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Wednesday 5 December 2007

DVD Review of Futurama: Bender's Big Score

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Dwayne Carey-Hill

Written by Matt Groening, David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler

Starring the voice talent of Billy West, John Di Maggio, Katey Sagal, Lauren Tom, Phil LaMarr, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, David Herman, Frank Welker, Al Gore

Lawrence Person: Back in the late 1990s, some executives at Fox looked around and said "Hey, The Simpsons is one of the few shows we have that doesn't hemorrhage network money and/or bad taste from every orifice. Let's greenlight more innovative animated comedies." And thus both Family Guy and Futurama hit the air in 1999.

Shortly thereafter, Fox decided "Hey, let's bounce both of those shows around the primetime schedule like ping-pong balls in a blender." Strangely enough, this did not lead to ratings success, and Fox ended up killing both Family Guy and Futurama despite both being genuinely funny and having fanatically dedicated fan bases.

Fast forward a few years, and a new set of Fox programming pinheads says to itself "Hey, DVD sales for Family Guy and Futurama are through the roof. Since there are so many suckers desperate to thrust money into our hands, maybe we should milk these cash cows a little longer." And thus it was that Family Guy came back in 2005. Unfortunately, the resurrection of Futurama took longer, probably due in large measure to creator Matt Groening's ongoing work on The Simpsons.

Both: The premise behind Futurama was the classic "Sleeper Awakes" look at a future society through the eyes of a man from the present for the purpose of social commentary and (most especially in Futurama's case) satire. The sleeper in question was essentially an ersatz Buck Rogers, one Philip J. Fry (Billy West), a none-too-bright nebbish pizza delivery boy cryogenically frozen at the dawn of the 21st century only to be thawed out 1000 years later in a world filled with numerous science fiction tropes: spaceships, flying cars, aliens, suicide booths, pneumatic transport tubes, and living heads in jars. There he found work with interstellar delivery service Planet Express, accompanied by his best friend, the greedy, wisecracking, shiftless robot Bender (John Di Maggio), and the one eyed alien/mutant ship pilot and love interest Leela (Katey Sagal). Hilarity (and great, loving send-ups of SF ideas from Philip K. Dick to Star Trek) ensued.

Now, at long last, Futurama is back in the form of Futurama: Bender's Big Score, the first of four direct-to-DVD movies. A lot of plot in this one depends on returning to the past while the pizza is still hot. Trust us.

Howard Waldrop: You find out lots of stuff in this 88 minute episode (to run later I'm told as a 4-parter on the revived Futurama series). Like, the Nude Beach Planet has 3 suns. Bender's e-mail address is That the Harlem Globetrotters are all physics/math savants. That the Cylon War Memorial is a teenage parking/makeout spot. That when evil aliens kick everyone else off the Earth after scamming it silly, they sing Steam's (1969) "Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye".

This has the Earth taken over in the 30th Century (like the TV show, the movie is a product of 30th Century-Fox) by a race of scamming aliens — sort of pink naked Montgomery Burns types. Zoidberg (West again), the Cthulhu-faced alien at Planet Express becomes Prince of Nigeria; Professor Farnsworth (again West) loses the shop to them, and in-house bureaucrat Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr) gets decapitated (twice) and ends up a head-in-a-jar (twice). The aliens virus-up Bender, put him under their direct control, and use him to hunt down Fry, who has the equation for the non-paradox Time Sphere tattooed on his ass. When they get control of it, they send Bender to kill Fry, who has escaped into the past.

LP: What follows is essentially Futurama's version of Robert A. Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps", with multiple versions of Fry and Bender crossing each other's paths at different times.

HW: There are time paradoxes galore. The Time-Sphere is supposedly paradox-proof but is dangerous and shouldn't be used more than a few times. The aliens decide to send Bender to loot the past (the Time Sphere can only be used one-way). Bender says he'll steal the stuff, then wait 1500 years in the limestone cavern in the cellar beneath the building. He jumps into the Time-Sphere field and instantly climbs up out of the basement with the Mona Lisa under his arm. It's astounding to see it done so simply and dramatically in a cartoon. They knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it right. Even the subplots follow directly, logically from the premise.

We spend most of the time in the 30th Century. But a chunk takes place between 2000 and 2007 where Fry has gone for refuge (i.e. where he came from). Leela and a guy named Lars (from the Head Museum) fall in love, breaking Fry's heart. In the 20th Century he becomes the best friend of a toothed female narwhale and follows her to the North Pole. Needless to say, the solution to the 20th Century plot is also the key to the 30th Century stuff...

The aliens have used Earth's riches to buy themselves 50 or so gold-plated Death Stars. There's a climactic battle even Star Wars could never match. Plus, one of the time-paradoxes is the key to defeating the aliens.

LP: One of the great tragedies of Futurama's original cancellation was that it continued to get better, funnier, and more intricate as time went on, with an overarching story arc about Fry's vital importance to the survival of the universe. In that light, there are two criticisms to be made of this particular movie.

First, the overall quality of this movie, while very good, is just a notch below the very best episodes from the fourth season such as "The Why of Fry" and "Where No Fan Has Gone Before", which are virtually wall-to-wall funny.

Second, those who have never seen any of the original Futurama episodes may end up finding it more puzzling than amusing without knowledge of all the in-jokes and references which have preceded it, leading to questions like "How come the Harlem Globetrotters are solving advanced physics problems?" and "Why is the robot Santa Claus killing people?" (Of course, the solution to this problem is that everyone should watch all of the previous episodes before seeing this movie.)

That said, a merely good episode of Futurama still beats the crap out of the very best episode of American Dad.

HW: There are maybe three longuers here; it could have been a little tighter, but then, your eyeballs would have been jumping all over the screen and you would have caught something you would have missed otherwise.

This is as well thought-out as the Back to the Future movies: it's probably scene-for-scene funnier, too. You'll never think about time and paradox in exactly the same way again (even after all these years). And think: you saw it in a cartoon.

LP: Plus there are some amusing cameos from Al Gore. (His daughter Kristin was a writer for the series.)

As threatened, the DVD has a full-length episode of Everyone Loves Hypnotoad. It's pretty much exactly what you would expect.

HW: There are extras (commentary, scripts, etc.) I didn't watch. I did watch the Hypnotoad episode, supposedly the most popular show of the 30th Century. If so, the 30th Century is even stupider than now. I watched it at l6X and didn't miss a thing.

Both: Remember this at Hugo Time.

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