Review: Love, Death & Robots

Produced most notably by David Fincher and Tim Miller, Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots is a medley of art styles, themes and gratuitous nudity.

The biggest upside to an online subscription service like Netflix is the guarantee of distribution. And while there are weaknesses with their business model, Netflix has allowed its exclusive programming the opportunity to make creative decisions that TV networks wouldn’t normally allow. Case in point: the animated anthology series, Love, Death & Robots. Bursting at the seams with violence, gore and nudity, it’s almost as though Love, Death & Robots was created solely to push the boundaries of what Netflix shows are allowed to do.

But while producers David Fincher and Tim Miller are the biggest names attached to this project, Love, Death & Robots serves more to showcase a group of first-time directors as they blend elements of science fiction, horror and fantasy in a series of 10-minute shorts. In theory, this format shows promise, as it allows a number of smaller animation studios the chance to experiment with ambitious ideas while working with a sizable budget. In practice, watching Love, Death & Robots feels akin to watching a string of disjointed movie pitches. As a result, quality ranges wildly from episode to episode: the highs are very high, while the lows are very low.

Having watched every episode of the series, I wanted to do a full series review of Love, Death & Robots. Not every episode is astounding, but there are interesting things to point out, even in its missteps. I’ll also be putting an asterisk next to episodes I would recommend. The series isn’t very long (you can finish it in a 3-4 hour sitting), but my recommendations are there if you want a curated experience of the show. Slight spoilers ahead.

Episode 1: Sonnie’s Edge*

Now that’s what I call leaving a first impression! With its gruesome violence and grungy tone, “Sonnie’s Edge” gives the immediate expectation that this Netflix series is going to be freaking BONKERS. There are still issues to address; the way the episode employs the male gaze is a bit unsavory. But I would be lying if I said this wasn’t what I wanted from David Fincher. A sci-fi thriller drenched in blood and sex, helmed by a traumatized woman out for revenge? It practically fits Fincher’s M.O. to a tee!

Episode 2: Three Robots

The next episode turns the energy down. WAY down. If “Sonnie’s Edge” was Fincher’s brainchild, then “Three Robots” would be the brainchild of Deadpool director, Tim Miller. The plot is a essentially one big tour, so your enjoyment of this episode will depend entirely on whether you find their observational humour funny. I must admit that I am not a fan of Deadpool, and this episode didn’t work for me at all.

Episode 3: The Witness*

While the art and setting is undeniably hypnotic, I wish “The Witness” didn’t rely so heavily on style. Everything is a bit too distracting: the emptiness of Hong Kong, the casual female nudity, the wildly random striptease slapped into the middle of the episode. The final sci-fi concept is interesting, but the surrealism of the trip detracts from the overall experience. Still though, it was at least fun to look at.

Episode 4: Suits

“Suits” is practically foaming at the mouth with Americana. A massive alien hoard attacks a rural community of farmers who are armed with weaponized mecha suits. Eh, not exactly a new concept. It’s basically a hybrid between A Quiet Place and Megas XLR. The episode is decent, and the final shot does offer a nice little twist, but there’s not enough nuance in the story to make it stick.

Episode 5: Sucker of Souls

Personally, I love vampires. When properly implemented, vampires make for such a stylistically vivid horror monster. However, “Sucker of Souls” uses them as little more than a cheap plot device: featureless creatures with big teeth and bigger penises (you know, just to remind you that this show is for adults, MOM). What little personality the impressive animation offers is completely sapped by the mediocre writing—a series of one-liners delivered by stock characters. The story even begins with a flash forward. Jeez, what a bore.

Episode 6: When the Yogurt Took Over

This story concept feels like it was made as a joke. The bulk of the episode is read through voice-over narration, and the animation has little to work with. A white blob of super-intelligent yogurt isn’t very visually appealing; who knew? Thankfully, “When the Yogurt Took Over” is among the shortest in the series, with a runtime of six minutes—minus the credits, that puts it at about four or five minutes. But at this point, after two back-to-back disappointments, my expectations for the show were rapidly dwindling.

Episode 7: Beyond the Aquila Rift

Returning back to a more realistic aesthetic, “Beyond the Aquila Rift” is… not bad, I guess. It’s definitely a lot better than the last two episodes. There’s a little bit of everything: cool visuals, hot sex scenes and a mildly compelling mystery. With that said, the ending feels like a cop out. Yeah yeah, it’s a plot twist, I get it. But plot twists have to break away from our expectations. With all the dread creeping beneath the story, I was expecting… I dunno, something worse? What I got instead felt like the blandest possible way to end that story.

Episode 8: Good Hunting*

I’ll be perfectly honest; I love steampunk. It blends the elegance of intricate machinery with the grandeur of Art Deco design. Throw in some Chinese folklore and you have a pretty fun story idea. The episode also explores British colonialism in a way that gives “Good Hunting” some nice cultural subtext. After the death of their parents, Liang and Yan are forced to emigrate from Mainland China to Hong Kong in order to survive. In essence, they’ve moved out of the rigid dominion of the Qing dynasty and into the cruel subjugation of English colonial rule. They are only able to find comfort by working with each other to execute small acts of vengeance.

Like the best episodes of Love, Death & Robots, “Good Hunting” is not really a self-contained short story but more of a starting point for a great concept. But even on its own, it’s poetic, profound and deeply enriching.

Episode 9: The Dump

I wouldn’t exactly say “The Dump” is a bad episode, but it’s hard to ignore just how gross it is. Primarily told in flashback, the story involves two horny rednecks who make an alarming discovery at a filthy, bug-infested trash dump. Yuck. Think of it as a crasser, uglier version of Larry the Cable Guy. The silly tone of the episode does suit the story well, but it’s not enough to salvage a setting so repulsive.

Episode 10: Shape-Shifters

As the first of three military-themed episodes, “Shape-Shifters” tries its hand at making a racism allegory through its use of werewolf soldiers. It is certainly well-animated, but the analogy doesn’t quite fit. Yes, the werewolves are effectively used as bullet sponges by the military, but their superpowers naturally make them better at scouting and taking fire. Meanwhile, in real life, there are stories of regular people in the military who are ostracized for their sexuality, gender and race. You could argue that “Shape-Shifters” is only aiming to discourage prejudice, but I don’t hand out awards for halfhearted attempts at social commentary.

Episode 11: Helping Hand*

“Helping Hand” is a survival story about a woman who gets stranded in space and must make crucial decisions to survive. Call it a budget-sized version of 2013’s Gravity. It’s short, simple and tense, but also a little unsatisfying. Without Gravity’s themes of enduring loss and overcoming grief, “Helping Hand” lacks a certain dramatic weight. As a result, the gore feels unnecessarily sadistic, as though the entire point of the episode was to watch someone suffer. There are some breathtaking cinematic shots though, and, alongside “Sonnie’s Edge,” this is possibly the series’ best use of a realistic art style.

Episode 12: Fish Night

Like the ethereal aquatic spirits that our main characters encounter, “Fish Night” suffers largely from its utter lack of substance. What do these characters want? What are their motives, stakes and conflicts? A good story needs these things to function. And while there are exceptions, the best stories are a series of tangible choices and consequences. “Fish Night” has maybe one instance of what I would hesitate to call a choice, and a resulting consequence that the story drops on us as it happens. Visually pretty but fundamentally underwhelming. Next.

Episode 13: Lucky 13

Saving “Lucky 13” for the thirteenth episode… how droll. The series’ second military-themed episode merges soldier superstition with galactic warfare. The story itself is serviceable, but the way it glorifies the military is unsavory. “Lucky 13” mythologizes a pilot and her aircraft, culminating in her affection for the ship, not unlike Jack Sparrow’s affection for the Black Pearl in the Pirates franchise. One could consider this storytelling tactic to be innocuous; after all, plenty of boat owners and car fanatics have a strong bond with their vehicle. But given its military context, it’s more likely that this episode will appeal to gun nuts who fetishize violence and war.

Episode 14: Zima Blue*

This may seem like an exaggeration, but believe me when I say it’s not: “Zima Blue” is arguably one of my favourite short movies of all time, and the only episode in Love, Death & Robots to explore a fully-fledged story. I will concede that the episode is a lot like Citizen Kane: an investigative reporter is invited for an interview with an enigmatic artist living on a remote island, hoping to learn more about his mysterious past. Even so, what makes “Zima Blue” special is how it also serves as a cohesive analogy for the life of an artist.

All artistic expression is merely an extension of one’s experiences. And as much as an artist may learn, grow and improve, the experiences that shaped their core values will always remain the same, becoming a mental fixation as they mature. Likewise, Zima’s personal fixation is clear, as he pushes a particular theme to its artistic extremes. Finally, Zima’s magnum opus reveals the connection between his art and his life, capturing the experiences that shaped him in its purest form.

“Zima Blue” is easily the best episode of the series, and I’m glad I stuck with the show long enough to see it.

Episode 15: Blind Spot*

Hot off the heels of “Zima Blue’s” perfection, “Blind Spot” is criminally underrated. It’s far from the show’s most challenging concept, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in this high-speed heist. A ragtag gang of cyborg bandits attempt to steal a computer chip from a heavily-guarded armored vehicle. Is the concept and tone a bit childish? Sure, I guess. But there’s a charming punk attitude that gives the story a surprising amount of gas. In a way, it’s a cruder version of the trashy Saturday morning cartoons I would watch as a kid: Storm Hawks, Acceleracers, Teen Titans. I could imagine myself watching a whole season of “Blind Spot” as a not-so-guilty pleasure.

Episode 16: Ice Age

Less than 10 minutes after the best episode of the series comes what is arguably its worst episode. Not only was the “miniature civilization” idea done better in The Simpsons, “Ice Age” doesn’t even have a real story! Instead, they give Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace a lifeless script with dialogue that lands dead on arrival. Their deadpan comic timing only cheapens the experience; the digital effects could not be made more apparent as they gawk aimlessly at their freezer, only mildly amused by what should be an astonishing discovery. In a way, it reminds me of the overuse of green screen and CGI in the Star Wars prequels; without the weight and gravity of real props and practical effects, the actors look like they’re interacting with nothing. A complete waste of time, animation, and big-name talent.

Episode 17: Alternate Histories

If you didn’t think “Ice Age” was the worst episode of the series, then “Alternate Histories” most certainly will be. With a loose premise of looking at alternate timelines where Hitler dies before his rise in Nazi Germany, the episode is really just a poor excuse to put a cartoon Hitler through a variety of untimely demises. The writers and animators package this in a comedic tone, but calling this episode sophomoric would be an understatement; “Alternate Histories” has the comic sensibilities of a grade-schooler. But even if the episode weren’t painfully unfunny, turning a prolific symbol of hate and genocide into a Hans Moleman caricature is extremely worrying. With the surge of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the age of Trump, I find it unwise to make light of the war criminals who popularized the most violent political ideology in European history. Nazism is a serious issue, and Nazis need to be treated like the despicable fascists they are.

Episode 18: The Secret War

For the final episode of the series, “The Secret War” is… adequate. A bunch of Russian soldiers fight off a horde of eldritch monsters from Hell. Not much else to comment on. The animation is fluid and the action is well-rounded, but it’s not something we haven’t seen before in the show. I suppose, in a way, it does deliver on the viewing experience that Love, Death & Robots promises: it’s big, bleak and bloody. But like so many episodes in this Netflix series, the episode is too short and simple to leave any lasting impression.

Conclusion

If it wasn’t already apparent (or if you skipped all the way to the end of this article, you crazy animal), Love, Death & Robots is relatively unremarkable, save for a small handful of episodes: “Zima Blue,” “Good Hunting,” “Sonnie’s Edge,” “Blind Spot,” “Helping Hand,” and “The Witness.” But for all of its middling episodes, a part of me still appreciates its existence. Born from the remnants of a failed Heavy Metal remake, Love, Death & Robots recalls a time before the omnipresence of media franchises in film and television, when a mid-range studio could produce a series of concept-driven stories just for the sake of experimentation. The show often strikes fresh territory, even as it leans over from well-trodden cliches.

Love, Death & Robots is the Netflix equivalent of a wine-tasting party. It was designed to expand one’s horizons with a wide assortment of flavours, some of which are challenging, bland, or downright unpalatable. But only through trial and error can one discover a truly profound experience. And with luck, maybe one of the better experiments will develop into a new favourite, or perhaps even the next cultural sensation.

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Either the most honest movie critic in the universe, or the least intelligent philosopher.

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Posted in Film and TV Reviews

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