Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bite My Shiny Metal Ass

Just like that, the end of the week's rolled around already. I suppose this means it's time for me to write another one of these blog things, what with that whole crazy idea of providing regular new content. (Consistent only in its inconsistency, of course.)

I could take a little time to comment on the "teabagging" protests misguided conservatives attended sponsored by Fox News a week and a half ago, pretending they were a legitimate grassroots movement. But let's be honest, paying attention to those idiots only serves to legitimize their message. The rich aren't pitiable victims, they just don't want to carry their part of the tax burden. Greedy fucks. America isn't a meritocracy, and wealth and lack thereof have nothing to do with how hard people work like they imply. Let's move on to something more valuable.

How valuable, you ask?

Let's get nerdy and talk Futurama.

I bring up the subject because I received the latter three of the four final movies for my birthday last weekend, and in having finally finished the series, I felt the movies and the series' future would make a fun, appropriately nerdy discussion for a post on here, given my fondness for nerdy pop culture blogging in general.

So let's hop to it!

Bender's Big Score

The movies were kicked off in fall 2007 with the release of Bender's Big Score, around four years after the last episode of the 5th season (Though regarded as the 4th by the creators, Fox having split the last season into two in broadcast.) initially aired.

Beginning a trend the other films followed, Bender's Big Score told a series of elaborately interwoven series of subplots with one central storyline holding everything together. (And in no way skimped on the references to the previous seasons, with Futurama having a far more cohesive and well-developed storyline and setting than Matt Groening's other, better-known show, The Simpsons, ever has. Futurama can generally pull of more dramatic storytelling and character development far better than The Simpsons as well, in having some legitimately well done sci-fi drama elements to complement the comedy writing.) Each of the movies tend to embody a feeling of either being several episodes of the show strung together, or simply one long episode of the series. And typically, compared to the TV series, the writing in the movies tends to feel a little unbalanced - probably due to a combination of both working with a longer running time to let the films' stories play out and not having written scripts for the show for several years.

The core story of Bender's Big Score focuses on a group of nudist internet scammer aliens scamming their way to taking over the Earth. Bender - the series' much-loved chain-smoking crime-prone robot - ends up infected by a virus that leaves him in the scammers' service. In the process of taking over the series' central Planet Express delivery business, the scammers also find the secret code for paradox-correcting time travel in a tattoo of Bender on one of series protagonist Fry's buttocks. In learning the secret of time travel, the aliens begin sending Bender to the past - as the code only allowed for travel backward in time - to pillage human history of its greatest treasures.

While this is going on, Fry deals with feelings of jealousy when Leela - his long-time romantic interest, cyclops, and another of the series' lead characters - begins dating Lars, a guy from the local head-in-a-jar preservation center, who she meets after Planet Express bureaucrat Hermes accidentally gets decapitated. (His efforts to get his head properly reattached to his body is another of the film's numerous interwoven subplots.)

Once the scammers have effectively looted history, they decide to get rid of the time code by killing Fry and blanking it from Fry's memory, but before they can, Fry escapes to the past, resuming his old life from just after when he'd first frozen himself on New Year's Eve 1999. Bender travels to the past to track down and kill Fry, wreaking havoc on early 2000s America as Fry continues to elude him. Eventually, Bender takes Fry out and returns to the future to report his success, suffering a crisis when he finally clears the virus from his system, realizing he'd killed his best friend.

The rest of the film follows the question of what really became of Fry, following a story at sea in which he falls in a form of unrequited love mirroring his own long-time feelings for Leela throughout the series. Back in the future, having been cast off of Earth, the population assembles a motley army to attack the scammers and retake the Earth.

The film can undoubtedly confuse those unfamiliar with the series itself, relying as heavily on the viewers knowing the characters and being familiar with a lot of the show's running injokes, minor characters, and such. But overall, while an unbalanced film - the humor largely hit and miss, and the central story a bit muddled, but full of good character development - it set a good tone for the Futurama movies as they were made.

The Beast with a Billion Backs

The second Futurama movie, The Beast with a Billion Backs, picks up where Bender's Big Score left off, with a massive tear forming in the fabric of the universe as a result of the massive abuse of time travel. Following an initial panic, most people continue to go on with their regular lives, while the scientific community debates what to do about the tear in the universe.

The first half hour or so of the film feels much like a self-contained episode, leading gradually up to the rising action of the central narrative, like in the other films. Long-time couple Amy Wong and Kif Kroker get married. (The former being the Planet Express intern and series regular since the first season, and the latter being downtrodden assistant to the semi-regular Flash Gordon/Captain Kirk parody, Zapp Brannigan.) And Fry starts dating a girl named Colleen, who he decides to move in with even after learning that she had four other boyfriends. Feeling abandoned with Fry moving out of their apartment, Bender's own comical misanthropy toward the human race begins to grow again. Fry ends up breaking up with Colleen within the first half hour of the film shortly after moving in, after learning of her plans to bring a sixth guy into the relationship.

After the Planet Express crew manages to win a game of Deathball (A gigantic take on Labyrinth) against Professor Farnsworth's rival, Wernstrom, they gain the right to explore the tear in the universe. In the process, they find that only living things can pass through the anomaly, while electrical objects like robots are either repelled or destroyed.

Following this initial story arc, loneliness begins to grip the characters - Fry and Bender in particular - the initial exploration of one of the film's central philosophical themes. After hearing that the League of Robots - a mythical robot society not unlike the Masons - didn't exist despite his longtime belief otherwise, Bender attempts suicide in a suicide booth (Mirroring the beginning of the series, where he and Fry first met.), only to stumble upon the League of Robots' secret lair and be inducted. Fry, on the other hand, stows away on a Zapp Brannigan-led expedition to destroy the anomaly and the other universe beyond with a missile, planning to slip into the other universe and leave his life on Earth behind forever.

Zapp's assault on the other universe backfires and ends up killing Kif. While the others mourn Kif back on Earth, Fry passes through to the other universe, where he meets a massive, one-eyed, multi-tentacled monster. Fry returns to Earth with a tentacle attached to the back of his neck, leading an assault with the indestructible tentacles, instructing the populace of Earth to love the tentacles as the population of the planet is forcibly bonded to the creature. With the entire planet under its influence, Fry becomes the pope of a new religion devoted to the tentacles, attachment to them bringing deep satisfaction and happiness to all the people of the world.

While Bender brings upheaval to the League of Robots in a challenge to the League's leader, soap opera star Calculon, Leela flees the tentacles with Zapp Brannigan and Amy in tow. After some careful research, she makes a shocking discovery, which she revealed to the church congregation after assimilating disguised with a fake tentacle: the monster's tentacles were all actually genitalia. This prompts the creature, Yivo, to finally speak directly through Fry, and confess that it'd originally just been looking for a one-night stand with their entire universe, but after its long, lonely existence, had actually fallen in love with their universe. As a gesture of his intentions, Yivo proceeded to bring Kif back to life, who discovered shortly afterward that Zapp and Amy had slept together while he was dead.

With that, Yivo asks everyone in the universe out on a date at the same time, which the universe agrees to. But lacking any clear signs of a commitment, the universe sends a delegation to break up with Yivo, who proposes then, and the universe accepts. Bender leads an uprising - with an army provided by the Robot Devil in exchange for Bender's firstborn son - to overthrow human society in the name of the League of Robots, only to watch the rest of the universe depart to live on Yivo's body in his universe via golden escalators which descend from the sky. Unable to join them, the robots are left behind to inherit the Earth.

Upon arrival, humanity finds that all the traditional human works of art depicting the Christian heaven - a beautiful kingdom in the clouds with angels - had been based on Yivo's surface, which he'd transported dreams of to Earth's artists centuries prior. Everyone else is deliriously happy there, but Leela remains suspicious of Yivo's motives. Only when she finally accepts the others' happiness does she allow herself to succumb to her own loneliness and become happy with life on Yivo as well, a place of eternal bliss.

Fry sends a letter across dimensions to Bender - breaking the rules on Yivo - which ends up prompting the robot population to head to the anomaly to give the rest of the universe a major reality check about the nature of love and how nasty it can (And sometimes has to) be in life.

In terms of writing, I consider The Beast with a Billion Backs to be the second best of the four. The comedy aspect's probably the most off-course for the series out of the four movies, relying on an excess of awkward gross-out jokes, which the series itself previously used rather sparingly. But the quality of the core writing itself more than makes up for that - the film feeling like a better one of the show's more serious character development episodes - with all that it has to say about the nature of love, loneliness, and religion.

Bender's Game

In terms of plot depth, Bender's Game is the weakest of the Futurama films overall. But more so than the previous two, it nailed the comedy in a manner similar to the TV series. They really turned the nerdiness up to 11 in this one.

Bender's Game focuses on a simple story, overall. The Planet Express crew has to conserve fuel due to the rising costs of dark matter - a rather blatant allegory for the issue of gas prices here in America - and eventually realize that the villainous Mom (Of Mom's Friendly Robot Company) has a monopoly on the business and was fixing the prices.

Bender gets hooked on Dungeons & Dragons with Professor Farnsworth's clone, Cubert, and Hermes' son, Dwight. In proper '80s scare movie fashion, this ultimately causes Bender to go insane, leading to his commitment to the robot asylum featured in one episode of the TV series. A twelve-sided die the kids use in the game turns out to be the Professor's missing "anti-backwards" crystal that would allow him to render all dark matter inert as starship fuel, having originally discovered how to convert the matter to starship fuel himself decades prior.

With that, the crew heads off to Mom's dark matter mine, where they learn the method behind its mass production - filling in some more back story from the TV series - and midway through a showdown with Mom and her lackey sons, all the dark matter in the world begins to resonate while Bender undergoes a Robotomy to have his imagination processor removed. As a result, everyone is thrown into an alternate fantasy world derived from Bender's imagination.

The majority of the rest of the film focuses on a D&D/Lord of the Rings parody retread of the storyline we'd just watched, adjusted and refitted to the new setting. When everyone manages to return to reality, a revelation about one of Mom's sons is made, and the showdown resolves in time for the end credits.

Subplots include Leela being fitted with a shock collar to learn to deal with her anger issues and build-up to the revelation of the aforementioned secret about one of Mom's sons.

Overall, Bender's Game isn't stellar in terms of storytelling. But its focus is more on following the Anthology of Interest "what if" TV series episodes with its fantasy parody side of the plot. That and the refinement of the humor naturally make it required viewing for Futurama fans.

Into the Wild Green Yonder

Of all four, Into the Wild Green Yonder really embodies everything I was looking for in a Futurama movie. It figures, of course, that it would be the last movie to effectively nail all aspects of the series well, but it's the movie you'd want to do just that, too.

The film begins with the Planet Express crew taking a trip to Mars Vegas on the surface of Mars, which Amy's father Leo - the Wong family being extremely wealthy and affluent - destroys after the opening credits, then immediately replacing it with the superior "New Vegas." During its construction, the site is protested by a group of ecofeminists who Leo and the crew largely brush off - while an accident leads to a piece of ecofeminist Frida's jewelry getting lodged in Fry's brain - and Leela ends up saving a single Martian muck leech before their last habitat is immediately paved over during the New Vegas construction process.

Upon the completion of New Vegas, Fry realizes he can hear voices inside his head and that he's somehow become telepathic. In a back alley, he meets a fellow telepathic in a hobo named Hutch, who gives him a tinfoil hat to block the voices. He also warns Fry not to reveal his powers and beware of the "Dark Ones," a sort of ominous and more threatening villain concept than the series has ever seen before. While all this is going on, Bender begins an affair with the Mafia Donbot's wife, Fanny.

The first half hour or so of the film largely plays out like a single episode of the series, focusing on Bender's affair and a poker competition which both Fry and Bender enter, each intending to cheat their way to victory in their own way. Bender eventually ends, which leads to the Donbot's confirming the affair and burying both Bender and Fanny.

The main story kicks into high gear in the remaining hour when Leo Wong unveils plans to destroy part of the galaxy as so to construct the largest minigolf course in the universe. While surveying a proposed site to be demolished in a violet dwarf system, the crew finds an asteroid teeming with primordial life. Having been bribed by Leo repeatedly, though, Professor Farnsworth still approves the destruction of the site, despite objections from Leela and Fry.

Furious with the Professor's decision, Leela joins with the ecofeminists and stages a protest at Leo's normal-sized minigolf course while he was playing a game with Earth President Nixon. Things go awry, and they end up accidentally killing the headless body of Spiro Agnew and have no choice but to go into hiding. Under Leela's leadership, the ecofeminists decide to start sabotaging Leo's project, and she drops by Planet Express briefly to pick up the Martian muck leech as their mascot. There, she and Fry share an emotional farewell, Fry supporting her decision, not knowing when they'd see one another again.

Soon after, Hutch introduces Fry to the Legion of Mad Fellows, an underground group of telepaths looking to save the universe from the Dark Ones. He learns that two races - the Encyclopods and Dark Ones - had evolved as a result of a sort of competitive evolutionary arms race on the same planet. The essentially extinct Encyclopods evolved to preserve the DNA of all endangered species in the universe and recreate these extinct species. Conversely, the Dark Ones had evolved to counter them - seeking to destroy the Encyclopods and all biological life. A threat entirely unlike what the Futurama universe had faced before. He also learns that an Encyclopod will soon be born in the violet dwarf system, and that it was up to Fry to save the system, being immune to the Dark Ones' psionic powers due to his weak brain waves. (His exceptional stupidity had helped to save the Earth from giant brain alien invaders twice in the original TV series as well.) In undertaking his assignment to save the violet dwarf system, Fry infiltrated Leo's financial empire as a low level security guard.

Leo hires Zapp Brannigan and Kif - who are also joined by Bender, jealous of Leela's growing criminal record surpassing his own - to hunt down the ecofeminists, whose numbers had only grown with regular and supporting female cast members fed up with the amount of chauvinism and misogyny they were dealing with from the men in the series. Along the way, they end up capturing the Planet Express ship, imprisoning Professor Farnsworth, Hermes, and Dr. Zoidberg. Fry attempts to pass a message on to Leela through Frida when he finds her placing protest signs on Leo's property, but when a Dark One learns the message at the ecofeminist hideout and kills Frida, Fry is ultimately suspected of foul play. Leela calls him to ask his side of things, having placed her trust in him, but they only end up being discovered by Zapp as a result of Bender having bugged Fry's phone.

After a long, elaborate, and destructive chase, Zapp manages to bring the ecofeminists in, who are in turn convicted and given a prison sentence. With the demolishing of the violet dwarf system imminent, Bender breaks Leela and the other ecofeminists out of prison to have his criminal record overtake Leela's again, and Fry receives the "omega device" from the Legion of Mad Fellows to disable the approaching Dark One once he'd identified it.

The climax of the movie arrives when Leo gives Fry the honor of pushing the plunger to destroy the violet dwarf system and Fry is left with only moments to determine the identity of the dark one to prevent the destruction of the Encyclopod and the star system's reemerging "chi" life energy. While the ecofeminists rush to stop the ceremony, Fry has to determine the Dark One's identity in a massive crowd composed entirely of supporting characters from the series' several season run. From there, all sorts of twists and turns take place before the end credits roll - none of which I'll spoil here.

Overall, Into the Wild Green Yonder manages to combine the high points of previous movies in terms of writing. Like Bender's Game, it consistently completely nails the series' level of comedy writing, feeling like a long, high quality episode of the series, without getting too stuck on a single central parody theme like Bender's Game largely did in catering to very specific type of nerd humor. And like The Beast with a Billion Backs, beneath the humor, there's an emotionally resonant story with the characters, filled with sociopolitical commentary, the film bearing strong environmentalist and feminist themes - initially making light of both lines of political belief and activism, but ultimately subverting neither and instead supporting them at the story's core.

You never quite get that story arc where Fry and Leela finally become a couple that the series had been hinting at all along, but there's a few moments in the resolution that should make fans waiting for them to get together happy. And the entire film ends on a very open-ended note - leaving the story open to continuing with perhaps another TV series or additional movies. But even if Into the Wild Green Yonder ends up being the true series finale, it goes out on a very high note.

The Future

Following the strong sales of these direct to DVD movies and the popularity of their broadcasts on Comedy Central, the Fox network has confirmed that they're considering actually bringing Futurama back for a 6th season, after they originally cancelled the show around 7 years ago now. (The four movies are officially regarded as the fifth season in canon, while Fox's "5th" season is technically regarded as part of the fourth as it was originally intended to be.) Creator Matt Groening and voice actor Billy West (Who plays Fry, amongst many others) have said they're both optimistic about Futurama's prospects of being revived.

While Family Guy has begun to stagnate a few years after its revival on Fox after years of massive fan campaigning and strong DVD set sales - relying too much on the lowest brow of humor and underusing their better ideas and storylines. (Especially in that episode guest starring the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast a few weeks ago. The only redeeming parts of that episode were the Next Generation cast scenes - the rest of it was simply messy and stupid. And I say this as a big Family Guy fan since the series' original broadcast premiere back when I was in 10th grade a decade ago.) Groening and co-creator David X. Cohen have said they still come up with new story ideas for Futurama all the time, with no shortage of plotlines to work with - and an interesting place to pick up from, given how Into the Wild Green Yonder ended. They're pretty huge nerds themselves, and while The Simpsons has been stagnating for years as a sort of "do anything" comedy with little in the way of a consistent ongoing story, Futurama has always been a much more directed series with its ongoing character and plot arcs, and an ever-growing, consistent backstory, as the show was still designed to be a good science fiction comedy show - not just a sci-fi Simpsons.

Given how Into the Wild Green Yonder turned out after the first three movies were simply good - each with their strengths and weaknesses - and felt like unbalanced writing exercises as the show's writers got back into the swing of things, I'm fully confident that a Futurama revival could continue the series in a fashion just as good as it was before, if not take it to new levels after the far more ambitious storylines the movies pursued and showed that the writers could pull off with the series. Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

With those movies watched, it's was on to watching the other movies I got for my birthday, all of which are European art house flicks. Trainspotting, Brazil, and The City of Lost Children. Danny Boyle, Terry Gilliam, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Good stuff.

For the sake of valuable content (Also in line with one of the themes of that last Futurama movie), I also could have done an environmentalist post for the first time in ages, what with this past Wednesday having been Earth Day. At least as a nod to that, check out these Earth Day tips to a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.

2 comments:

Sanctum's Muse said...

I would be so psyched if Fox actually brought Futurama back! I'm a huge fan!

Benjamin Fennell said...

Here's hoping! The movies were a lot of fun, and if they could keep that momentum going from the last one, a new season'd be off to a great start.