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DVD Review: Futurama Volumes 1-4

Futurama is the brain child of Matt Groening and others. The series has been complete for some time now and the humour is failing to date. Either the series managed to reach timelessness within its four seasons, or it will eventually give way to obsolescence. Is it modern or is it post-modern?

Architecture and material possessions, as noted on By Design, present a conceit of modernism as being the logical end of history, the final phase of social evolution. The architecture in Futurama is entirely urban, and rurality is virtually non-existent due to the elimination of distance through technology. Technology has worked its way into every facet of this new information society, with china that reassembles itself upon breaking, the replacement of the wheel with hover, money that talks back, and the use of robots to do all routine labour.

The conceit here is that technology has made everything easier. The core idea being that of ‘Technological Determinism,’ that technological advancement determines social and cultural change. This is a flawed concept however; it does not take into account the economic realities and power of the manufacturer. For instance, the design of DVDs was such that they could not be ripped, and by charging $30 for a thin piece of plastic-metal, the profit is exponential, and companies fought furiously to protect this control — to their detriment, as noted by Dirk Deppey.

In Futurama, most technology seems designed to serve the end user rather than to make profit. In fact, the interiors all appear rather spacious. Human traffic is crammed together in transporter tubes and everything has been streamlined for efficiency. This shows a great deal of faith in technology as a liberating force.

Of course, this faith is not entirely blind. Technology has come to perpetuate outdated institutions and forms of governance. In Futurama, all the nations have come under the United States of Earth, with a flag that has the American stripes with a picture of the earth where the stars would be. Given that each star on the American flag represents the addition of a state, it would seem that, over time, the whole world simply joined the United States before running out of space on the flag. The Central Bureaucracy is also aided by an advanced arrangement of digital and physical filing systems, but needs a massive amount of space in order to maintain its reliance on paper.

A special place needs to be considered for capitalism, however. The economy has continued to perpetuate a society built on a concept of ownership. While a person can choose their educational path, they have their jobs assigned to them (instead of having to compete with each other for employment). As noted by Sharon Beder in Selling the Work Ethic, it serves the wealthy to have a surplus unemployed in the community, because it makes employees easily replaceable and thus keeps the wages low. This may be why the Professor and Hermes wouldn’t mind to see their crew killed, since it is harder to replace them.

People have even been liberated from religion, presumably by science, and everyone lives day to day without the promises of an afterlife or horror when faced with death. Of course, doubts about existentialism can be raised when the professor says “all video tapes were destroyed during the second coming of Jesus,” as though everyone just continued living out their lives after judgement day.

What remains of the various spiritual paths is the ‘Church of Robotology,’ (which comes across as Fundamentalism for robots) and The First Amalgamated Church. It is as though people are now able to believe in their own mythology and still know that it is a mere construct. Nietzsche would be so proud.

In an analysis of the society, it would seem that Futurama is a vision of ultimate modernity and posits an end of modernization. But as a work of television, is it Modernist?

Bernard Smith points out in Modernism’s History, that modernism was a reaction against mass produced modernity and should be considered a movement (better termed ‘Formalesque’) that has wrapped in the 20th century. The hallmark of the Formalesque style is a criticism of modernization by returning to primitive forms, and seeking inspiration in the old and ancient.

Of note, Futurama concerns itself with ordinary people. Instead of concerning itself with epic adventure as we see so commonly in the heroic science fictions, it explores the mundane and simple. Planet Express is a package delivery company (a mundane but obviously necessary industry), and by exploring the world through Fry’s uneducated eyes, we get both the sense of wonder and a feeling of detachment that comes from feeling obsolete.

While there is plenty of criticism for modernity in the content, one could hardly consider the aesthetics of the series “modernist.” All episodes follow a conventional narrative structure. Modernist devices, like montages, which emphasize form over content, are essentially not used (though there is a touch of surrealism now and then). It may be that Futurama is best described as Post-modern.

According to Fleming’s Art and Ideas, Post-modernism simply means anything after modernism, and that it is usually characterized by a reaction to some aspect of modernism. Rather than vent at the dehumanization of technology (as in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927), Futurama comes to terms with it, and shows us human beings just getting on with their lives.

About Jonathan Scanlan

  • http://perfidy.org John Owen

    But is it any good?

    Subjectively speaking?

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Interesting read, but I came in expecting a review of the DVD. The title is rather misleading and should not be listed as a review.

    Still, good column.

  • http://http/paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Futurama is more satire than post-modern commentary, JS!

    For example, the robot is the character most imbued with human foibles and urges. This is not, in my opinion, done to expose the shallow programming of greed and consumerism in modern culture, but because it is FUNNIER that way.

  • http://bowlingforillidan.blogspot.com John Lee

    specifically, a robot can get away with things that a human would never be allowed to

    you don’t see any cigar-smoking, whore-mongering, kleptomaniac characters in The Simpsons