Futurama, “Bender’s Big Score”

Written by: David X Cohen and Ken Keeler
Directed by: Dwayne Carey-Hill
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

I expect this essay series will get fewer comments from this point forward. I remember when it was announced that there would be a series of direct-to-DVD Futurama movies and was surprised by the wide-spread, pre-emptive cynicism. It wasn’t universal, but there were a lot of people who wrote them off entirely and refused to watch them because they were 100% convinced there was 0% chance they’d be good. When the revival series for Comedy Central was announced, there were a lot of people who dismissed them on the basis that the movies were uniformly terrible and so these would be bad too. (That trend has continued – the wide assumption is that the revived series for Hulu will be terrible). On one level, I get it, because there were a lot of choices in the movies that threw me off at first and some of them actually are pretty badly made, and the CC seasons contain some terrible misses. On another level, as I’ve revisited this part of the series over the years, I’ve found myself loving it more and more, able to understand and roll with choices that I would not personally have made were I running things. I’ve had to adapt my understanding of what Futurama is and what I enjoy about it. 

Trying to explain this to fellow Futurama fans is surprisingly difficult; I often feel like I’m battling against an overly simplistic narrative that has hardened to the point of fossilisation, and I won’t pretend I’m not frustrated that people seem to fight so hard to not like Futurama. That’s where I figure these essays will come in handy. If nothing else, it’s an outlet for analysing something in which the hits and misses are incredibly vivid and so it’ll be more fun to look at what works and what doesn’t than it will for more bland entries. But I’m also hoping that someone, somewhere, will be more willing to give the movies and CC seasons a chance, or at least to see what great things I see in them. There’s also the fact that the DN’s Rankings will actually serve a real purpose; for the Fox seasons, they ended up being a way to casually acknowledge the best of the best and the worst of the worst, and most people already know what their favourites and least favourites are. From here on out, they can serve as a shorthand for people to pick which ones they can try, which ones they can run (not walk) to, and which ones to avoid.

“Sir, would you care to sign our petition?”
“I support and oppose many things, but not strongly enough to pick up a pen.”
“That’s just what the guys who oppose the things you support want you to do.”
“Really? Down with those guys!”
“And we’ll need your email address.”
“Hmm, they say you shouldn’t give out your email address.”
“Right. That’s just what those same guys say.”
Them again?!”

Anyway, Bender’s Big Score. This is a ninety minute victory lap on the part of the creators, starting with how hilariously and brutally they mock the executives that cancelled the show in the first place; at points it does feel like they went out of their way to figure out how to include as many internal references as possible. This is one of many things that seemed to put people off Back In The Day, and it was the first point where I twigged onto how people seemed to try and justify initial cynicism with whatever reasoning they could find, because a) on a practical level, when you know you have four movies coming in, it’s fair to think the creators will take a little of that time to pat themselves on the back for making one of the most iconic comedies of all time, and b) I’m a giant nerd for Futurama and this is awesome and I love all the references. I love the opening titles for the movie because they play off how the characters (and the theme song) have taken up an outsized space in my head. I love that the characters save the day to the theme song in the end despite – even because of – that being one of the corniest things this show ever did. Most of all, I love how much the plot is driven forward by elements that have been seeded throughout this whole show.

Because there is a real plot and a real story here beyond how cool Futurama is. With the former, this is actually one of my favourite time travel plots ever. There are plots about time travel which are just convenient ways to get characters from the present into wacky situations in the past with no attempt to justify plot beyond vague emotional sense – like Back To The Future. There are plots about time travel that use the concept to create intense, thrilling conflict, in which the characters are fighting to prevent some inevitable set of circumstances – like seasons four and five of LOST. Bender’s Big Score is a puzzle in which each scene serves a purpose in a grand clockwork structure. I’d never noticed how it’s actually more complex than I’d realised; the need to break the movie up into four episodes leads the writers to break it up into four acts, and act two contains many of the seeds for later twists whilst act four divides itself between showing the events of 3008 and the 2001-2012 adventures of Lars!Fry, creating a structure that feels even more complex than it actually is and creating the satisfying effect of a finished jigsaw puzzle when the final beats land.

“To the mandatorium!”

It also creates the effect of a grand story. This isn’t just a nostalgia run or a puzzle, it actually has a real beating heart to it that I respond to. I am genuinely brought to tears by Fry’s joyful realisation that he is Lars (“Wait for me, Leela! I’ll be there in a thousand years!”). I zoom out and I can see how this is yet another Futurama story about the pain of not getting what you really want taken to a new level. On one level, this is amplified by showing Fry and Leela – two characters practically defined by not having what they want – actually actualise their desires; Leela is, sadly, mostly reduced to a plot point here rather than a decision maker, but it’s still wonderful to see her in a relationship with a guy who is normal and not a huge asshole and greatly enjoying herself. It makes their losses of both more poignant. But this takes it even further and becomes about active denial of motivation for the sake of other people’s happiness, and it’s a more powerful emotional moment than that dry recitation of it. In terms of development, this is a rare case of Fry showing discipline and self-denial, which is an interesting and logical direction for him to go. It does feel like a piece of the puzzle that’s been missing, and it does feel like an extension of his vivid sense of internal emotion; once your feelings have been set, there comes a time where you put them aside to deal with how the world actually is.

Sincere emotion is, admittedly, also part of the big problem people have with this movie – specifically, that it retcons the ending of “Jurassic Bark”. When Lars!Fry goes back to the twenty-first century, he ends up living with Seymour up until Bender causes his fossilisation (which also explains how he got instantly fossilised). It renders the whole emotional underpinning of that episode moot, because Seymour never missed out on Fry at all and did indeed live a long and happy life. People liked that it made them sad, and they disliked having that experience taken away – I was initially frustrated because I get aggravated by stories that do narrative takesie-backsies on principle. Over the years, though, I’ve come to let it go. Like I said, I don’t really care about Seymour that much, it only makes up a small part of the movie, and it’s a necessary outcome for the plot being what it is. And when you get right down to it, the show always prioritised being funny over everything else, and the movie is pretty damn funny.

Title Card: It just won’t stay dead!
Cartoon Billboard: Futurama, 1999

As befitting the victory lap nature of the movie, the guest stars are almost all returning players: Al Gore, Coolio, and Sarah Silverman. The only new cast member is Mark Hamill guest starring as the Hannukah Zombie. On the subject, though, Dave Herman gets an absolute tour de force as Nudar – he nails the exact energy of a sexually frustrated IT guy, giving the character a wide range of emotions without ever getting away from being insufferable (I have stolen his ‘nyeh!’ frequently). One little thing I love is finally putting one of the main characters in a head jar. I remember totally calling that Lars was actually a future version of Fry as soon as he walked into the scene; you can imagine how smug I was when it was confirmed. One of the other tonal changes we get is the gleeful embrace of nudity with the lower standards, with a nude beach planet being a real ‘fuck all y’all, we can do whatever’. Bender having the exact same personality after being enslaved is a great bit of comic characterisation. I could swear there’s a Zapp Brannigan line very similar to Lars’s “Hello to everyone who isn’t Leela!” line, but I can’t seem to find it. 

“Hm. It’s been twelve years. Maybe I’m getting taller.”
“You’re not getting smarter.”

The title is a reference to the movie Shaft’s Big Score. Torgo’s Executive Powder is named after a character from the movie Manos: The Hands Of Fate. Bender going back to kill Fry is a reference to The Terminator. The scammers have solid gold copies of the Death Star from Star Wars protecting Earth. 

Iconic Moments: N/A
Biggest Laugh: “Kitten class warships”

Next Week: “The Beast With A Billion Backs”. “MY LEG FEELS FUNNY!”