic Scribble," an apparent attempt on Cohen and Keeler's part to straighten out the movie's various time-travel interactions. Nice try, fellas.
Extras found only on The Beast with a Billion Backs begin with "'Futurama': The Lost Adventure" (30 mins.). It's actually composed of cutscenes from the sixth-gen "Futurama" videogame (2003), edited together with a tiny bit of gameplay footage to create a makeshift episode. (Specific references to the scenario taking place in a videogame were excised.) As you may expect, the humour isn't quite as quick on the draw as it is in the series, but, oddly, the story itself represents a primitive version of the major themes explored in Bender's Big Score, as told in the context of the medium (the multiple deaths and rebirths of the cast; yet another vehicle for time travel). An attendant commentary track sheds light on how writers, producers, and voice actors typically accustomed to television translated their talents to another field entirely. Even capturing footage for this DVD release proved challenging: Cohen had to look up cheat codes to access scenes that weren't available on his copy of the game.
There are three-and-a-half minutes' worth of deleted scenes, and while some of them are fairly incidental, many would have injected the film with much-needed self-deprecation, such as Bender chastising the narrator for leaving so many threads from Bender's Big Score unresolved and an extended and less jarring introduction to Fry's new girlfriend, Colleen. The eponymous comedian spares a word or two for us amid his recording session in the "David Cross Featurette" (2 mins.). "Rape is too strong a word [for what Yivo does]," Cross explains; alas, beyond the actor's affinity for popcorn, you don't get much insight out of the deal. "Blooperama" (2 mins.) affords candid moments with the cast as they fluff their lines. Blooper reels are undoubtedly more interesting when set in a soundproof booth, if only because there's so much to learn from what you don't normally see. (Personally, it was gratifying to watch West-as-Zoidberg.) Director Peter Avanzino narrates "A Brief History of Deathball" (2 mins.), and a preview for Bender's Game finishes off the disc proper. Easter egg: the last special-features menu is presented "in glorious Grope-o-Scope"--select this bold declaration to get a good look at the Old Farmer's Wikipedia.
Next up, Bender's Game. The "Futurama Genetics Lab" is a surprisingly amusing gewgaw whereby you select two characters and "merge their DNA." The result is a specially-created character model combining various physical attributes to horrifying effect. "D&D&F (Dungeons & Dragons & Futurama)" (7 mins.) is what it sounds like: Cohen and Bender's Game writer Eric Kaplan discussing the references to "D&D" sprinkled throughout the series. Rowe, meanwhile, seems primarily interested in striking Kaplan with a baseball bat. As you can imagine, there's little to take from this beyond kind words for the late Gygax, though it's nice to see the writers pay homage to their role-playing roots...in a featurette, at least.
There's only one deleted scene ("Cup or Nozzle?"), so move on to "How to Draw Futurama in 83 Easy Steps" (8 mins.), a series of non-instructive tutorials for Zoidberg, Leela, and Bender (or Flexo) that mostly provide another excuse for the crew to goof off in front of a camera. Speaking of, "Blooperama 2" (2 mins.) highlights additional silliness from the recording booth. "Bender's Anti-Piracy Warning" (1 min.) is a parody of those obnoxious DVD commercials that compare illegal downloading to shoplifting; in spite of their famous anti-piracy screed "I Dated a Robot," I have to wonder whether the producers are desperate to get their stuff watched. A sneak preview for Into the Wild Green Yonder doesn't quite finish things off, as a few Easter eggs are stashed away on the final special-features menu. Select the Jolly Roger Zoidberg for a survey of David X. Cohen's dodecahedrons; select the "Civic Centaur" for another blooper reel in which West attempts to deliver the line "wedgie it on in there!"
Into the Wild Green Yonder's unique bonus material begins with"Matt Groening & David X. Cohen in Space" (4 mins.), wherein the producers recount their ride in a zero-g plane. It really doesn't make for great anecdote material--flying in the so-called "vomit comet" one of those things, I suspect, that you simply have to experience for yourself. "Docudramarama" (8 mins.) is a mockumentary that presents Lauren Tom as the lone auteur behind the script work, the voice acting, and the 2D and 3D animation. Cute, if forgettable. Next is "Louder, Louder!: The Acting Technique of Penn Jillette" (2 mins.), a piece about as informative as the David Cross interview on Beast with a Billion Backs, and the clips from Jilette's recording session are, again, too short to contain any real meat. In retrospect, content of this sort is beginning to worry me--"Futurama" is inching ever closer to "The Simpsons" and its dire cavalcade of guest stars. "Golden Stinkers" (3 mins.) is a fairly accurate designation for the warehouse of deleted scenes. On the other hand, they at least provide (dubious) background information on minor characters: Linda the reporter's last name might be "van Schoonhoven"; the southern lawyer-chicken who serves as "Futurama"'s Lionel Hutz might be "Matcluck." "How to Draw 'Futurama' in 10 Very Difficult Steps" (11 mins.) offers another round of doodles for Professor Farnsworth, Nibbler, the Hypnotoad, and Fry. It's a bit more substantial than the last one because the jokes are no longer the crux of the thing, having been half-heartedly recycled from the previous tutorial.
"Bender's Movie-Theater Etiquette" (1 min.) sees Señor Rodríguez breaking every code of conduct on a night out at the multiplex, while "Zapp Brannigan's Guide to Making Love at a Woman" (3 mins.) offers characteristically ignorant advice. I don't understand this type of promotional material, so lacking in perspective are these surveys of individual characters as to be completely worthless. Finally, click around the roulette wheel on the main menu for Easter eggs. Land on the "500" marker to access a flipbook animation of Bender, drawn on toilet paper. Check the centre of the wheel for an amusing anecdote about a delay in voice recording...as told by Zapp Brannigan. Originally published: June 21, 3010.
1. Another touch of genius: Bender's Big Score provides a bit of foreshadowing in its opening title sequence. The giant television screen that traditionally features an old cartoon from the 1930s now shows a scene from the pilot episode of "Futurama"--another "old cartoon" waiting to be subverted. return
2. For what it's worth, Bender's Big Score has a much better Star Wars meta-joke, probably inspired by History of the World Part I: hiring Mark Hamill to voice the dreaded "Chanukah Zombie," who mans a TIE Fighter adorned with the Star of David. return