Relationships aren’t easy. You have to make compromises, and you have to change the way you view your life. You have to trust someone, and accept that this trust makes you vulnerable. You have to realize your behavior can affect someone emotionally in ways you might not always immediately understand. And you have to figure out a way to tell stories that last 80 minutes without wearing out their welcome at the half hour mark. That’s why relationships are like transitioning a television series to a direct to video format, I guess. No one wants a broken heart, or a long-delayed climax that fails to satisfy on basic narrative grounds.
The Beast With A Billion Backs, Futurama’s second foray into feature-length adventuring, is not godawful. In some ways, it’s an improvement on the previous film: There’s less risk in the premise, and the emotional core is pretty much a loss, but it’s less choppy, and in some segments The Beast With A Billion Backs comes perilously close to having the scope and ambition that would justify all those extra minutes.
But then, of course, there’s the usual, fundamental factor which—oh hey let’s say it together, kids—writing a movie is different from writing an episode of a TV show, and the writers here don’t quite know how to bridge that gap. It’s hard to blame them too much for it, although I doubt they agreed to do this under threat of violence. And it’s obvious (sometimes painfully obvious) that the show’s creative team is working to figure this shit out. While The Beast With A Billion Backs is, like its predecessor, frequently frustrating to watch, it can also be fascinating as an example of how certain basic approaches to storytelling fall apart when they’re repurposed for a format that puts them under increased scrutiny. Time is just as precious in a movie as it is on TV, even though there’s more of it.
One obvious flaw: The effort to introduce a problem and then push it to one side to indicate time passing. This happened in Bender’s Big Score as well. Here, it’s the crack in the sky introduced at the climax of the previous movie, which will ultimately serve as a portal for Yivo, the giant tentacled thingie that first invades, and then seduces, the universe. The crack is mentioned at the beginning, and there are some jokes about the fact that nothing has happened. Then we get a bunch of stuff with Fry finding a new girlfriend and Kif and Amy getting alien-married, and Fry goes into the crack by himself (along with a bunch of other stuff). Eventually, the tentacles poke in and the plot actually happens.
It’s curious how The Beast With A Billion Backs pretends to use the cliffhanger at the end of Bender’s Big Score as a jumping off point, while at the same time ignoring literally everything else that happened in that movie. While that’s not unprecedented for the series, it feels even stranger than usual here. Fry’s sudden relationship with Colleen (Brittany Murphy—and wow, I’d forgotten it was her doing the voice; she does fine work, but now I’m sad) doesn’t make a ton of sense juxtaposed against what we learned about Lars at the end of the previous movie. More importantly, Leela isn’t in mourning over her dead ex-fiancé, and her relationship with Fry doesn’t appear to have changed at all. Fry hooking up with Colleen could’ve happened back in season two, without any changes to how things play out.
In formally connecting the two movies, and then largely disregarding that connection, the writers create a situation in which everything has even less impact than usual. Fry’s hook-up with Colleen, and then his heartbreak when he discovers she has four other boyfriends (a polyamorous situation which seems to exist solely as an excuse to get some stereotype gags in there, as well as set up a twist ending that really wasn’t worth the effort), has no dramatic edge to it whatsoever, which is annoying given how Fry’s arc in the episode is, once again, hugely important. We see him get his heart broken, we see him leading a swarm of tentacles to take over the cosmos, and then we see him betraying our universe’s chance at happiness.
And none of it has any more weight than anything else, really. That delaying tactic is part of the problem. Where horror movies and thrillers since time immemorial have used slow buildups to encourage an audience to invest in a fictional world before watching it get torn apart, here, it’s so clearly just a “Yeah, we’ll get to that” move that there’s no tension at all. It’s a decent joke when an early news program points out that the people reacting in terror to the crack in the sky are becoming exhausted, but we still know it’s eventually something that’s going to be dealt with. Which means a long wait for the real story to arrive as we trudge through the filler.
There’s so much filler here that I’m not even sure we can call it filler anymore, and to give the writers credit, a fair amount of it does tie in at the end. Like Bender’s sudden newfound obsession with the League Of Robots, a secret group that turns out to be a handful of robots sitting in front of a fireplace drinking expensive booze and wearing monocles. This is a premise which could’ve easily filled out an entire episode in and of itself—or, at the very least, provided a B-plot. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Bender adventure: his childishness, his apparently inexhaustible hunger for booze, his curious sort of idealism. (He’s not just upset that the League isn’t trying to kill all humans, he seems downright offended.) And it does come back at the end to help provide a reason for Yivo to kick everyone out, so that’s cool.
It’s just, there’s no urgency to any of this; or if not urgency, at least something to indicate that any of it is more than an excuse to move us from point A to point Zed. The strongest story in the episode—Yivo’s assault, which then shifts to a familiar but funny riff on dating—is the one where stuff seems to actually matter for a while. Our heroes are legitimately scared of getting grabbed by a tentacle, and then, once they get around that problem, there’s a novelty to the absurdity that’s otherwise lacking.
I’m not saying this is a bad movie, exactly. As mentioned, in some ways it’s slightly stronger, or at least more consistent, than Bender’s Big Score: lower highs, (there’s nothing here like the best moments in the Lars storyline), but higher lows, and the cutting between various storylines isn’t so scattershot. David Cross is a great choice for Yivo—the creature is all Lovecraftian body horror and then it starts taking like a friendly, abashed dweeb. And Murphy almost makes Colleen into more than just a series of punchlines. I didn’t mind watching, even having seen it before. I was never engaged, exactly, but I was always vaguely curious how everything would unfold.
But it’s still a perfect example of how a longer format requires a different approach. Take those Deathball tournaments. It’s a cute visual gag: a group of people trapped in a giant version of one of those rolling ball labyrinth games (I had one as a kid and it nearly drove me insane). Yet it’s pointless from a narrative perspective. Farnsworth and Wernstrom pit their crews against one another to decide who investigates the crack, and the Planet Express crew wins because of course they win, they’re the main damn characters. But even if Wernstrom’s crew had won, it’s still a digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with the story we’re actually interested in.
Really, these movies are essentially a series of digressions where occasionally a bunch of digressions team up and make a plot. That almost works; there’s something sort of charming about how clearly cobbled together all of this is, and when a storyline does somehow manage to tie together with another one, you feel a weird kind of backhanded pride for everyone involved. But while it’s neat for Fry’s relationship to Colleen to eventually end with Yivo deciding Colleen, with her group relationships, is the only person to really understand him, that doesn’t make Colleen into a better written character, and it doesn’t make Fry’s romantic struggles more interesting in their own right. I don’t think The Beast With A Billion Backs is any more dire than Bender’s Big Score was, but it works best as a casual viewing experience. The more you think about it, the less you care.
- Opening caption: The Proud Result Of Prison Labour
- Also, the fact that Fry is the one who drives Yivo to dump everyone in the end isn’t handled very well. Yivo insists that no one from the universe is allowed to contact anyone back home (he says it in that fairy tale kind of way where you just know it’s going to bite everyone on the ass eventually), but Fry sends Bender a letter without any acknowledgement that what he’s doing is “wrong.” It makes the ending feel more random than dramatically ironic, and that makes it less funny.
- “All sports cancelled.”—Sportsbot 5000
- Right, there’s this whole thing where Kif dies and then Yivo eventually brings him back. Not sure what the point of this was, other than to give Zapp Brannigan a chance to sleep with Amy, in which case, ugh.
- “If I’d ever heard of it, it would’ve been what I always dreamed of.”—Amy
- “You may now eat the snake… if you so choose.”—the Grand Priestess. She’s great.
- Bender draws eyes on a cabbage and beats it up because he’s lonely. As you do.
- “No, the double-vomit is a sign of joy!”—Zoidberg
- “I’m saving my neck for a rich, handsome Dracula!”—Leela. While it’s as close to conventional as the show really gets, the sequence of everyone running from, and then getting caught by, Yivo’s tentacles was fun, in large part because it felt like something that mattered was actually happening. Leela even gets to be the hero for a while, although this ends later when she finally decides to give up and love Yivo.
- “I’m sorry, Bender. Robots don’t go to heaven.”—Fry “Death to humans.”—Bender