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Non-Review Review: Futurama – The Beast With A Billion Backs

I wasn’t overly impressed with the first of the Futurama movies, Bender’s Big Score. It was grand, and a wonderful emotional kick made it worth watching, but it felt very insular and a little too random in its execution – built around in-jokes and clever ideas discarded after five minutes or so. Somewhat paradoxically, it felt more like a “final” episode than the “first” of anything, let alone a welcome to this new format for the show. So I was more than a bit relieved to discover that The Beast With A Billion Backs was a far more consistent viewing experience, but also one which felt a lot more like a regular episode of the show, just stretched to two hours. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

... And Zoidberg, too!

The movie – the second of four – is simply great fun, and a lot less continuity-heavy than the one just before it. Sure, there are cameos for characters featured over the years (The League of Robots is just an excuse to show many of the countless robots the show has featured over the years, for example), but the plot isn’t built around references to previous episodes. You could watch this episode as your first experience with the show, and you’d be able to pick up what’s going on (and who is who) fairly easily.

As the name would imply, this movie is also a bit more risque (as you might imagine for a feature which includes the line, “open your necks and feel the love!” and the creation of a word I never plan to use again, “genticles”). It seems quite a bit more graphic than what came before (“throw the bouquet”, indeed). Still, these lend a hint of spice to the show, and the suggestion that the creators might be taking advantage of their direct-to-video market to be a little cheekier than they might have been before. of course, the show was capable of being wonderfully dark and twisted, but this film feels somehow “harsher”, perhaps – there’s a lot of black humour about.

And yet there’s a return to the original show’s sense of sci-fi fun (with little quick clever concepts, like Fry’s channel-changing tie, for example, or “2D Tunnel of Love” or the hyper-competitive “Deathball”), not to mention its unashamed geekery (Stephen Hawking’s cameo wonderful cameo – “I didn’t know I could do that”). Though it has always been the sound of doors opening, here it seems even more sound effects have been lifted literally from the original Star Trek series (most obviously on the Nimbus, with the alert sirens and the sounds of various controls). The entire episode is packed to the brim with Star Trek homages – down to the death of a first officer álá Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Fry’s trip through the void álá Star Trek: The Motion Picture (itself a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Plus it features a larger role for Zapp Brannigan, who has always been one of the show’s more charming creations – a large ham inspired by William Shatner, and voiced in loving tribute to Phil Hartman. Trust me when I say that you can never have enough of Zapp.

Sticking his neck out there...

As a result of all these elements, the movie feels less substantial than the earlier movie, but more entertaining – more like a regular episode of the show than a “special” event. It benefits from being a lot less random than its direct predecessor, particularly since the episode does (more or less) follow a linear plot. Despite the fact that it lacks the sense of importance that Bender’s Big Score had, it does feel decidedly more comfortable being what it is – it takes its time getting where it’s going, rather than cramming subplot after subplot after subplot into its runtime. Still, it’s nice that events follow a linear progression through the movie, rather than stopping-and-starting.

In many ways, it feels like a better “fit” as a Futurama project than Bender’s Big Score. For instance, while maybe the climax of the first film felt like a conscious attempt to do “blockbuster” style action, the finale here is more in keeping with exactly the kind of craziness that we came to love the original television show – watch as Bender and his pirates “board” heaven with an army of the damned he got in a deal with the Robot Devil. It’s as crazy as it sounds. It’s wonderful, it’s wacky, it makes little-to-no-sense – and that’s why I love it. Even the “moral” articulated by Bender at the finale seems perfectly in keeping with the acid sharp bite that the show was so highly regarded for, and a sign that the writers don’t necessarily feel they have to add airs or graces to suit the fact that they are producing feature-length movies rather than a weekly television show.

The Beast With A Billion Backs is fun, in that wonderful endearingly hokey way that the television show was. It’s a far more conventional film than the one which came before it (and arguably far more conventional than the ones that followed), but it’s the stronger for it. It is literally like a two-hour episode of the original show. And who can’t get behind that?

One Response

  1. Beast is pretty solid, especially compared to Bender’s Game and Bender’s Big Score– at the very least it has David Cross, and even Wild Green Yonder (the best of the bunch) has an alarming lack of David Cross. I think what makes Beast work so well is that it feels like a really genuine Futurama adventure, the kind of shenanigans that we’d see the series get up to in the event of being regularly scheduled. Undoubtedly the rest of the series could have used a good dose of that same absurdity.

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