Locus Online



22 January 2009

DVD Review of
Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs
Bender's Game

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs


Futurama: Bender's Game

Directed by Peter Avanzino/Dwayne Carey-Hill

Written by Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, Michael Rowe/& Eric Horsted, Eric Kaplan, Patric Verrone

Starring the voice talent of Billy West, John Di Maggio, Katey Sagal, Lauren Tom, Phil LaMarr, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, David Herman, David Cross, Brittany Murphy, Kath Soucie, Frank Welker

[Amazon links above, IMDb links right]

Lawrence Person: We're back with a review of not one, but two Futurama DVDs, seeing as Howard was having too much fun getting his chest sliced open when The Beast With a Billion Backs came out.

Howard Waldrop: The gang's all here in this second batch of feature-length DVDs from 30th Century Fox. (Later they'll rebroadcast as 4-parters on Cartoon Network or Comedy Central or whoever the hell it is that's rerunning Futurama.)

LP: It is indeed Comedy Central, and these are DVDs 2 and 3 for those of you keeping score on the home game.

HW: Think of Futurama as the anti-Simpsons. I had high hopes the original series would rival its older brother in popularity. But the humor in Futurama is on a higher intellectual level. And it helps to have a grounding in SF.

LP: Methinks this is a wee bit unfair, if only because The Simpsons hit their peak about a decade ago (or even a bit earlier), when they were much funnier and smarter than the current hit-or-miss incarnation. But the quality of writing for all three of the Futurama DVDs is higher than the average episode back when it was airing. Futurama has aged very well indeed.

HW: Last year's Bender's Big Score was a classic. It played with SF tropes (especially time-travel) to a fare-thee-well. There were scenes where characters tried to undo things in the past someone had just done it the last scene just before. There was a post-mortem to explain it all. Not a time-paradox was left untouched. And it was funny.

In fact Bender's Big Score was so good, these two have something tough to live up to. The first is The Beast With a Billion Backs. A space anomaly opens up. And a creature from another universe comes through (mostly tentacles and an eye) and takes over everyone by sticking the end of a tentacle into the backs of their necks. It's like The Brain Eaters and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers rolled into one. Fry ends up as Pope of the Tentacle (Give yourself over to the Tentacle). Everyone does, willingly or not. There's lots of action and a weighty denouement (at one point the Tentacle has transported everyone to its recreation of Heaven) before things return to status quo ante. Living beings can cross the anomaly, robots can't. Farnsworth spends a lot of time throwing miniature robots into it and watching the fizz and sizzle.

LP: When the anomaly first appears, Farnsworth and rival Wernstrom battle over who gets to take care of it in a game of Deathball, which turns out to be a giant version of those old toys where you steer a ball through a tilting wooden maze of holes, except you can roll the giant balls over people. Once the tentacles come through, Zapp Brannigan is sent to fight it; he does as well as he usually does at just about any task. (He also sends Kif to his tragic death.)

HW:  Bender's Game, the next one, has Bender only wanting to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons with a bunch of preteens. He doesn't let the fact he has no imagination at all stop him. The episode is a take on the gas shortage (everyone is running out of dark matter that powers ships). The evil Mom is cornering the market (as Mombil). Her three sons (crosses between the Stooges and the Ritz Bros.) hench for her. Nibbler (the dark-matter pooping alien) is back. Bender ends up at the HAL Institute (for crazy robots) where they're going to give him a robotomy. (The nurse brings a toolbox.)

LP:  There's a great scene that opens with Bender strapped down to a table with a pendulum swinging back and forth above him, and alarm and siren going off, and rats and tarantulas crawling over him. Then the psychiatric robot walks in and says "I don't know why relaxation therapy isn't working."

HW: The episode then switches gears and goes into a D&D game (a dark matter dodecahedral die (that's a 20-sided die for the Platonic Solid Impaired -LP) has to be thrown into the Geysers of Gygax ) based on The Lord of the Rings. The one-eyed Leela has become a centaurette. Fry becomes Frydo, a cross between Frodo and Gollum. Somehow it all works itself out.

LP: In addition to being genuinely hilarious, Bender's Game warmed the cockles of my old RPG-playing heart. The whole "crazy Bender" plot is an inspired send-up of the whole moral panic over D&D back in the 1980s. Few D&D or fantasy tropes escape unscathed.

HW: But you don't watch Futurama for the plot. Turn your head to cough and you miss something. In the first, they pass a park with robots doing wholesome things. The sign at the park entrance says "Welcome—St. Asimov's Day Festival." There's an argument between Farnsworth and his arch-rival over whether earth needs a Diamondillium shield to cover it. Every line or two has at least 300 SF stories behind it. In Bender's Game, the Planet Express ship is entered in a demo-derby. Besides the behemoth starships, one of the entries is a '51 Ford pickup.

LP: There's also an awesome Yellow Submarine parody plopped down in the middle of the usual title sequence.

HW: The animation keeps getting better and better. There are several shots (especially in Bender's Game) that equal The Iron Giant in concept and execution.

LP: There are a fair number of extras on both these discs of varying value. The Beast With a Billion Backs features a "lost" episode that's actually cutscenes from the Futurama video game, which marries a subpar Futurama episode to a subpar 3D platformer. It's worth watching once, but it won't push the Wii aside at your next party.

Bender's Game boasts a number of smaller featurettes. There's one from the various writers on how D&D influenced them, and the little D&D Easter eggs they sprinkled throughout the series (like a robot taking his pet rust monster to the vet). There's also a hilarious send-up of various anti-piracy campaigns, with the announcer intoning "You wouldn't steal X, would you?" And, since it's Bender, the answer is always, yes, indeed, he would. (The footage is recycled, but it's still fun.) And you also get to see the vocal cast in the flesh as they do the show. (Who knew Bender looked so much like a surfer?)

For my mind, The Beast With a Billion Backs comes in a couple of notches below Bender's Big Score, mainly because the whole League of Robots subplot isn't as funny as it could be. However Bender's Game is, if anything, the best of the three thus far, and scales impressive heights of inspired lunacy. The bits in D&D world and the robot psychiatric hospital are wonderfully manic and frequently side-splittingly funny.

HW:  I'm glad Futurama hasn't dumbed anything down. It's gotten more intelligent. Buy these DVDs and put one of them on just after the next episode of The Big Bang Theory next Monday night. You'll get 2 1/2 hours of intelligently written television, the kind we all hoped it would all be like 50 years ago, when it was all just being born.

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