The Beast with a Billion Backs starts off with some strange event that is barely commented upon, and then ignored in favor of a new and exciting adventure that has little, if anything, to do with the beginning of the show. Granted, that could describe every episode of Futurama (or The Simpsons) that is or ever will be. The sad part is that this is equally true of the movies put out about both series. Only The Simpsons Movie is over and done with and the writers can go back to working on the show. There are still two more Futurama movies in this limited revival, and that is all the new material we will ever get for this series (as things currently stand).
Comedy is dependent upon timing, and, unfortunately for Matt Groening, he hasn’t mastered comedy that lasts longer than half an hour. This was true for Bender’s Big Score, and it’s true for The Beast with a Billion Backs. It starts with a seemingly innocuous tear in the universe, mostly ignored by Earthicans who’ve lost interest. (The rip in time and space is a consequence of the time-travel paradoxes exploited in Bender’s Big Score.) There are more shocking developments to start the ball rolling (literally, in one case): Amy and Kif are getting married! Fry is dating Brittany Murphy! There is a giant game of human Labyrinth! All this and more in the next ninety minutes!
Which is precisely the problem. By the time the movie revisits that game of Labyrinth, Fry has been through the rip in the universe and brought back with him a many-tentacled monster who has attached shklerself* to him by the neck, and it’s hard to remember why that first game happened at all. This is the problem that Family Guy faces in every single episode, except that Family Guy operates in miniature. (Except for its own, less-than-stellar movie, which also happened to featured time travel. Like it or not, Family Guy is genre.) It is not a compliment to Futurama that it recapitulates the randomness of Family Guy’s tendency to break with the story in favor of a gag.
The main story picks up with Fry’s return from the other universe where he has become one with Yivo, a planet-being who really just wants to love everyone. With tentacles. It’s really not as bad as that might sound, but it’s also not as interesting. Skip forward twenty minutes of animated Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the only significant developments are that Kif has died; Zapp Brannigan scores with his widow whilst on the lam from Yivo’s all-reaching tentacles; and Leela, the last unconverted soul, reveals to the entire universe that Yivo is a pervert. (Well duh.) Yivo swears shkle* only wants love and withdraws what Leela has revealed are “genticles” in favor of wooing the entire universe personally. Shkle* proposes, and the universe ascends golden elevators to be one with Yivo.
It turns out that Yivo has sent subconscious messages to the other side for millennia, so that all our visions of heaven—fluffy clouds and angels—are just visions of Yivo. (The angels are opportunistic birds picking Yivo clean of parasites.) Not enough is made of this revelation that the religion of worshipping Yivo, paired with the idea that heaven is Yivo, means that most monotheistic religions boil down to worshippers praying for supernaturally polyamorous relationships. I think the protestors of Prop 8 could make something of that.
Thrown over in favor of a heaven they can’t enter (no technology can cross the barrier, only humanoids), the robots scheme (led by Bender, naturally) to pull Yivo into the old universe where they can attack shkler*. Yivo discovers that Fry, unable to entirely sever his friendship with his tin-plate buddy, has broken Yivo’s commandment that none of shkler’s* partners communicate with the old universe. Even in heaven, there are too many rules. (Isn’t that just like religion?) Also, if the robots have Robot Hell and the Robot Devil, why isn’t there a Robot Heaven? They’ve got their own firebrand Preacherbots, but no heaven? Is that Matt Groening commenting on the usefulness of dogma against the obvious conclusion that there is no god? (At least, none that doesn’t have tentacles?)
And there we have it: Less than a third as amusing as an average episode of the broadcast show at three times the length, The Beast With A Billion Backs is worth a view, and perhaps a purchase, if only to complete your Futurama DVD collection. The DVD is carbon-neutral. Serial guest star Al Gore would be proud. (Hey, is riding the mighty moon worm a good way to cut down on one’s carbon footprint? That must count as mass transit, surely.) Too bad the fans have very little to be proud of. They got the show produced again, but it’s hard to really say they got their show back. Love is a jealous, obsessive thing indeed.
* - “shkle,” “shkler,” and “shklershelf” are the pronouns of choice when addressing Yivo. Annoying, but effectively used in one exchange between Professor Farnsworth and Bender:
Professor Farnsworth: Don't be daft, Bender. Yivo can't breathe outside the electric ether of shkler own universe. If shkle came here, shkle would shkluffocate.
Bender: No shklit.