Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs Movie Review
Beast picks up on a dangling plot thread from Score and runs with it; when the Planet Express crew ventures out to investigate a tear in the space-time continuum, they and the rest of Earth (eventually) encounter an encompassing, tentacle-heavy alien life form called Yivo (voiced -- also eventually; Futurama movies offer plenty of skillful digressions -- by David Cross). Yivo's methods are reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; its motivations, though, have the murky mix of creepiness and hope more akin to a particularly odd Twilight Zone episode.
The new project doesn't have the emotional heft of Score's best moments -- in fact, the Fry-Leela romantic angle is curiously absent from a story with plenty of musings on sex and relationships (the story finds room for a marriage and Fry's brief attempt at a polyamorous human relationship). It does, though, continue to fulfill the promise of long-form Futurama. Though the show's approach to science-fiction is more freewheeling -- subject to the flukiness of comedy rather than, say, the solemn rules of Star Trek -- its conceptualizing is often brilliant. The characters are hurtled through an alien invasion-slash-romantic dilemma that eventually considers the global logistics of religion, heaven, and hell. Or religion and heaven, anyway. Hell, as we see, may be other robots.
The science may be shaky-to-nonexistent, but the fiction is sound; The Beast with a Billion Backs has a spoofy title but boasts a more imaginative vision of mankind's collective follies than roughly 90 percent of theatrically-released science-fiction movies. The movie's incorporations of its subplots are more fleeting and less episodic than before; initially, Bender's entrance into the secret and apparently quite slothful League of Robots seems like a leftover from the series, but it snakes around to form clever ties with the fate of Earth's population.
Beast's laughs are frontloaded -- the mysterious endangerment of Earth, a frequent occurrence in the Futurama universe, always leaves room for brilliant throwaway gags with characters like the belligerent alien newscaster Morbo and the cocksure space captain Zapp Brannigan. Once the plot is up and running, there's less time to cut away for a left-field sequence of "Deathball," best (if incompletely) described as a futuristic decision-making sport -- though the creative team does save space for callbacks.
But unlike certain other once-canceled Fox animated series, Futurama can actually sustain a story and develop its characters without cutting away to a meaningless pop-culture reference or slapstick gag. These DVD movies may lack the enclosed elegance of the best 22-minute episodes of the series, but quasi-cinematic releases still make sense; Futurama in any form is almost better than TV deserves.