Reviews

Futurama: Bender's Game

Delightfully nerdy, but not quite as nerdy as the Star Trek-on-crack weirdness of the earlier shows.


Futurama

Distributor: Fox
Cast: Billy West, John DiMaggio, Katey Sagal, Lauren Tom, Phil LaMarr, Maurice LaMarche
Network: Fox
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 2008-11-04
Amazon

Matt Groening's Futurama is just one of many recent, brilliant television shows canceled before their time (more often than not by the Fox network) -- only with a lucky streak exceeded only by the infinitely lamer (but bro-friendlier) Family Guy. Since returning to television sets via a series of direct-to-DVD series, Futurama has been able to take consistent, repeated advantage of longer-form storytelling, a format that usually involves epic, Hollywood-sized waiting periods to go along with those bigger budgets and longer running times (Family Guy gave it a try a few years ago, with Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, to little acclaim).

Though the features eventually air on television and can be broken up into four makeshift "episodes" apiece, their freewheeling, inventive exploration Futurama's thirtieth-century universe is clearly meant for marathon-length sitting. The movies haven't been as perfect as the best episodes -- but the comparison usually doesn't make much sense, either, like comparing an author's short stories and novels.

That said, Bender's Game, the third DVD in the series, feels more like a stretched-out episode than its predecessors, Bender's Big Score! and The Beast with a Billion Backs: more streamlined, but less enjoyably head-spinning. Score and Backs had almost unreasonably labyrinthine sci-fi plots -- too digression-happy for a typical feature film, but far more ambitious than 22 minutes could ever allow. While those movies explored time-travel, love, sex, and human conception of heaven, among others, Bender's Game features an extended riff on Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings. It's delightfully nerdy, yes, but not quite as nerdy as the Star Trek-on-crack weirdness of the earlier shows.

When we reunite with the Planet Express crew, dark-matter fuel prices are climbing, Leela is sentenced to collar-based anger management, and Bender wants desperately to activate his imagination chip and join in on Dungeons & Dragons games. The story threads converge neatly when dark matter amplifies Bender's delusions, throwing the characters into an alternate universe. Though bizarre worlds are common to Futurama, this one is more fantasy than the show's usual sci-fi, full of centaurs, magic, unicorns, and Morks (orc-like creatures that bear a striking resemblance to late-seventies Robin Williams).

This climactic section is more like one of the "Anthology of Interest" episodes from the original series, which were basically the Futurama versions of the annual Simpsons Halloween episodes: what-if scenarios unbound by regular continuity. Strangely, the set-up that precedes it is funnier -- indeed, some of the fall-down funniest material of the three DVDs to date. The fantasy sequences have some clever spoofery, especially when Fry begins to take on some Gollum-esque qualities, but they lack a strong conceptual or emotional center. Bender's fantasies no longer seem as deranged, Fry is off coveting a powerful twelve-sided die, and most of the other characters are reduced to shape-shifted cameos. The subplot about Leela's tendency to solve her problems using violence is smart, but it's an afterthought next to the character-repurposing and, of course, the jokes.

This being Futurama, those jokes -- even the silliest ones -- have their weird little complexities. The story takes its inspiration not just from D&D, but something markedly more obscure: in the commentary track, writer-producer David X. Cohen explains that Bender's gaming madness is a spoof of alarmist warnings in the eighties that suggested role-playing games might drive our nation's children to insanity.

Groening-related commentaries are always worthwhile even for casual fans, but in keeping with the movie's jovial tone, this one is a bit more manic than the best Futurama tracks, with too many talented voice actors laughing and joking with each other. More focused and informative is Dungeons & Dragons & Futurama, a short Cohen-hosted guide to D&D references not only in Game, but hidden in older episodes of the show (secret D&D references, of course, are level-five nerdy, while straightforward ones are merely level-three).

The rest of the extras are fairly routine: a negligible deleted scene, some welcome but too-fleeting footage of the voice actors in the studio, and behind-the-scenes material. If there's any disappointment with the disc it's that it's not as encyclopedically nerdy as you (and by "you," I mean "you who are as nerdy as I") might hope for a cult sci-fi cartoon paying homage to a role-playing game. Only in a universe as creatively fertile as Futurama's could an expansive fantasy land feel too limiting.

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