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Non-Review Review: Futurama – Into the Wild Green Yonder

Interesting. It seems that Futurama has somehow (presumably unconsciously) incorporated one of the central features from its key sources, the Star Trek franchise. It’s frequently asserted by fans of that series that the television show spawned a rather inconsistent movies series. Some, such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, could stand tall and be measured along the best movies that science-fiction could offer; while others, notable Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (in which Kirk kills God in a story pitched and directed by William Shatner), were actually terrible. The consensus emerged that the even numbered sequels were great and the odd numbered movies were terrible. This is just a run of thumb, and it’s possible it has been reversed (the tenth movie, Star Trek: Nemesis, was pretty disappointing; the eleventh, Star Trek, was a blast of fresh air) or even completely deconstructed. While none of the four Futurama movies are “terrible” or even “bad”, the distinction between the “okay” and the “great” seems to fall on similar lines. The first and third, Bender’s Big Score and Bender’s Game, weren’t great, while the second and fourth, The Beast With A Billion Backs and Into the Wild Green Yonder, perfectly capture all that was great about the show.

Here we go-go again...

This movie does feature some of the flaws evident in the other Futurama movies, most notably a divide between the four episodes that compose it (the movies are written as four episodes, so they can be broken down and aired as a “fifth season” of the show). Whereas this has gotten better as the movie series progresses (with Bender’s Big Score being a collection of random jokes thrown together, The Beast With A Billion Backs feeling far more cohesive, and Bender’s Game really feeling like two separate stories stuck together rather than four), here it feels like the first quarter of the film is an unrelated prologue (featuring Bender’s run-in with the robot mafia on “Mars Vegas”) leading into a single story told over the remaining three-quarters.

Here, for once, the movie finds a way to balance the plots of its three leading characters over a single story. Fry descovers he’s the universe’s last hope (“that happens to me a lot,” he concedes), Leela joins a bunch of feminists and goes on the run for “the harmless killing of a Vice-President”, and Bender gets to rat Leela out to the Feds for some money (“slush him!” Nixon commands). It’s nice to see Bender in a supporting role – while he’s undoubtedly the most popular of the leads, he suffers a bit from over exposure – his name is the only name to appear in the title of any of these movies, and it appears in two, for example.

Much like the other really successful spin-off movie, The Beast With A Billion Backs, the strength of this story comes from showcasing the rather wonderful irreverent style of the show, rather than simply dealing with some of its thematic baggage (though it definitely does that to). Witness the universe’s biggest miniature golf course, where the tee box is on Mars and the hole is orbiting Pluto. This leads to a rather wonderful chase sequence later on, where the Planet Express ship effectively navigates the trick shots, slingshoting around the planets, while the pursuing Nimbus… doesn’t.

Foiled again...

Although the series has been particularly fond of environmental themes over the years (even in the last movie), Into the Wild Green Yonder pulls it off without seeming like a boring retread. Part of its success comes from the fact that the set-up – Leo Wong bulldozing 12% of the Milky Way (“those dirty rings! I tried salting them out, even blasting them out!”) – is so ridiculous, but also because it factors that sort of “death and rebirth” into its main plotline, lending the story a wonderfully epic feeling. It has been suggested, and the ending would seem to support it, that Into the Wild Green Yonder was written and produced on the assumption that it would be the last time that the cast and crew would unite, so the story tries its best to offer a grand finale to the series.

However, it avoids the massive backlog of continuity which so bogged down Bender’s Big Score, instead finally deciding to write an “epic” conclusion – the bad guys are even ominously labelled “the Dark Ones”. In doing so, it manages to strike the perfect balance between emotion and humour in what it’s doing – which has been a staple of the show’s appeal and success. Note that final gathering of so many of the show’s beloved characters as Wong carries out his demolition – there are grand and beautiful forces at work, but there’s always a sly punchline to be had.

Finally, the movie manages to find balance. Bender’s Big Score tried to take in all of the Futurama universe at once, a nigh impossible task for an hour-and-a-half movie, while Bender’s Game felt “too small” for the format. Here, the script casts its net just wide enough. There are wonderful appearances from Zapp Branigan (who, on hearing all his crew is dead, remarks, “at least they don’t have to mourn each other”) and the show’s version of Nixon (“The one secret no one ever suspected is that I DID stage the moon landing… on Venus! ARROOOOO! Muahahaha!”), but they don’t feel gratuitous or thrown in for the sake of it. And it never feels like the focus is shifting from our three lead characters.

Of course, fate would reveal that this was not the end for the franchise, luckily enough, but – if it had been – I think it could have stood tall. I have a soft spot for the “original” finale (how many shows get to have two, even three, finales?), The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, but both are great stories. The quality of the movies has been a little “inconsistent” (though I think I’m in the minority here – apparently a lot of people loved all four), but they end on a high note.

Now, when is the sixth season arriving on my telly?

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