Don’t expect any electric sheep in this robot fever-dream.
This is a spoiler-free review of Netflix’s new anthology, Love, Death & Robots, which premiered at SXSW on March 9. All 18 shorts debut on the streaming service on March 15.
When Tim Miller and David Fincher set out to create Love, Death & Robots, Fincher says, they just wanted to make something “cool.”
Mission accomplished. Netflix’s new anthology series – comprised of 18 animated shorts, varying between 5-17 minutes in length – is the epitome of cool; an ambitious, dazzling, f***ed up fever-dream that hops between genres and animation styles to deliver an all-you-can-eat buffet of weirdness, from sentient yogurt to ghost fish to an alternate history that gleefully reimagines the many ways Hitler could’ve died. The series’ closest analogs are the likes of Heavy Metal, Liquid Television, and Adult Swim, but Love, Death & Robots takes things to another level in terms of style, scope, and its ability to shock.
The shorts have no unified theme or message – some are dark and nihilistic, others poetic and hopeful, a few more that are surreal or openly comedic – but no two shorts look the same, utilizing animation teams and studios from around the world, including Hungary’s Digic Pictures (which recently worked on the in-game cinematics on Destiny 2 and the trailer for Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege), France’s Unit Image (God of War, Beyond Good and Evil 2), Poland’s Platige Image (Metro Exodus, Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider), Korea’s Reddog Culture House (Overwatch, Voltron: Legendary Defender) and Miller’s own LA-based Blur Studio (Far Cry 5, Shadow of the Tomb Raider), to name a few.
Six of the shorts employ photo-real CG and motion capture work, which occasionally play like extended game cutscenes or trailer cinematics – but they’re all aesthetically stunning, even if they can’t quite make it across the uncanny valley.
The rest utilize stylized CG, rotoscoping, 2D, or mixed media techniques, and for the most part, it’s the more traditionally animated shorts and that really pack a punch, perhaps because photo-real CGI is becoming so ubiquitous, especially in gaming. Miller and Fincher have said that they let the stories dictate the way each short was animated, and the CG shorts are definitely the most ambitious in terms of scale, with “The Secret War” featuring an army’s desperate struggle against grotesque monsters in the Siberian forest, and “Sonnie’s Edge” showcasing an elaborate gladiatorial monster fight. But there’s something clinical about these pieces that may keep viewers at a distance – the most effective of the photo-real shorts is “Helping Hand,” a claustrophobic chamber piece that cleverly ratchets up the tension to leave you squirming in your seat without ever outstaying its welcome.
“The Witness,” directed and written by artist Alberto Mielgo, is undoubtedly the most visually striking and inventive of the bunch – with its jittery composition and graphics-laden action, it plays like Into the Spider-Verse meets a Marilyn Manson music video, although it does contort itself into some questionable narrative knots to ensure its female protagonist is basically naked for most of the action.
But calling Love, Death & Robots gratuitous is kind of redundant, because that seems to be the whole point – Miller and Fincher were clearly eager to test the boundaries of the medium and create something that could never be found in a mainstream multiplex or on network television, with buckets of gore, copious nudity (both male and female), and elaborate violence. This is storytelling turned up to eleven, and it will quickly become apparent if a particular short is your cup of tea or not – thankfully, you’ll only have to wait a few minutes to see something completely different. But much like Black Mirror, one viewer’s trash has the potential to be another’s treasure, and the chocolate box of possibilities means that if one were to binge the entire three-plus hour selection (as your reviewer did), or just two or three, it’s unlikely that you’ll be bored, and you’ll most certainly come away with at least a couple of stories that you deeply adore.
If your tastes align with mine, the more intimate stories seem the most likely to stay with you (but if you love monsters and epic battle scenes, you’ll still find your interests well represented). The artful “Zima Blue” is a surprisingly poignant rumination on the meaning of life, presented with handsome, blocky character design, while “Fish Night,” based on a short story by author Joe Lansdale, is an existential desert trip with stunning use of color and imagination. A trio of comedic tales – the sly “Three Robots,” succinct “When The Yogurt Took Over,” and increasingly ridiculous “Alternate Histories,” all directed by Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres in wildly different styles – are clear standouts, showcasing the flexibility of the format.
While Love, Death & Robots has a broad scope by design – its only aspiration is to explore interesting stories from across the science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comedy spectrum – it would be interesting to see what a more cohesive, focused collection would look like. There are some coincidentally recurring elements (cats, boobs, and human-animal hybrids among them) but considering what a vast array of genres and styles the anthology is presenting, the possibilities are endless, so it would be easy to imagine a season focused entirely on one aspect of the project’s title (death and robots are both well represented here, but love, not so much) or a particular genre. Still, this is a smorgasbord of fascinating stories and compelling visuals, and it’s a trip that should prove worthwhile for any genre fan looking for a quick detour from reality.