Celebrating the forgotten Futurama films

A promo shot featuring Futurama's main characters in a bustling futuristic city.
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As Futurama is set to return to the small screen, we celebrate the sci-fi comedy show’s forgotten feature length instalments.


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Futurama has flowed between death and revival more than the most prolific of religious prophets. How many shows have aired four series finales and still live to tell the tale? The history of production on this show depicts it flirting with fatality, in a constant battle to have its greatness recognised by studio execs.

However, that greatness has always been revered by an irremovable fanbase who are responsible for driving up ratings during Futurama’s dormant years.

Following the show’s first cancellation in 2003, the four completed seasons were selected for syndication on Adult Swim, allowing Futurama to gain a new, consistent audience. This convinced initial rights-holders Fox that Matt Groening and David X Cohen’s world of tomorrow deserved another shot. Between 2007 and 2009, four Futurama feature-length films were released.

Bender’s Big Score, a time travelling epic which bent the minds of the characters and canon of the show, was Futurama’s triumphant return. Into The Wild Green Yonder was a galaxy-spanning odyssey which brought our characters’ arcs to a gentle, emotional end for the second time in Futurama history. The significance of these two films as grand re-openings and meticulous closings for the series leave the two films which they book-end in the shadows.

The Beast With A Billion Backs and Bender’s Game, while less significant to the Futurama story, carry significant merit. They fulfil the promise of Futurama expanding its scale from TV to film, taking the show’s comedic dedications to nerd culture and classic sci-fi to new realms, literally, in both cases.

These two films understand the heart of Futurama more than most other instances of the show. Released in 2008, they come from a time before nerd culture consumed pop culture, when fans of golden age sci-fi and tabletop RPGs didn’t have a lot of representation in mainstream media. The Beast With A Billion Backs and Bender’s Game may not look the most unique by modern standards, but their importance to fans at the time is not to be underestimated.

Meditative sci-fi

The perception of sci-fi as a catalogue of space-faring adventures, while not totally unwarranted, is counter to the stories told in the genre’s genesis. So many of the works of golden age authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were about the introduction of a new technology, or some extraordinary scientific event, and observing how the world deals with and responds to this new phenomenon. Think more Black Mirror than Star Wars.

The Beast With A Billion Backs begins with the information that space-time itself has been ripped, opening up a view into another universe. In a typical modern sci-fi tale, this cataclysmic horror would be immediately met with a brave military man coldly leading an adventure into the anomaly, but Futurama differs itself by taking inspiration from further in the past.

The first half of the film’s runtime has the anomaly in the background while we see the world of tomorrow express their fears about the great unknown hanging over them. This shared emotion brings strangers together, introducing the main theme of the film – connection.

We follow our characters as they find loss and love in their searches for connection. Amy and Kif get married, Fry finds a new lover who herself has multiple lovers, the anomaly itself is a connection between this universe and the next. This gateway is inhabited by a creature named Yivo, a lonely being who looks to physically connect the entirety of mankind through their monstrous tentacles. This excludes robots from the shared love humanity and Yivo start to experience, a lack of connection which drives Bender to wage war on the extra-universal interloper.

The scale of the film does escalate to cartoonish heights as it progresses (another reason why fans love Futurama), but it always remains grounded in that very human, very familiar theme. This mix of high concept and emotional resonance is a compound present in the DNA of Futuramas best episodes. Season three’s Time Keeps On Slippin’ and season six’s The Late Philip J. Fry are examples of extremely over-the-top sci-fi premises held close by the fanbase for their deepening of characters and emotional grounding.

Throughout its journeys into new universes and explorations of human connection, The Beast With A Billion Backs retains Futurama’s specific brand of humour. Gags where people are pointing and screaming at the sky so long that they need to catch their breath and reintroductions of characters like The Grand Priestess give the film that homely Futurama feeling in the face of an expanded scale.

An ode to nerd culture

Humour was more directly focused on with Futurama’s third film, Bender’s Game. Futurama’s love for parody is evident through its initial four-season run. Episodes like Fry And The Slurm Factory, A Big Piece Of Garbage and Mars University see riffs on famous stories like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Armageddon and Animal House. Meanwhile, Bender’s Game dives deeper into the canon of niche nerd loves for its parody, electing Dungeons And Dragons as its target.

To simultaneously pay homage while poking fun is the Futurama way. A writer’s room consisting of David X. Cohen, a bachelor in physics, Ken Keeler and Sarah J. Greenwald, holders of PhDs in Mathematics, and Jeff Westbrook, a PhD in computer science, is a writer’s room full of true blue nerds. This gives Futurama a licence to satirise, laud and mock aspects of nerd culture while never punching down on it, a trap shows like The Big Bang Theory often fell into.

As with its predecessor, the high fantasy angle on Bender’s Game doesn’t cause the film to lose sight of its characters. The entire premise exists to ponder the possibility of a robot having an imagination. Bender’s character is deepened as we see the layers of his creativity and desire to be taken seriously as a thinking, feeling being, despite his lack of humanity.

What easily could have been a low-effort parody was used to explore a fundamental question posed to a world where robots walk the same paths as humans. Being able to explore lofty concepts while paying homage to what was a niche culture at the time is what made Futurama unique and what has kept it increasingly relevant as years passed. Futurama spoke a language that was only introduced to the lexicon years after the ratings fell and the show was buried.

The return of tomorrow

Once again, Futurama extends a zombified arm from its grave to return with new episodes in 2023. Many fans consider the show to have dropped off significantly since its original run, with the films and subsequent three seasons considered as second rate Futurama. However, if we were to get episodes that carried the quality of Futurama’s two forgotten films, we would be overjoyed.

Episodes later in the show’s run started to come off as uninspired and lacking the special sauce that made the show so entertaining. Fans will often point to season six’s Attack Of The Killer App as the point where the show started to lose its soul. Rather than a classic sci-fi riff, or even a parody of a classic tale, the episode looks to comment on social media and the invention of the iPhone, a jarringly dated commentary for a show set 1000 years into the future.

The Beast With A Billion Backs and Bender’s Game have the heart of Futurama beating thunderously through feature-length runtimes. If released today, they would seamlessly slot into a culture that worships the comedic space odyssey, either passing by unnoticed or revered for their dedication to character and classic sci-fi mannerisms.

To appeal to the fan and to stand out amongst a cluster of similar shows might prove to be mutually exclusive for Futurama’s newest episodes. A show that once stuck out like a sore thumb in Fox’s weekly schedule returns to our screens as one of the prototypes for today’s media landscape. Though it’s not unusual for Futurama to be appreciated much too late, I hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years to give these new episodes their flowers.

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