When Morty pitches a "video game-style place-saving device" on Rick and Morty that lets him do whatever he wants without any significant repercussions, even Rick says the whole idea is unoriginal.
"[A device that lets you] save your place like in a video game but in real life so that you can try stuff and then go back to your save point," Rick whines during Season 4 Episode 8. "Yes, Morty — I saw it on Futurama!"
Did you see it on Futurama? Not only is this entire Rick and Morty episode an homage to one of Futurama's coolest sci-fi stories, but the Prestige-inspired twist elevates the idea even further.
Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland told Vulture in 2013, "we almost combined... The Simpsons with Futurama" to make Rick and Morty. He and co-creator Dan Harmon want Rick and Morty to be more loose and procedural like The Simpsons, but fans still want something subversive, intelligent, and serialized. Episodes like "The Vat of Acid Episode" that split the difference.
Rick and Morty has included tons of Futurama Easter eggs over the years, but Rick name-dropping the show's spiritual predecessor takes the comparison to new heights. In "The Vat of Acid Episode," Rick is talking about the Futurama series finale, "Meanwhile," which aired in September 2013 just a few months before Rick and Morty premiered in December of that year.
The aging Professor Farnsworth invents a time button that allows the user to jump backward in time by 10 seconds. Series protagonist Philip J. Fry predictably misuses the device, stealing countless diamonds as part of a complicated marriage proposal to his longtime love Leela. The whole thing becomes a black comedy of errors when Fry fails to realize that his watch is out of sync with the rest of reality. He thinks Leela has stood up his proposal when she's actually on time, so he throws himself off the top of a skyscraper.
Things go from depressing to absolutely brain-melting when Fry sees Leela arrive moments before he hits the pavement, but because he's been falling for more than 10 seconds, he's trapped in a time loop whenever he activates the device and eventually dies anyway. In trying to save Fry with a shelter that shields anyone inside from the effects of the button, the Professor winds up getting vaporized. The rewind device is destroyed after Leela and Bender figure out a way to save Fry, but as a result, it freezes everyone in the universe except for Fry and Leela.
They grow old happily together in a universe frozen in time before the Professor (who was merely displaced into a separate dimension of time) offers them the chance to reset the whole timeline to a point before the rewind device was created. So after this grand final adventure, Fry and Leela return to the bodies of their younger selves and lose all of their memories.
These are the most provocative kinds of time-travel stories. When the past is rewritten and our experiences erased from memory... did they ever really happen? And if human existence is that malleable, does anything matter?
For Futurama, it's all very bittersweet and tenderhearted, delivering an overwhelming amount of sentiment that memories like these, even when forgotten, matter more than anything else. The finale gave fans closure on Fry and Leela's while also implying that these misadventures will never really end within the universe of the show.
Rick and Morty achieves the same effect, but the point it makes in "The Vat of Acid" episode is a bleak reality slap for Morty because it focuses more on the guilt of his mistakes rather than the happy memories.
After he gets the device, Morty does predictably pervy things like go inside the Girls' Locker room or figure out how to flirt with Jessica, but his behavior gets progressively more self-destructive as he begins killing himself or other people in disturbing ways. Just when Morty and the viewer are convinced of how meaningless it all is, Morty's better nature rebounds.
This five-minute sequence is mostly dialogue-free, and while it starts out feeling like Rick and Morty's version of Groundhog Day, it pivots into a heartbreaking romantic montage done in the style of the Up opening sequence. Morty has a meet-cute with a dorky girl who's perfect for him (she's really into space for reasons we may never know) After they have a falling out, Morty makes the grand romantic gesture of buying them plane tickets for a vacation to Alaska.
But when the plane crashes, it becomes a struggle for survival where Morty risks his life to call 911 instead of hitting the reset button, only for Jerry to push the reset button anyway thinking it's the TV remote, erasing all of these experiences. Morty has to live on with the burden of what he's done, even more so when Rick reveals that rather than utilize time travel, the device actually displaced Morty into an alternate timeline instead, leading to the deaths of thousands of Mortys and a myriad of other atrocious crimes.
In the "Inside the Episode" mini-doc for "The Vat of Acid Episode," the show's creatives talked about expanding the "stupid" vat of acid idea into a full episode, a creative approach that resembles how "Pickle Rick" came to fruition. The actual episode came up short, so the director developed this entire extended sequence himself.
"One of the biggest heroes of it is the director [Jacob Hair] because the episode was 5 minutes short," co-creator Dan Harmon says in the video. "On his own accord, he just did that whole extended plane crash sequence. That wasn't in the script."
"I read that book Alive in middle school, and it may have traumatized me as a kid," Hair says in the video, referencing a book about survivors of a plane crash. It makes for a potent, soul-crushing lesson for Morty and the viewer.
Unlike the bittersweet final note of the Futurama series finale, the way Rick and Morty uses the concept is just bitter. Rick merges together all of the potential realities so that Morty has to live with the guilt and consequences for everything he's done.
Rick and Morty is once again impressing upon us that the chaotic nature of human existence makes it seem like everything is meaningless, and yet it still offers a glimmer of hope: Morty still has a conscience, and his soul mate still exists in this merged reality.
In an infinite universe, anything is possible.
Rick and Morty Season 4 airs Sunday nights on Adult Swim at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.