[23 June 2008]
Futurama fans are stuck between gratitude and indignation. It used to be simple: there was nothing but outrage. Those who loved the brainy, geeky, good-looking Matt Groening creation were safe knowing that their show was screwed over. Its timeslot was jerked around, sometimes airing during dinnertime, and often co-opted by football. It was given no lead-in, no promotion.
When its inevitable cancellation came down—while the show was airing some of the best episodes in its run, sometimes besting its much more popular Simpsons sibling in quality—fans knew they were justified to be damned annoyed.
Then Cartoon Network came along and changed everything. The cable station gave a second life to a few excellent animated shows that never found their niches in primetime: Home Movies, Mission Hill, and, obviously, Futurama. For a fan, this was, as the show’s Professor Farnsworth often says, good news. Then other networks saw how well these shows were doing, both on Cartoon Network and DVD, and ordered new material for both Futurama and another FOX cancellation, Family Guy.
This is how Futurama fans became ambivalent. On one hand, any new Futurama material is a gift, finally letting the show’s creator’s have breathing room to achieve the potential only hinted at in previous DVD commentaries. On the other, Futurama was allotted four feature-length movies sent straight to DVD, to be chopped up and aired as individual episodes later in 2008, on cable (Comedy Central). Meanwhile, Family Guy gets its slot back on prime-time Fox, and has since born a knock-off (American Dad) and a spin-off (The Cleveland Show), ensuring that Fox will broadcast the ugliest, crassest cartoons possible from now through the foreseeable future.
It’s just not fair.
It’s impossible to approach the new Futurama movies without this baggage. (After all, it’s only fans watching the films, since they still require a DVD purchase.) The first Futurama film, Bender’s Big Score, provided excellent catharsis. It made elegant reference to its own cancellation (“Good news, everyone! Those asinine morons who canceled us were themselves fired for incompetence.”) It involved a quest for true love, which allowed for a poignant emotional release. And, of course, it had an overly complicated, brain-bending time-travel plot, which hit all the right notes for sci-fi fans.
With that out of the way, the new film, The Beast with a Billion Backs, feels more like it’s picking up where the series left off. Instead of stretching for feature-sized drama and weighty character arcs, The Beast with a Billion Backs feels more like an easy B-movie: there’s a rift in space that leads to another dimension, where a tentacled being (Yivo, voiced by David Cross) starts taking over the people of Earth in a way reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
With a lower-concept plot and a ‘50’s horror feel, the second Futurama movie is free to be flat-out funnier than its predecessor. Instead of longing glances between will-they-or-won’t-they leads Fry (Billy West) and Leela (Katey Segal), we get scenes of robot Bender (John DiMaggio) selling his first born to the Robot Devil, picking up an adorable Robot Child, and tossing him into the deepest pits of Robot Hell. (This helps Bender in his subplot about achieving robot domination and human annihilation, a concept which is thoroughly mined for laughs, especially when it’s made known that his robo-centric society runs its meetings based on “Robot’s Rules of Order.”)
The epic hero’s journey is out. Jokes about the difference between “tentacles” and “gentacles” are in. And, with that, Futurama returns to form.
The only overlap between The Beast with a Billion Backs and Bender’s Big Score is an examination of love. In the first film, Fry goes on a soul-searching, time-twisting journey to find his true love. He becomes disillusioned by the time he gets to the beginning of Beast with a Billion Backs, and Yivo helps turn him on to the pleasures of dating and polyamory. Yivo’s disgusting tentacles and smooth-talking hypocrisy casts a much more cynical light on the discussion of love, a cynical attitude that much better matches the tone of the series.
The only way in which the first movie is superior to The Beast with a Billion Backs is in the special features. The first DVD comes with—of all things—a math lecture, which decodes the super-geeky math jokes slipped into the background of scenes.
The new DVD has nothing so cool: besides the normal spate of commentaries and deleted scenes, it comes with the narrative scenes of a long-canceled Futurama video game with a visual style that’s so crude—especially compared to the smooth, gorgeous animation of the film—that it’s tough to watch. But, then again, even video-game outtakes contain new Futurama wisecracks, and fans must resign themselves to getting their Futurama fixes in whatever forms we can take them.