Love, Death & Robots (2019)
Deadpool, (2016), director Tim Miller and Fight Club (1999), The Social Network (2010), and Gone Girl (2014) honcho David Fincher are the creative engine behind Love, Death & Robots, an 18-episode animated speculative fiction anthology series that’s about, well, exactly what it says on the tin.
This kind of exercise makes sense when you take the history of the genre into account. The Golden Age of sci-fi was built on the backs of short story writers, after all, and although the novel is now the dominant literary form, the short is still an important part of the canon. Often SF works best when it’s about one idea, deftly explored within the parameters of a tight word count (do we really need another Peter F. Hamilton doorstopper, is what I’m saying).
SF literature aside, Love, Death & Robots’ other obvious ancestor is comics, particularly the predominantly ‘adult’ European comics anthologized in France’s Métal Hurlant magazine and reprinted for the anglophone audience as Heavy Metal. Heavy Metal itself came to the screen in the form of an anthology feature back in 1981, and Fincher and Miller were in fact attached to reimagine the notion as of 2008. Nothing came of it, the rights were snapped up by Robert Rodriguez (who thus far has done zilch with them), and now, a little over a decade later, we have Love, Death & Robots.
Which is not too far a leap from what you might imagine a Fincher/ Miller Heavy Metal joint to be — they’ve pretty much just filed the serial numbers off and used prominent science fiction writers like John Scalzi, Joe R. Lansdale, Ken Liu, and Alastair Reynolds as source material, farming the grunt work out to various animation houses around the world. The result is a grab bag of sci-fi shorts of varying quality — that’s just the nature of the portmanteau business — all of which are worth a look.
The better offerings are the more playful. Three Robots, based on a Scalzi short, is a mordantly humorous bit of business that sees three droids take a walking tour of a post-apocalyptic human city and ruminating on the fleshy beings who once lived there. Fish Night, taken from a Lansdale story, strands two traveling salesmen in Monument Valley in order to answer the question of whether non-human lifeforms have ghosts.
A couple are just straight-up tightly written thrillers that fulfill their remit efficiently without pushing the boundaries, such as the stranded astronaut drama Helping Hand and the high-octane heist story, Blind Spot. And we even get a couple of more conventional horror shorts — the vampire-themed Sucker of Souls and the werewolf-centric Shape-Shifters, neither of which add much to their respective mythologies, but will certainly scratch that supernatural itch for you.
In terms of animation style, the pen and ink stuff is more striking than the preponderance of CGI, most of which looks like nothing so much as a well-rendered computer game cut scene. The hard/ military sci-fi on offer, such as Lucky 13 and Beyond the Aquila Rift, add to this feeling by dint of their predictable sameness, existing on the Starship Troopers (1997)-Aliens (1986)-Halo conceptual axis and offering nothing particularly new or interesting to the subgenre.
Indeed, the problem with much of Love, Death & Robots is that very little of it feels fresh. We’re almost 40 years on from the original Heavy Metal movie, and this effort feels of a part with it, having developed in terms of animation technology but not having traveled too far conceptually. This extends to the series’ approach to sex and violence, which comes off as pretty adolescent — there’s nothing wrong with nudity and gore in cartoon form, but you’d hope it’s in service to something in the narrative or the theme of the work in question. Instead, it’s mostly rather gratuitous here.
There are bright spots, of course. Good Hunting, based on Ken Liu’s short story, beautifully animates a steampunk riff on an old Chinese legend, and Zima Blue, taken from an Alistair Reynolds short, is the most conceptually ambitious of the lot, dealing with notions of art, purpose, and consciousness in a deliberate and provocative way.
Still, while enjoyable and on genre, Love, Death & Robots isn’t the boundary pusher it advertises itself as. As a statement of purpose, this season works fine, but if we’re getting a second salvo let’s hope they commit to really giving both the genre and the format a workout.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson