Futurama, “Bender’s Game”

Written by: Eric Horsted, Michael Rowe, Eric Kaplan, David X Cohen, Patric Verrone
Directed by: Dwayne Carrey-Hill
DN’s Ranking: Bad / NONESSENTIAL / Essential

I ended up liking this more than I remembered. As a pure joke machine, it’s the best of the movies so far; the thing about these movies is no matter how dire I found them, they always had some great one-liners (one of my favourite Futurama lines is “I just pray to all-powerful Atheismo…”), and this really is one after another. The one thing the crew consistently got better at, even all the way through the CC era, was breaking language in hilarious ways. Bender’s Game even has more interesting ideas than I remembered, mainly because some of them aged better than I thought they would. My main issue was always that it felt poorly structured in a way typical to TV writers not used to playing with ninety minutes.

“It’d be cheaper to fill the tank with Nobel Prize winner’s sperm.”

The first act deals mainly with the concept of depleting oil reserves. I remember being skeptical of this in 2008, not because I didn’t believe anything it said, but because it felt like something everyone was saying that the show latched onto in an attempt to seem relevant. One criticism post-Golden Simpsons has often gotten is that it latches onto ideas so ephemeral that they’ve already disappeared into the aether by the time the show airs; it’s not that topical humour is unnecessary, it’s that it’s always the most immediate and superficial reaction to an idea. That works in an inherently ephemeral medium, like how the The Daily Show mastered knee-jerk reactions to stupid shit, but it works significantly less well for something that takes nine months to animate and will go into syndication. To use a ridiculously hacky example, jokes about conspiracies over Obama’s birth certificate would come off tired and tedious right now, not having yet passed into history to be ironically reappropriated the way the show does so many of its other references. 

(Two shows manage to get away with this kind of thing: Always Sunny, which has the virtue of focusing deeply on out-of-touch protagonists who don’t really understand what they’re interacting with and who age in a real world in real time, and South Park, which I don’t like and cannot meaningfully comment on.)

Of course, the themes of oil industry and big business practices don’t deserve my naive, knee-jerk skepticism. What I didn’t know at the time is that Mom’s practices here are part of big corporations and always have been. Scaremongering to justify price gouging while shutting down alternative fuel sources? Yeah, sure, obviously. I also enjoy the way Mom’s solution of kidnapping and forcefeeding the Nibblonians recalls images of factory farming, weaving together imagery from multiple different evil corporate practices into one comic-horror potpourri. I’ve never had much patience for people who get mad that satire can’t literally force people to do what they want; it’s enough for me to have satire point out the awful things in the world in a way that highlights how and why they’re awful without it just being depressing and pointless. It’s like how The Daily Show’s main ‘purpose’ was to tell leftists they weren’t insane and that other people saw what was going on and were horrified by it too.

“Everybody get out of the conference room! I’m calling a conference! EVERYBODY GET IN HERE!”

Obviously, this is also about Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve gotten into the game in a serious way since I last watched Bender’s Game, and I’m amused by how it’s more accurate than most of the science (even if I’m more familiar with 5th edition, which came out seven years later). The first half gets some comedy out of taking an extraordinarily straightforward D&D game and throwing Bender into it; having him go from completely unable to imagine anything to full Mazes & Monsters is reliable Bender. As a fan of alternate universes, I do enjoy the idea of ‘fantasy version of our favourite scifi show’; unfortunately, this is also where the movie loses me. It just feels like the movie ran out of ideas early on – I like the initial setup where Fry and Leela find Bender (sorry, Titanius Anglesmith) right up to when they find the Professor, but once the plot gets going, it’s like their imagination dried up. They use the central plot structure from Lord Of The Rings, one that has been mined to death in serious fantasy let alone parody; road trip stories in general are hard to make interesting because the character is literally just going from one place to another. They generally compensate by making the places they travel through interesting (when that’s not the whole reason for the story’s existence).

This is where the story really falls down. A lot of the setpieces are kind of funny, but the more I think about it, the more I think of more obviously funny options. I’m not normally someone who says “they did [x] when they should have done [y]” because I find it a profoundly useless way to approach criticism; as Roger Ebert said, it’s not what a story is about but how it’s about it. But in this case, I feel like the show is failing to meet the standard it set itself. Wipe Castle? Morks? Come on. This show has come up with way funnier genre riffs than that. The most infuriating part is when it wastes what feels like fifteen minutes on a parody of TV commercials for knives. I feel like the structure really lets them down here too – splitting the movie in half the way they do means it doesn’t have enough time to really develop some interesting ideas but it has way too much time to comically power through all the obvious beats like they did in their Wizard of Oz parody. By the two-third point of the movie, I’m just waiting for it to be over already. 

Title Card: The flames in your TV are not part of the show.
Cartoon Billboard: “Quasi at the Quackadero”, (1975)

George Takei and Rich Little return as himself and himself as Howard Cowsell respectively. Leela’s plot speaks to another structural problem this movie has: it doesn’t really resolve anything outside of the fuel problem, and the reveal that Igner is Farnsworth’s son is, well, meh. The shower scene early on cracked me up for its obvious gratuitousness. I spotted Free Waterfall Jr in the crowd and reacted like Mike and the bots watching Space Mutiny. The runner of Fry asking people to smell his milk was hilarious, as was the scene of Farnsworth giving Fry a pep talk while his brain was in a monkey without anyone acknowledging that. Love the detail of Mom using her babies to shield herself from an explosion. Also love the detail that Nibbler forgot to blank the cast’s minds, something I hope against hope the writers had also forgotten until they sat down to write this movie. One odd thing this movie does very well is characterise Larry; his mixture of obsequiousness and cruelty never gets old.

“I swear, when he came out I flipped a coin whether to keep him or the afterbirth!”
“Yes Mother, you told that story at his graduation.”

The title is a reference to the book Ender’s Game. The episode opens with a parody of the film Yellow Submarine. Mobile is a reference to the company Mobil. Greyfam studying the crystal is a reference to Gandalf studying the One Ring in Lord Of The Rings. Frydo and Leegola are references to Frodo and Legolas. Greyfam and Ignus’s fight is a parody-by-reversal of the climactic fight in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Bender’s psychologist drops a reference to “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. One of the robots is Rosie The Robot Maid from The Jetsons. The TV ad parody Fry watches is a parody of Cutlery Corner, with the serial number being a reference to an infamous incident involving a katana. The demolition derby contains references to Lego, Erector, Space: 1999, and both Star Trek and Star Trek: Enterprise. The Teletubbies make a cameo. One of the trolls drops a reference to Scooby Doo. Mom’s sons make multiple references to The Three Stooges, which leads to Amy and Leela referencing Sex & The City. Farnsworth and Mom end up doing a Ghost with a molecule display. 

Leegola dropping a beanbag on a tic-tac-toe game is a reference to an old commercial. Farnsworth and a robot drop a reference to the song “Theme From Shaft”. Momon drops a reference to the film When A Stranger Calls. Bender’s ‘relaxation therapy’ combines Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum with George Orwell’s 1984. The demolition derby takes place in UnSafeco Field, a reference to the home stadium of the Seattle Mariners. The robot mental asylum is the Hal Institute, a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the head nurse is Nurse Ratchet in a reference to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The characters slaughter goons styled after Mork of Mork & Mindy. 

Iconic Moments: “Is that a hobbit?” / “No, it’s a hobo and a rabbit. But they’re making a hobbit.”
Biggest Laugh: This is the single funniest Scary Door segment and my best friend and I quote it constantly.

Next Week: “Into The Wild Green Yonder”. “There! Now you know how it feels to be locked in a go-go cage!” / “What the hell are you talking about, woman?!”