Bender's Big Score
Matt Groening fans have had a good year: both of his most popular creations made the leap to feature-length films. But as The Simpsons arrived with a huge budget, a global release and an advertising blitz that spared nobody, Futurama snuck directly onto retailer shelves and waited patiently.
This has always been the case. The Simpsons saturates...Futurama simmers quietly. The Simpsons finds you...you find Futurama.
Anyone who's seen Futurama knows that while it's always destined to be The Simpsons' less-popular little brother, it's a consistently rewarding program, mind-bending at times, tear-jerking at others, and always painfully sharp in its humor. Ratings aside, it's the better show of the two. But is it also the better film?
It's important that I start out by saying I am a huge fan of Futurama. I'd be lying if I said that won't be a factor in my review.
Unfair? Well, probably. But it's not exactly something that can be helped. Futurama ran for 72 episodes. I've seen them all. Numerous times. I own the DVD sets. I've listened to the commentaries. I've read the interviews. I've doodled Bender when I'm on the telephone and somebody puts me on hold. I can't very well blank the show from my mind when watching the film. Nor would I like to.
Of course, I'm sure there are also people who abhor Futurama, who don't find it funny or clever at all, and who might even be annoyed by it. They won't be able to blank the show from their minds while watching the film, either. That's what happens when you make a film about characters and situations people already know: you've got a whole audience addled with preconceived notions.
This places a great deal of stress upon the project before it even surfaces...particularly in this case, as it's the first new Futurama (barring comics) in years. It's something the fans have been waiting for...you'd better not disappoint them. It should also justify its re-emergence to passive viewers who might have enjoyed the show but weren't exactly pulling for a revival. Basically, yes, new Futurama comes with a built-in audience...but it's a demanding one.
Which is why it's so refreshing (so, so refreshing) to see that the writers (principally David X. Cohen [The Why of Fry] and Ken Keeler [Time Keeps On Slippin']) managed to create not just a portal back into the Futurama universe, and not just an hour and a half of entertainment...but a really, really great film. Tremendous care must have been taken at every step of the project, because even at its weakest, Bender's Big Score positively bulges with love and precision.
Though, at times, it might seem to bulge just a bit too much. It's not a perfect film. It would have been unfair to expect a perfect film (Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove and The Royal Tenenbaums being perhaps the only truly perfect films to date), but it's not unfair to expect that whatever flaws do exist will be balanced out by other, wonderful things in the film. Bender's Big Score balances out its weaknesses. All of them. And then some.
If I'm reluctant to discuss the plot, it's because I wouldn't want any of it spoiled for you. You could, of course, read a complete plot summary and still enjoy the film quite a lot (knowing which twists are coming doesn't make any of the jokes less funny, or any of the animation less impressive, or any of the performances less wonderful), but it's better to let it happen naturally, and feel it unfold for yourself.
Suffice it to say that it involves a lot of time-travel, a lot of resultant duplication of characters (Fry and Bender, mainly), a looming universal catastrophe, a mathematical intervention by the Harlem Globetrotters, and a chance for Fry to re-live his life again in his original time period.
In fact, Fry's return to the year 2000 leaves a lot of room for some real emotion, and the film uses that space brilliantly. It doesn't dwell too much, which would dull the effect...we are content with brief snatches of his now-uninterrupted life back in New York City...a kiss on his mother's cheek, a ride on his bicycle with Seymour in the basket...and then a dark, lonely night that Fry spends mourning the life in the future that he left behind. So much is unsaid...so much is unspecified. It's beautiful. It's lovely. It's real.
There's a lot more emotion in the film, but, as I mentioned, I'd rather you experience it for yourself. (I do have to mention, however, that a cover version of Scott Walker's "30 Century Man" is used to tremendous, wonderful effect.)
All of your favorite characters put in some face-time, at least. (Well, nearly all of them. I missed Calculon and the Hyperchicken, personally.) Some are given a token line or scene (Zapp, Hedonism Bot), some appear somewhere in the background (the Omicronians, Mayor Poopenmeyer), but, pleasingly, others are integral to the plot (Barbados Slim, Mr. Panucci). In fact, between this and all of the little "fillings in" of plot-holes past, Bender's Big Score comes across like one great big love-note to the fans. There seems to be a real, honest, genuine appreciation for all of us who watched the show in syndication, made it popular again, bought the DVDs, told our friends...
Groening, Cohen and the rest know that is we who have brought the show back from the dead...FOX never would have done it without our making it profitable for them to do so. Bender's Big Score is a good film and a great reintroduction, but it's also a great big appreciative hug for everyone who pulled together to give this show the second chance it deserved.
I mentioned the plot holes from past episodes...one of the things Bender's Big Score does with its time-travel-reliant plot is go back and layer some more detail into certain scenes and situations we already know. Sometimes it makes us see them differently (Space Pilot 3000, Luck of the Fryrish) and other times it answers questions we should have had the first time through (Jurassic Bark, Godfellas). The best thing is that it works. It could have been done hollowly...limply...pointlessly. An easy but unrewarding laugh. Instead we get intelligent resolutions and reinterpretations. A show mucking about with its own history is not often (well, ever) well-received by fans, but it's done so lovingly and convincingly here that I honestly can't imagine anyone complaining about it.
(And maybe some of it was planned from the start. After all, Cohen has gone on record many times about how much in-show history they never got the chance to explore while on the air. Who knows?)
The film also takes great care to ensure that its own elaborate time-travel plot makes sense...no mean feat, considering how many Frys and Benders we have running around, bumping into each other, altering their own pasts. It's confusing. But damned if it isn't a thousand times more logical than it could have been. Keeler and Cohen took the time to keep the reality of the piece consistent within itself, and it pays off. It's always a good feeling to watch a time-travel film a second time and find that your initial questions are being answered rather than added to. This film layers itself well and takes itself seriously without ever--even once--sacrificing the humor.
But, anyway, enough gushing. You already know I recommend the film. You probably already know I love it. There are great moments all throughout the film, and, unlike The Simpsons Movie, it's every bit as quotable as any of the best episodes in the series. ("It's like looking at a smelly mirror." "To the mandatorium!" "I can do more than talk...I can pontificate!" "Hold on, Scruffy!" "Paradox resolved." "Are you urinating?" "No I mightn't!" "ONE GALLON OF GAS." I'm sorry. The list goes on...but I'll spare you.)
Ah, alright, alright. Back to reality.
Bender's Big Score is a single-disc release (but packed to the brim...see below), presented with a cardboard slipcase that fits over a single-fold cardboard envelope. the cover-art is one of those lenticular angle-it-to-see-the-picture-move things. Which...I'll be honest here...I don't like.
It's nothing to do with the design or the artwork itself, which is first-class, it's just that I can't stand those types of moving-art things. They are difficult to position without seeing one frame bleed into the other, you can't look at it straight-on without it looking like a mess, and when you do manage to look at it properly it doesn't look nearly as good as one single design would have looked.
All of that is personal-preference. Other people love it. I'm sure someone out there thinks the lenticular motion cover is a great bonus. More power to that person. I assure you he and I have little in common, but I wish him well.
Anyway, the inner cardboard case opens to reveal some excellent artwork (as always, with this series), a flyer for Futurama comic collections and an offer for hand-painted studio art. I must check that out. On the right-hand side you'll find your DVD...not on a hub, but slotted right into the cardboard case.
Why is that? Well, Bender's Big Score is a carbon-neutral release (very admirable, I admit, and single-handedly puts any of my misgivings about the design to bed) and they want to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. Of course, the argument here is that items like DVDs probably don't end up in landfills very frequently anyway...they're owned and re-sold, maybe, but I don't think very many of them are just out-and-out disposed of...but, well, I'm no environmental scientist so who knows.
Anyway, it's covered in beautiful artwork (Nibbler riding the guinea pig is delightful). I just hope it still looks as good as my other, traditionally-packaged DVDs do in a few years.
The disc itself is designed to look like one of the solid-gold Death Stars from the film. It's wonderfully gaudy.
Nothing too special here. They're clean and easy to navigate. You get a few comments from Bender if you take too long to pick something. They look good, but with the menus we've gotten from this series in the past that's not surprising. The most important thing is that you're able to find and access what you're looking for, and these menus serve that purpose just fine. Especially since you'll want easy access to a selection of really, really great bonus features...
This is the flagship bonus feature, and rightly so, as Futurama commentaries are second only to League of Gentlemen commentaries as the most exciting, informative and hilarious on the planet.
We have Matt Groening, David X. Cohen, Ken Keeler, Billy West, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr, Claudia Katz and Dwayne Carey-Hill, which means the stages of creation, writing, production and voice-acting are all represented here.
It's very funny stuff, on the whole, as you might have guessed if you've listened to the commentaries on the DVD sets. (If you haven't, you should. Now.) It also gives you a great idea of how much care went into crafting the story, and how, in the end, respect for causal logic won out over hilarious time-destroying chaos. (A wise decision for many reasons, not least because the more logical and respectful story we ended up with is by no means light on comedy.) It also reveals a few interesting tidbits about the three DVD films to follow...though no out-and-out spoilers that I'm aware of. Listen without hesitation...it's nearly as good as the feature itself.
Also, I have a crush on David X. Cohen. I can admit that now. I think I honestly and truly love that man. If I had breasts I wouldn't mind letting him have a go on them for a ride in his helicopter.
A live comic-book reading by the principal voice cast (and Cohen and Keeler!) from last year's Comic Con. They perform the contents of a comic produced specially for the occasion, and it (a bit heavy-handedly) fills in the gap between the end of the series and this movie. (Seriously...what other show has ever tried to make the fact that episodes repeat themselves fit into its own canon?)
This is a brilliant feature, and I never would have thought it'd be included here. Kudos to whomever took the time to put it together. One thing I'm slightly disappointed by is the lack of another angle...as it stands you hear the voice cast as the pages of the comic flip by on the screen. Lovely, yes, very, but I'd also like to have the option to see the cast themselves performing.
I don't have the heart to call this an oversight since we should be happy with anything we get, especially when it's this rare and interesting, but those are my two cents. Spend them as you please.
Full-length Episode of Everybody Loves Hypnotoad:
Yes, it's really 22 minutes long. Yes, I watched the whole thing. Yes, all 22 minutes. Yes, I do recommend you do the same thing.
I've read reviews that have suggested fast-forwarding it and stopping to watch when you see something interesting happen. If you do that, you'll miss quite a few audio-only jokes that don't coincide with a visual cue. I say watch it all the way through. But I wouldn't recommend you watch it more than once. Once is...enough.
It's very funny. Does it justify 22 minutes, though? Well, no. But that's part of the joke. Enjoy it. It's worth experiencing.
(Maybe next time we'll get a full episode of The Scary Door? Entertainment and Earth Invasion Tonight? Late Night With Humorbot 5.0? Nah, didn't think so. A man can dream, though. A man can dream...)
Three, all from the animatic stage, which means the voice-acting is in place, but the animation is incomplete. Nothing too exciting, but definitely great to have. In one Bender spends some time in Monte Carlo trying to get people to bare their butts. In another Hermes and Barbados Slim have a limbo competition. In the third, the robot mafia turns up for no reason in a scene that really wouldn't have had a place in the film anyway and does something that doesn't matter to anyone. I wonder why it was cut!
A Terrifying Message From Al Gore:
The animated promo for An Inconvenient Truth that Rough Draft Studios (along with some Futurama actors and writers) produced and released online.
It's great to have here, especially since Gore appears so memorably in the film, and also because of the carbon-neutrality of the release. Gore and Futurama have a clear and ongoing mutual endorsement, and it's interesting to see it explored here.
You can also watch this with commentary, which runs a bit longer than the feature itself. Probably because of that, the commentary is visual, and you'll see Gore, Cohen and Groening recording it in the corner of your screen. Interesting? Of course! But it's a bit too brief to really get anything interesting across; I would have preferred a simple chat featurette instead. But we do get to see some hilarious Cohen mis-speakings at the beginning, so all is forgiven.
Bite My Shiny Metal X:
This is definitely a polarizing extra. It's about a half hour of explanation regarding the mathematical themes and jokes that recur in Futurama, including a few from this movie itself. A lot of reviewers seem to look down upon it...they find it boring, or worthless, or some such thing.
I think it's an utter delight...and this is from somebody who still has nightmares about finding himself back in math class. Not only is it presented clearly and helpfully (some of it even made sense to me!) but we get to see the Futurama team participating in the lecture, and helping to teach it. (Finally somebody has explained to me how alien language #2 works!)
I loved it. I loved, loved, loved it. I thought it was hilarious and a perfect addition to this set. It's so reassuring that they produced something like this specifically for the DVD when they didn't, strictly, have to do anything at all. Between this and Hypnotoad I'm absolutely sure the next three releases will be phenomenal.
3D Models and Turnarounds:
Some raw footage from Rough Draft regarding three of the new ships designed for the film. Nothing to write home about, but fascinating, and, again, it's just great that they included them. You'll see each ship rotate completely in both its finished and wire-frame stage.
First Draft Script:
At this point, I can say that I love everyone involved with the DVD. We not only have a great movie, but we have some specially-produced features to back it up, and historical aspects of the film itself.
I've only read half the script so far, but I didn't think it was worth holding up a review of the set based on that, especially since the quality of the first draft script doesn't change the fact that it's just a delight to have it at all. Some very funny stuff was omitted (mainly just lines here and there...Leela's "a date with me" is much funnier than what she actually said in the film, and I think the first scene at Elzar's was handled better here as well) but some other scenes were clearly changed for the better (Fry getting his butt-tattoo is far, far better executed in the final film).
Not everyone will take the time to read this. That's okay...they're not obligated to do so. But for everyone interested in the writing process, this is required reading, and I positively love having it. In lieu of another wonderful table-read audio extra (which may or may not have even happened for this film), this is the next best thing.
New Character/Design Sketches:
Some comparative drawings of new characters, objects and locations in the film, arranged as a gallery. Not much to say except, again, I love, love, love this DVD set.
Original 5-Minute Comic-Con Promo:
A shorter version of this was released onto the net (first unofficially, and then officially), and that truncated version is much better. It's got a stronger, more urgent pace than this overstuffed, plodding beast. If anything, it makes the film seem less funny and interesting than it really is! It's no wonder they trimmed it severely for the final trailer (which is not, incidentally, included here). Still, great to have. I am not--and will never be--complaining about including things like this. They're interesting for their historical value.
A made-for-DVD film has never been this strong. Ever. This is the best.
(At least so far. There are three more to come, after all.)
Yes, you can download it online. But it's worth the purchase. Not only are you supporting such a grateful and deserving franchise, you're also supporting carbon-neutral film production, and you get a huge assortment of completely wonderful bonus features taboot.
But it for yourself, and pick up another one for someone on your Xmas list. Let's convince FOX that the show is profitable enough to warrant an all-out revival for season five. It can be done. It has been done. And if this movie proves anything, it's that Futurama isn't going to settle for a more-of-the-same Family Guy-style comeback.
Let's see what they've got up their sleeves.