Style Over Substance: Love, Death & Robots in Review

April 4, 2019

 

Love, Death & Robots isn’t just a title; it’s a pitch. The brand new NSFW animated anthology recently landed on Netflix, and with it comes sex, gore, and of course, mechanical anthropomorphic humanoids (robots). Creator Tim Miller and Producer David Fincher have amassed a significant amount of talent to put together a series that attempts to excel at both pushing the boundaries of what we can do with animation, as well as pushing the type of stories animation can tell. The show feels like a spiritual successor to the cult classic series, The Animatrix, mixed with the modern Sci-fi anxieties of Netflix’s other anthology series, Black Mirror. A little about me, I love most things animated, and having grown up watching Cartoon Network’s elder late night content, Adult Swim, and the action packed anime daytime block, Toonami, I was pumped when Love, Death and Robots was announced. I should note, that one of the pieces of adult animation knowledge I’m missing is Heavy Metal (1981), the backbone of inspiration for Miller and Fincher to create this project. Because this show is an eighteen-episode anthology, I thought it would be best to critique it by each installment, so be sure to come back and reference this review as you work your way through this first season. Without further ado, let’s see if these robots do indeed fall in love or die. 

 

(WARNING: SPOILERS FOR LOVE, DEATH AND ROBOTS  FOLLOW)   

 

 

Episode 1: Sonnie’s Edge
Directed by: Dave Wilson & Gabriele Pennacchioli
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original story by Peter F. Hamilton 
“Brutal Beasties in a bout to the death!” 

 

Telepathically-controlled beasts fight in an arena to the death (kind of like Kaiju meets Pokemon). Blur Studios handles the animation for this episode and the world they create is visually stunning. Black lighting reveals tattoos and graffiti throughout the world that helps add color to what initially seems like a dark and drab setting. Our protagonist Sonnie’s Shark-like monster, Khanivore, has an amazing look; her transparent orange fins glow in the black light as she fights her opponent, Turboraptor, whose name is dumb and aesthetic, though rendered impressively, pales in comparison to Khanivore. (NOTE: Turboraptor’s hidden blade is pretty radical). On the surface, the episode is beyond competent in its visuals and sound, but the narrative surrounding our hero leaves a bit to be desired. When Sonnie is confronted by the episode’s big bad, Dicko, (he’s a guy who’s kind of a dick) he asks Sonnie what her edge is. She responds saying it’s her beastie’s gender, her team is the only group that uses a female beastie (NOTE: the monsters are really referred to as beasties. It’s cute). We later get an exposition dump from one of Sonnie’s teammates that she was attacked and raped by a group of men, which is why she is ‘the way she is,’ which is a lot less metaphorical than you think. By the end of the episode, we learn that Sonnie IS Khanivore, her mind lives within her beast instead of in her human form, which admittedly is a great reveal. My issue with this is that this attempt at female empowerment doesn’t feel genuine; Sonnie feels more like a “tough female” arc type created in a masculine vacuum. It’s hard to pack a lot of narrative into seventeen minutes of show, but to me, it seemed that her sexual assault background felt like a way to cover more thematic ground. Something as serious and traumatic as rape needs to be handled with care, and used for narratives that are trying to make a statement on such things, not as a way to “toughen up” our female heroes. By the end of the episode we learn that “fear” is Sonnie’s edge, because she is Khanivore. Her life is always on the line when she’s in the ring. Could this be a comment on the fears of being a woman in modern society?  Is the fighting ring the patriarchy? Perhaps I’m stretching, but it’s those questions that make the episode as a whole lose some of its edge.  

 


Episode 2: Three Robots
Directed by: Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original story by John Scalzi 
“You’re looking good, girl. Say terabyte.”

 

This episode definitely feels like a palate cleanser. As a comedic look at three robots taking a stroll through the post-apocalypse, this chapter brought some welcomed ‘fun’ early on into the season. I very much enjoyed this laid back ‘slice of life’ format, as the trio comments on the various decay of an earth without human life. There is great chemistry between our trio of robots, mostly sold by the great performances of Josh Brener and Gary Anthony Williams, against either an unlisted actress or maybe a ‘SIRI’ like device playing the monotone, sassy third robot. The episode culminates in a reveal of intelligent cats existing as the last lifeforms on earth; the lead being voiced by Chris Parnell. It’s nice to see the series already begin to be tonally fluid. 

 

 

Episode 3: The Witness 
Written and Directed by: Alberto Mielgo
“May I have your attention please, bitches!”

 

When a woman is caught witnessing a murder, she must flee before she becomes the next victim. This fast paced cat-and-mouse chase throughout an amazingly rendered city is both exciting and visually captivating. I haven’t seen animation this good since the Oscar-winning superhero masterpiece, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This makes sense, as Alberto Mielgo was a visual consultant on the film. Some of the various comic book flairs from Spider-Verse are found here: visual cues project when audio from dropped objects or knocks occur. The whole animation style bursts with color, and looks to be a blend of real photography and animation. When looking through the portfolio of the short’s animation studio, Pinkman.Tv’s, it seems this type of technology is their specialty. The visual fidelity of the chapter cannot be understated; it is one of the most impressive animated shorts I’ve ever seen. Technical achievement aside, the story again suffers from the masculine vacuum it was created in. The reveal of the story is that our ‘cat’ and our ‘mouse’ in this chase are trapped in an Ouroboros-like loop. This Twilight Zone-like twist feels rewarding and satisfying, and is expertly paced to the point that when you start to see this reveal occur, you may be too caught up in the action to realize it. Our female lead seems to work as an erotic dancer at some…EDM (electronic dance music) sex…den. We learn that she’s running late for her gig, as she’s on the run from the murderer that pursues her. Three to five minutes of this twelve-minute episode is devoted to the murderer watching our female hero perform a very sexual dance that seems to be almost exclusively for him. I don’t take issue with stories revolving around sex workers, I don’t take issue with scenes that feature explicit sexual acts, but I question why it’s in THIS short. I imagine the logic of the scene is that it looks ‘cool.’ Despite feeling a bit random, and not adding much to the plot of the short, it is a standout visually in the episode; it looks AMAZING. Despite looking cool, without other details fleshing out this world or this character, it just feels like a gross objectification that isn’t self-aware or concerned with why it might be problematic. Overall, I enjoyed this episode, but being only three episodes deep into this anthology, it’s already starting to feel like this series was created with only one half of the gender binary in mind, and for me personally, that is a bit of a turn off.  

 

 

Episode 4: Suits
Directed by: Franck Balson 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original story by Steven Lewis 
“Here comes a whole lot of ugly!”

 

Farmers rally their giant mech suits together to defeat an alien swarm encroaching on their land. This is another episode that feels a bit ‘lighter’ in tone compared to the previous, despite having fairly high stakes as well. In “Suits,” Blur Studios brings a much different style to the table from their previous episode, “Sonnie’s Edge.” This time, the animation looks like a moving watercolor painting; characters are ‘cartooney’ and soft looking. This chapter gave me Joss Whedon Firefly vibes with its country guitar riffs and characters with a bit of southern drawl and charm. The action looked great, and the almost classic Sci-fi trope of “Humanity’s last stand against the alien swarm,” is executed well. Again, the tonal fluidity of the series is one of its strong suits, and it keeps being a joy to see what type of animation we get next.   

 

 

Episode 5: Sucker of Souls 
Directed by: Owen Sullivan 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original story by Kirsten Cross 
“I want to hear you say it, Mr. Science.” 

 

Probably my least favorite entry of the anthology so far, “Sucker of Souls” feels pretty generic. The plot follows a scientist, protected by a group of macho-mercenaries (with a token tough lady), as they explore the depths of a cavern infested with demons. The story needlessly starts in the middle of the plot, with the scientist and the main macho-merc attempting to outrun the head demon. This chapter feels like the beginning of Aliens where Ripley meets the crew of macho space marines (featuring a token tough-lady), but instead of subverting that trope, (having the soldiers fall one by one as an allegory for their hubris) this crew of demon slayers mostly say ‘fuck’ and makes a ton of crass off-color jokes. Every ‘clever’ innuendo is pretty much drowned out by a sea of mediocre one-liners. The style of animation here by Studio La Cachette is a traditional hand drawn look that looks good. The action is fine, but compared to the other episodes so far in this anthology it stands out as the weakest. There isn’t much more for me to say about “Sucker of Souls” other than it kinda….well ya know.    

 

 

Episode 6: When the Yogurt Took Over 
Directed by: Victor Maldonado & Alfredo Torres 
Written by: Janis Robertson (adapted by) & John Scalzi (original short)
“Our society is curdled.” 

 

Science has finally gone too far; genetically altered yogurt has become our new overlord. This short was a ton of fun. The animation by Blow Studio almost has a Pixar/Dreamworks quality to it, making the moments when we see cartoon nudity or other NSFW images a little jarring (in a good way). Maurice LaMarche plays the narrator for this episode, and hearing The Brain’s voice from Pinky and the Brain for six minutes is a personal delight. It’s nice to see the episode dip into the fun and absurd while still naturally fitting into the show’s overall mold. 

 

 

Episode 7:  Beyond the Aquila Rift 
Directed by: Dominique Boidin, Léon Bérelle, Rémi Kozyra, Maxime Luère 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, Alastair Reynolds (original story)
“Do you need me to sing you a lullaby, Thom?”

 

A ship and its crew awaken far off course, or have they never woken up at all?  This is an impressively animated episode with stunningly realistic looking character models; its science fiction world conveyed a lot of history without having to explain too much. Here we have characters that convey that they have ‘history’ with one another, helping flesh out their world. Seeing the different locales rendered in the episode helps diversify the pallet of visuals we see - from gritty spaceships that feel akin to the Alien franchise or Joss Whedon’s Firefly to some pristine space stations that feel like they’re out of the Mass Effect video game series. The big reveal of the short is that Thom is still asleep in his pod, subservient to his own dreams or nightmares, trapped in a loop. Seeing the alien world that spider-like entraps his ship is a highlight of the episode, particularly the design of the monster that is the real Greta, which was terrifying (in a good way). This is the first episode that left me hungry for more, of course it has a very competent ending in its own right, leaving off on the mystery of “Will Thom escape the loop?” But the world was so visually interesting, I’d love to return and see if our hero can set things straight. But for now, I really enjoyed this episode and I thought it pulled from all the right science fiction. 

 

 

Episode 8: Good Hunting 
Directed by: Oliver Thomas 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, Ken Liu (original story)
“There were many things he would not of understood.” 

 

A hunter of magical sirens has to adapt to a world that is becoming more and more modern. “Good Hunting” brings another traditionally hand-drawn animation style and feels more akin to a Japanese Anime than any episode that has come before it. “Good Hunting” plays a lot with audience expectations, starting off in a presumably feudal age where we slowly learn that this world’s ‘modern times’ are far more advanced than our present. The world morphs from magic and samurais to steampunk and robots, and the transition is baked into the overall narrative. The bond formed by the shape-shifting huli jing, Yan, and former novice spirit hunter, Liang, feels natural. Liang and Yan are friends, and romantic endeavors never occur. As technology takes over, magic begins to die, so Yan can no longer shape shift; she is trapped as a human and therefore, lost. Yan’s world changes for the worse as Liang’s changes for the better. He realizes that he loves his work - repairing trains and learning more and more about technology - and later, robotics. It’s through this expertise that Liang is able to give Yan what she desires. I enjoyed this episode; it’s probably among my favorites so far in the series. Again, I find myself cringing during some of the sexual violence found within this episode. I believe it’s integral to the story to show that once Yan is fully robotic and on the scene, she can hunt and put a stop to these wrong doings, but do we need such explicit violence against women in so many of these episodes?  Do we need this constant onslaught of objectification? I have to be critical of these choices because they are constantly pulling me out of these otherwise cool, visually impressive episodes. 

 

 

Episode 9: The Dump
Directed by: Javier Recio Gracia 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, Joe Lansdale (original story)
“Another day, another eviction.” 

 

An old man won’t leave his home in the dump behind, no matter what the city council says. “The Dump,” is another short and sweet episode, taking place in a dump that is just purely disgusting. Great animation - and at this point, it’s safe to say that Love, Death and Robots is KILLING it in the animation department. Audio chameleon Nolan North voices our main character, Ugly Dave, and he spins a yarn for a city inspector voiced by Gary Cole. A fun story that hits all the beats it needs to, action sequences and comedy all included.

 

 

Episode 10: Shape-Shifters 
Directed by: Gabriele Pennacchioli
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original short story by Marko Kloos 

"You fucking dog soldiers."

 

What if there were werewolves in the military?!  They would sniff out danger and be considered useful monsters by our nation’s government. I buy that. Blur Studios does it again with a very impressively rendered Afghanistan, and a cast of characters. Something that stood out to me in this episode is the cinematography and lighting. Tracking shots that follow werewolf-soldier Decker (Graham Hamilton) as he leaps and jumps through the desert are perfectly lit, selling some of the most realistic animation we’ve seen so far in this season (something that seems to be Blur Studio’s specialty). The action here is also very cool. The final werewolf showdown is fun as expected, and the various ways this episode attempts to keep an otherwise supernatural concept fairly grounded, keeps the moment to moment character beats interesting. I could’ve watched another twenty minutes of basic ‘military’ tropes get twisted by the existence and employment of were-soldiers. 

 

 

Episode 11: Helping Hand
Directed by: Jon Yeo
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original short by Claudine Griggs 
“So, you still need a hand?”  

 

An astronaut is hit by space debris during a routine repair, now she must make a bodily sacrifice to survive. One of the shorter episodes of the anthology, brought with it a 127 Hours vibe, as our stranded space mechanic, Alex, has to freeze dry her arm off. There isn’t too much under the surface with this episode; we don’t get any back story or exposition to set up who Alex is, making the engine of empathy for her a little low on gas. I think part of why a movie like 127 Hours works so well is its use of flashbacks, filling in arcs and telling us why we should care about our trapped protagonist. Obviously, the overall format of Love, Death and Robots is short and sweet, but maybe even a few extra minutes of sprinkled in back story could’ve fleshed out this episode a little better. 

 

 

Episode 12: Fish Night
Directed by: Damian Nenow 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original short by Joe Lansdale 
“The days of the door to door salesman is fading fast.”

 

The car of two door-to-door salesmen breaks down in the middle of the desert; later that night, they are visited by souls of creatures from the sea. Platige Studio gives us a very unique art style in this episode, a cell shaded appearance that makes the short feel like a moving painting. Another episode where I loved the style over substance; I couldn’t get enough of the ‘look,’ -  from warm vibrant colors that contrasted with stunning ocean ghosts that zip and fly across the night sky like seas that once inhabited such landscapes. I’m still trying to decipher some of the subtext in the episode. The episode ends with the young man, played by Yuri Lowenthal, wanting to swim with the creatures above, only to be swallowed by a GHOST SHARK (spooky), literally causing the death of a salesman. Do I think the writers had Arthur Miller’s seminal achievement in theater in mind when creating this episode? I can’t be too sure. Is this a commentary on jobs becoming extinct? Only to be swallowed by a bigger fish?  And just why are these door-to-door salesmen so far away from doors?  Whatever the greater subtext to this episode may be, it was still enjoyable and on brand with the series thus far. 

 

 

Episode 13: Lucky 13
Directed by: Jerome Chen 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original short by Marko Kloos
“It’s not a ship. It’s a fucking coffin with wings.” 

 

A military vessel, known for surviving battles but suffering mass casualties, gets a new captain. “Lucky 13” is a fun episode, falling into some of the para-military tropes we’ve seen in other episodes. One of my favorite aspects of the short is that the ship, Lucky 13, feels like a character. It’s discussed by all characters, fleshing out the actual ship’s back story more than any on screen human character. The ‘eye’ of the ship is ever-present in scenes: an all green black box P.O.V. ship is always watching the action. Battles looked cool and akin to many video games that share some of the same setting and motifs. I thought our main human protagonist, Lt. Colby (played by Samira Wiley) was good, but I question the choice to have the episode be carried by her narration. I felt it was a bit unnecessary, and would’ve been better served to have some of that dialogue with the audience be conversations with other characters. Despite that critique, I thought that it was a solid episode all around. 

 

 

Episode 14: Zima Blue
Directed by: Robert Valley
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original short by Alastair Reynolds 
“I’m going home.”

 

When a member of the press is invited to meet the illustrious artist, Zima Blue, she learns his unexpected lineage. It wasn’t until the end of this episode that I realized how much I liked it, at least, conceptually. The episode is mostly narration over action, with very little of it happening in the moment the story takes place. Zima’s character plays into the trope of the recluse artist, never doing press until he is revealing his ultimate piece. I really enjoyed Zima’s dual history, one that the public thought they knew, the artist who switched out all of his humanity to better commune with the cosmos, to the real origin, a simple pool robot who grew so advanced, he sought to return to a simpler time before passing on from this mortal world, and completing his ‘life’. As a short, it looks great but leaves so much to be desired. I really wish this was a full-length feature, full of twists and turns, punctuating on the reveal that our famous artist was once a robot that cleaned pools. My hope is that maybe one day we will get that flick, and that this will serve as its pilot.      

 

 

Episode 15: Blind Spot 
Written and Directed by: Vitality Shushko 
“Stay sharp metal heads!” 

 

A gang of cyborgs must adapt to a heist gone wrong. This episode reminded me of a Fast and Furious heist scene, mixed with Mad Max and robots. None of the characters are terribly likeable, most just serving to be different vessels of action. The action itself was cool, (as per usual) but this felt like a scene pulled from a larger narrative (perhaps also as per usual). Not too much else was to be gleaned from the surface; our heroes are almost all killed and dismembered throughout the course of this episode, only to be revealed that they in fact have had their memories backed up prior to their deaths. It’s cute, but it takes away any of the ‘edge’ this episode could’ve had. That being said, I’m not opposed to a happy ending for these cyborg thieves. 

 

 

Episode 16: Ice Age 
Directed by: Tim Miller 
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original short by Michael Swanwick 
“This makes no sense.”

 

Hey it’s a live action episode! This one was a ton of fun. Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead bring the humor with this episode, as the two casually watch a civilization grow inside their antique fridge. Simpsons fans may feel a bit of déjà vu, as this episode feels very similar to “The Genesis Tube,” an episode about a tiny civilization that grows inside a dissolved tooth. A really fun episode that doesn’t hang on the axis of gore or action, I felt it was a welcomed addition to the season. I wish it had ended a bit differently, or given our two main characters a bit more to do other than just observe the rise and fall of their freezer civilization, but other than that, I really dug it. 

 

 

Episode 17: Alternate Histories 
Directed by: Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres 
Written by:  Philip Gelatt, original story by John Scalzi  
“Welcome to Multiversity!” 

 

An adorably animated look at the multiple outcomes of Hitler’s death. This penultimate episode is fine and generally encapsulates all the issues I have with the season thus far. For as many aspects of ‘fun’ that can be had here, I can live without ever seeing Hitler enjoy a death by orgy, leading to women landing on the moon. I don’t have much to say on this episode; its charm is outweighed by the juvenile handling of its subject matter, that is not self aware. 

 

 

Episode 18: The Secret War
Directed by: István Zorkóczy
Written by: Philip Gelatt, original story by David W. Amendola
“We have our mission comrade, nothing more, nothing less.”

 

The Red Army must defend their homeland from a different enemy: demons from hell. The aesthetic of WW2 soldiers fighting waves of hellish monsters was very fun to see. It reminded me of 2018’s, Overlord, in that flick it was Nazi Germany and zombies, rather than Russia and demons. We get some interesting character beats among the crew of soldiers, but nothing too concrete to latch onto. It’s revealed that these demons were originally summoned to help Russia win wars before backfiring on them, a tale as old as fictional time. The final showdown is climatic and great, and honestly made me want to play a video game or some kind of interactive media in this universe. 

 

 

You can probably guess my final thoughts on Love, Death and Robots. The animation across all eighteen of these episodes is something to marvel at. They vary from realistic renders of character’s you think could be real, to zany cartoons that are bright and colorful. I cannot champion enough of the animation studios that came together for this anthology; every episode regardless of style looks incredible. However, there was not a single story that blew me away. All of these narratives either falter from a shorter runtime that leads to unsatisfying conclusions, or are too often punctuated by violence against women or gratuitous objectification. We can have adult rated stories that do not feel like they were written by and for fourteen-year-old boys. Animation, over the course of many years, has grown up, and has made many strides for inclusion in our various forms of media. For as modern as the animation styles feel in this anthology, its narratives feel like relics of the past. The pitch of Love, Death and Robots is in the title, it makes due on its promise, in spades, but I want more. I genuinely hope this series gets another season and with it, I really want to see more women in the writing and directing chairs. I want to see stories beautifully rendered for all types of people and genders. I want stories that tackle adult themes and that do not have nudity and gore just for the sake of it. Have those things!  But integrate them into the narrative as a whole, and say something special with it. I hope we get more robots, more sex, and some more death, but for the future, I hope it’s a little more inclusive and a dash more self-aware.

 

 

Robert Anderson

Co-Head of Podcasting

 

Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RoBaeBae

 

 

 

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