Futurama, “The Beast With A Billion Backs”

Written by: Eric Kaplan
Directed by: Peter Avanzino
DN’s Ranking: Bad / Nonessential / ESSENTIAL

“MY LEG FEELS FUNNY!”

This is by far my favourite of the four Futurama movies, and that’s mainly because it holds up the best as a movie – not just in having one continuous plot rather than four episodes stitched together, but in how it makes a complex but coherent statement that requires all ninety minutes to explore. This is a story about love and every single plotline ties into that in some way, from Fry’s baffled reaction to polyamory to Bender’s needy friendship to religion to Farnsworth and Wernstrom’s enemies-to-friends-to-enemies development. It’s fun to take a topic of sufficient universality and take an incredibly wide scope with it, giving the movie a genuinely epic feel. The overall point factoring into every plot is that human beings (and sufficiently humanoid robots and aliens) are imperfect – prone to fear, anxiety, annoyance, and most of all jealousy. It drives destructive decisions that crumble relationships and risk the destruction of the universe. There is a notion that love is a morally positive emotion, but I find this more reflective of reality – that genuine love can lead to destructive behaviour, and as such needs to be considered a morally neutral motivation.

Fry gets the lion’s share of the development in this movie, and it’s such a fun arc. I’m sure polyamorous people are frustrated by a plot about someone trying polyamory and finding it doesn’t work for him, but aside from preferring an honest arc to a nice one, it’s such a rare story to see play out on television that I still enjoy it; it seems to me one of those stories that would be less frustrating if there were more stories about polyamory. Seeing Fry actually in a relationship is sweet in its simplicity, and while I’m not sure if it was on purpose, I enjoy him being able to form a real relationship with someone after choosing to let go of Leela (“If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”). He’s really just hanging out with someone he finds hot and fun without making a big deal out of it. When they come into conflict, it’s through a genuine discord in their values. 

“You may now eat the snake. If you so choose.”

After they break up, the movie shifts into this delightful mix of two seemingly contradictory ideas. Alan W Pollack once remarked that the line between confusion of mind and complexity of mind is the thinnest of hairs, and in this case Fry becoming the Pope of Tentacles wildly alternates between two ideas: that religion is a replacement for personal love, and that religion is the path to true universal connection to all living things. I don’t know if I come off as preferring stories with a single coherent idea, but I do know that I enjoy stories in which the meaning seems to change from scene to scene because the writer committed to something other than an idea – I greatly enjoyed M Night Shyamalan’s Old because he was so committed to how fucked up it would be if a beach made you old that each scene ends up landing on a the beach representing a different metaphor, and I’m a big fan of The Shield because it’s so committed to showing plausible cause-and-effect for the character’s actions that I see a different metaphor not just in every scene but every time I rewatch it. Similarly, Beast With A Billion Backs is so committed to a particular tone in which our expectations are comically undercut without falling into gibbering nonsense that I’m willing to accept two completely opposed but equally thought-provoking ideas.

On the one hand, faith as a replacement for personal human connection makes sense, and not just for religion. We’ve all known people for whom the expression of a set of moral or spiritual or comic-book based principles is used as a cudgel to bring order to a chaotic human experience, with results ranging from merely  being very fucking annoying to horrific abuse swept under a carpet; I see the resonance between that and the scenes of tentacle-whipping, where it appears that the characters are blindly accepting terrible violence under the guise of love. I especially like how Fry initially appears motivated by his break-up with Colleen; religious institutions, cults, pyramid schemes, tabletop gaming parties, and other similar groups tend to best attract those going through spiritual or emotional crises, so it seems plausible that he’d latch onto spreading the Tentacle as a way of finding himself again.

“Don’t listen to that crackpot!”
“But I’m agreeing with you!”

But in this case, Fry is 100% sincere and even remarks to Colleen that, through the Tentacle, he has come around to her all-loving way of thinking. Yivo-as-religious-love is a meaning that ebbs and flows throughout the movie – shifting out of view when shkler true motivations appear and then returning when all the creatures of the universe ascend to heaven. A consistent perspective I’ve seen in religious and principled people I’ve respected and loved through the years is a genuine unconditional love for humanity as a whole, and that’s something that is present within these scenes in Beast With A Billion Backs (for a semi-fictional example of this in film, see Malcolm X when he goes to Mecca). It’s an ability to recognise and put aside things that don’t matter in the long run.

The revelation of Yivo’s true motivations (and voice) shift the movie into a different, deliciously subversive meaning: the idea of God as a bad boyfriend. Others have commented on how this plot thread has a rape-like quality to it, which I always took as part of the point – Yivo is a sleazy date rapist who talks big game about love and showers shkler targets with affection but is also casually selfish and cruel. David Cross is a brilliant choice of actor to play shklim, because he has a smug, self-important presence that he has the humility and self-awareness to present without leaning in on it; he’s fantastic at playing characters who not only have punchable faces but don’t realise they do, and he plays Yivo as either insincerely flattering, whining or coldly dropping a horrible bomb on someone without caring how it comes off (with a few drops of sincere kindness to put the whole thing in sharp relief).

“I know how you feel, Fry. There are also times where I feel like you need to go away.”

Combine this with the many subplots in which characters end up in conflict over ego and rash action in the heat of the moment, and the end result is a reminder that heaven is out of reach on this plane of existence. Any understanding of human behaviour has to start with the fact that people are petty, jealous, and emotional – that is to say, to not assume they are rational actors. This is not a nice fact about people, but it is a true one, and one that people often forget. I suppose it’s also something to consider about oneself – it’s tempting to think of yourself as the only rational actor, but I know I’m not one of those people cursed with a lifetime of rational decisions. 

“Attention, beings of Universe Gamma.”
“Where?”
“Here.”
“I had a hunch!”

Title Card: The proud result of prison labor
Cartoon Billboard: “Steamboat Willie”, 1928

Brittany Murphy guest stars as Colleen, and she disappears into the role so well I’d almost think she was always a part of the cast – she falls into the rhythm of the dialogue perfectly. As said, David Cross plays Yivo, and Stephen Hawking and Dan Castellanetta reprise their roles as himself and the Robot Devil respectively. This movie has my favourite combination of words this series has ever generated: a giant medium-sized ant. This movie has a lot of really creative ideas – I love Zoidberg’s double-vomit and the way it escalates, we get a lot of Kiff’s biology and culture, the 2D tunnel of love, the elevator that works by lowering the building rather than the elevator, Leela’s winking glasses, the cake smelloscope, and of course everything to do with Yivo. We even have the spectacular image of Leela playing Pong against a brick wall – not just funny, but oddly poignant as an expression of loneliness. “What are you gonna do? Sleep in a big pile like hamsters?” I know enough poly people who are into that. 

My favourite of Colleen’s boyfriends is Ndulu – I love how he seems like he woke up choosing violence that day, and I love Phil LaMarr’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery of his accent. This contains two different examples of perfect comic timing: one in which Bender is cut off earlier than you’d expect by a falling door (“ANSWER THAT WITH YOUR PREcious logic.”) and the “OW MY NECK” sequence (“My neck feels perfectly – OW, MY NECK!”). The pile of suicide booth receipts is the darkest joke this show ever did, and it’s topped later with “And that was a very sick Girl Scout!”. I’ve always been amused with how this movie was ahead of its time in the presentation of nonstandard pronouns. Bender throwing his first-born son into Hell was something that put me off at the time because it felt like a climax to him being evil but I pretty much got over it. I love the credits showing all the characters each actor voiced – conveying how much work and talent goes into this thing.

The title is a riff on a line from Shakespeare’s Othello. The opening scene is an homage to Steamboat Willie. Farnsworth roasts Wernstrom with a reference to the Higgs Boson. There are parodies of Red Bull, Donkey Kong, and Mortal Kombat. Ms Marple Madness combines references to Ms Marple and Marble Madness. Exlaxian is a combination of Exlax, a laxative, and the video game Galaxian. Fry and Colleen go on a date at the St Asimov’s Day festival, a reference to scifi writer Isaac Asimov. The League Of Robots contains pictures of Robot from Lost In Space and Robbie The Robot from Forbidden Planet. Wernstrom namedrops “Stop! In The Name Of Love” when chasing the survivors. Bender taking on Yivo is a reference to the climax of Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Bender drops a reference to Yogi Bear’s catchphrase. Characters drop a reference to the catchphrase from the Fleischer Superman cartoons. Old Farmer’s Wikipedia is a combination of Wikipedia and the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The League Of Robots scene changes are references to the Sixties Batman show.

Iconic Moments: “How scared should we be?” / “Somewhere between ‘not at all’ and ‘entirely’.” / “I call ‘entirely’! WAAAAA!” | “Ever since man left his cave and met a stranger with a different language and a new way of looking at things, the human race has had a dream: to kill him, so we don’t have to learn his language or his new way of looking at things!”
Biggest Laugh:

Next Week: “Bender’s Game”. 

“MY LEG FEELS BETTER!”