Futurama hit the airwaves on FOX back in the tender year of 1999 as the brainchild of Matt Groening and David X Cohen. The show centered around the pathetic Philip J. Fry (voiced by Billy West), a down-on-his-luck pizza delivery boy who is cryogenically frozen for 1000 years when delivering a pizza on New Year's Eve 2000. When he awakes he is thrust into the reality that he is alive and well in the year 3000.
Fry joins up with the delivery crew of Planet Express and embarks on wacky adventures for the next five seasons (really four and a half). The show was a cult hit based on its cutting edge humor and outrageous situations. FOX never saw it as a commercial success and shuffled it around the schedule and split the seasons up. Ultimately the show was canceled in August of 2003.
That normally would be the end, but as we saw for other cult hits, Family Guy (renewed), Farscape (four hour mini-series to wrap up the arcs), and Firefly (a movie to resolve some story and character issues), if it sells you will make more. Sell it did, with reruns getting good ratings on Comedy Central and DVD releases of each season being very successful. The series marks a return in the form of four direct to DVD/Blu-ray movies that will then be split up and aired as a ‘new’ season. Bender’s Game is the third such release and the first to be presented in the high definition Blu-ray format.
Bender’s Game is an incredibly convoluted story that has many side plots and twists, reminding us that this will eventually be four episodes on television. The story starts with the world facing a dark matter fuel crisis. All ships need dark matter to function and Mom Enterprises is the sole supplier of the precious fuel.
Realizing that Mom (voiced by Tress MacNeille) is amassing a huge fortune while manufacturing a dark matter shortage, Professor Farnsworth (voiced by Billy West) digs into his past. He recalls for the crew that dark matter used to be useless until he created an energy crystal that turned dark matter into fuel, which Mom took for herself, and an opposite "anti-backwards matter" crystal, which Farnsworth kept hidden. Farnsworth mentions that if the crystals were to be joined again dark matter would stop being a viable fuel source.
During all of these revelations Bender (voiced by John DiMaggio) stumbles into a game of Dungeons and Dragons being played by the kids. Realizing he has no imagination, Bender essentially re-programs himself to have one and imagines he is the knight Titanius Anglesmith and joins the game. Unknown to all of the players is the fact that one of their 12-sided dice is actually the anti-backwards matter crystal. Bender being, well, Bender he truly believes he is a knight, causes a riot, and is sent to the HAL Institute for Criminally Insane Robots.
The crew then resolves to stop Mom’s monopoly on fuel and travels to her dark matter mine. At the mine they discover a shocking secret and attempt to stop Mom’s plans. During their attempt the energy crystal resonates and transforms their surroundings, causing the Planet Express crew, Mom and her kids/henchmen to be catapulted into a fantasy Dungeons and Dragons style realm called Cornwood.
Bender is here in his armored Titanius Anglesmith persona and the crew has been changed into fantasy creatures and characters, forgetting their past lives. The companions discover that Momom (Mom) is trying to recover the Die of Power (anti-backwards matter crystal) and they must travel to the Geysers of Gygax and cast it into the molten plastic from where it was molded. This very Lord of the Rings take on the story adds many twists and revelations to the tale.
Bender’s Game is a tough movie to watch at times. It has its moments of brilliance and sheer hilarity, but the bloated storyline and obvious episodic nature hold it back from greatness. The biggest issue is its propensity to continually fall back on one-shot gags. This works quite well when watching a 22-minute episode, but when looking at what is supposed to be a coherent movie, it just falls flat.
There is also simply too much going on. As an example, Leela (voiced by Katey Sagal) is wearing a shock collar to control her anger, Bender goes crazy and meets other robots at the HAL institute, Farnsworth recalls his past with Mom, one of Mom’s sons learns a secret about his past, and we get a large revelation concerning the Nibblonians. This is not even all of the sub-plots in play and let us not forget the over-arching story as well.
Bender’s Game does, however, benefit from having a mature, seasoned cast who really get their characters as well as animators who are experts with the subject matter. It just seems like too many goals were listed in the planning of this feature and they end up working against themselves to tell the story. Bender’s Game is an amusing movie, but ultimately is simply an average Futurama experience. I will be curious to see how people react to this in an episodic format once it airs; it may just become a better experience.
This is Futurama’s first foray into Blu-ray territory and I am happy to say that they made the leap with skill and care. Presented in an AVC encoding that has a bitrate of about 35 to 40 Mbps, Bender’s Game looks amazing in high definition.
Colors are bright and vibrant with outstanding black and white levels. The characters and backgrounds are vividly clear and the lines are clean and easy to distinguish. The core Futurama world looks great, but once we enter the mythical Cornwood the environments and characters are lush and vibrant.
Bender’s Game and all Futurama material have a relatively simple art style that unfortunately is not able to maximize the potential of Blu-ray. Having said that, this is the best Futurama has ever looked.
Featuring a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix the audio in Bender’s Game is outstanding. Unlike the animation style there is no limit to how great they can make this movie sound and their first foray into HD audio is wonderful.
Characters you are used to hearing in a compressed stereo mix come alive when played on a proper setup. Rear channels are used effectively and often, immersing you into the world of Futurama. Bass is used well, if slightly underpowered, at key moments in the film.
This is a movie that is focused on character interaction and the center channel is used exceptionally well, delivering speech that is clearly identifiable. The score is presented well if a little low key and not very deep, while the effects and music very rarely muffled dialogue, leaving us with a coherent sound experience.
While not a reference quality soundtrack, mostly due to the low scale television style action, Bender’s Game is still an outstanding audio experience and a benchmark for the series.
Bender’s Game has embraced Blu-ray in its use of the picture-in-picture feature to present a video commentary during the film. This commentary features all the cast, the creators, and some producers/writers. It is a crowded commentary track but is entertaining nonetheless as it is a live round table format. Commentaries are always better when the group is together and watching the film, this is especially evident here.
- Audio Commentary – Creators Matt Groening and David Cohen, director Dwayne Carey, voice actors Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Tress MacNeille, producer Claudia Katz, and co-writer Michael Rowe all take part in a round table conversation. The audio commentary (which is also the bonus view video commentary) is recorded live while the cast and crew watches the film. The commentary is a bit crowded and follows odd tangents at times (try having a conversation with eight people) but it is sure to please fans of the series.
- Bonus View Video Commentary (Blu-ray exclusive) – Using the Blu-ray formats picture-in-picture feature this video version of the audio commentary adds substantially to the discussions. Seeing the cast members interact and play off each other is really entertaining.
- Dungeons and Dragons and Futurama – A look at how D&D has influenced Futurama.
- How to Draw Futurama in 83 Easy Steps – A look at how difficult it is to animate a simple looking show.
- 3D Models – explores some of the CG elements in the animation. It’s a decent trio of brief shorts, but lengthier featurettes would have gone a long way.
- Fun with Futurama (HD, 4 minutes) – The deleted scene and Outtakes are pretty minimal and not very entertaining. Bender’s Anti-Piracy Warning is quite humorous and worth a watch.
- Storyboard Animatics (SD, 22 minutes) – Only interesting to animators, this bland look at animatics takes you behind the scenes during the early stages of animation.
- Genetics Lab (HD) – An interactive feature that lets you combine characters to create hybrids and creatures.
- Into the Wild Green Yonder (HD, 2 minutes) – A trailer for the fourth (and final) Futurama direct to video feature.
The Final Word
Bender’s Game looks and sounds amazing on Blu-ray, but the bloated, convoluted story prevents this from being a great feature. The extras are also a little disappointing, we have a great video commentary, but little else to enjoy. Bender’s Game is worth owning for the die hard fans, but casual fans may want to wait for the next feature.