After a tumultuous couple of years, reality has done well in catching up with the bleak speculative-tech fictions of Black Mirror and Weird City. Not that we’ve seen the end of this ilk of dystopian fiction on our screens, but it does seem like the cow’s been milked for the moment.
Enter Love Death + Robots, which returns after a two-year hiatus since the release of Volume One. Its return hasn’t garnered a whole lot of attention, nor was there any hype or expectation for it after its original release in 2019. But Netflix has persisted, and the results are disappointingly dry, especially considering the ambition and potential of the original iteration.
Created by Tim Miller (Deadpool) and David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club), the anthology show was conceived out of the duo’s much-delayed re-adaptation of Heavy Metal, a cult magazine and film containing stories that traverse from science-fiction and fantasy, to horror and erotica. The show’s eclectic formatting right up to this point signals a continued inspiration from that source, with its unparalleled flair for different animation styles, genre blends, and subversive flavour.
For the record, Love Death + Robots features some of the most complex, innovative, and even experimental contemporary animation and motion-capture put to use. The latter is so pristine in the likes of “Snow in the Desert,” you wonder why they didn’t shoot live-action in the first place. Moreover, episodes like “Ice” are notable for their hybrid mix of animation, combining 3D imaging and that early-2000s Toonami character style.
Likewise, a few stand-alone entries glimmer in the collection. In “All Through the House,” a pair of kids sneak downstairs on Christmas Eve, only to find that Santa Claus takes the form of an H.R. Giger monstrosity, who is able to detect the naughty or nice by the scent of their fearful breath and vomit their ribboned gifts accordingly. Although I’m not entirely sure how this episode relates to anything we’ve seen in the past from this show, it’s a refreshing little short film – a perfect filler. Likewise, the opener “Automated Customer Service” finds the same blithe humour in its fiendish A.I. home assistants as we saw in “Alternate Histories”, harking back to Philip K. Dick’s vision of a world populated by robots designed to sell us something at every turn.
But the problem with Love Death + Robots was never the animation or its occasional charm – it was the writing. The last season was hit-and-miss, but despite the drawbacks of a few underwhelming entries, its heart was in the right place. The best episodes included credits from seasoned sci-fi writers, including acclaimed novelist Alastair Reynolds, whose “Zima Blue” was adapted as one of the show’s more moving highlights.
Having identified the draw of established names on its roster, the show now boasts adaptations by two of the greatest sci-fi and speculative fiction writers of the last century: Harlan Ellison (A Boy and His Dog, Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”) and J.G. Ballard (High-Rise, The Drowned World). Unfortunately, despite these additions, the show has done nothing to develop its storytelling.
Preceding Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” as the second last entry, Ellison’s “Life Hutch” is a simple tale about a pilot (Michael B. Jordan) who crash-lands on an asteroid in the midst of a cosmic battle, and finds refuge in an old military outpost, only to have to contend with a malfunctioning maintenance robot.
And that’s it. The story never develops beyond this premise, instead ending exactly as you think it would, leaving you gasping for a late-term twist. A non-linear flashback structure is introduced to instill urgency and depth to the pilot’s plight, but it conversely defuses the momentum, and my feeling is that a straight-forward shaggy-dog structure might have served it better.
Moreover, it seems the showrunners have spent the last two years under a rock. Next to the structural problems I’ve mentioned, I’m not entirely sure that its writers have kept up with the developments in artificial intelligence – or at least the pop culture discussions about it. The postwar anxiety over A.I. lent itself to basic doomsday representations of the ontological battle between human beings and their robot counterparts. At this stage, however, such representations play to deaf ears when the post-humanist discourse has evolved to the idea of co-existence and integration of machine learning and augmented realities.
In other words, beating up robots simply doesn’t have the same kick anymore.
Similarly, if there is a commendable theme that hovers over the season, it is the fantasy of immortality – fantasy as both desire, and fantasy as daydream. Perhaps inspired by growing advancements in CRISPR gene editing, we get “Pop Squad,” a Blade Runner-esque thriller where humanity has adopted ‘rejoo’ therapy methods in order to extend individual timespans while employing detective squads to track and eradicate the children of those who have started having families.
It’s an engaging idea, dramatised with stunning visuals and a remarkable final scene. But next to a laboured plot contrivance involving a plushy dinosaur, the episode is stuck in exhausted iconographies pulled straight from PKD, with none of the mind-searing after-effects of his ideas. Specifically, we have yet another rainy cityscape of the future, whereby its denizens insist on wearing detective fedoras, and old architectures of the past rest in the deepest corners of the streets. It effects a lazy effort at world-building, not helped by the fact that several shots and design principles are lifted directly from Ridley Scott’s film.
It’s also telling that a majority of the show’s directors are primarily animation technicians with minimal backgrounds in writing/directing, except Miller. In that case, the season gradually airs its stories like calling-card teasers for future projects – the type of thing you might see at a tiny short film festival, not a multi-million Netflix project.
But there’s never enough sway to make me revisit these stories. The worlds we see are impeccably designed and atmospherically rendered. It’s a shame then that the filmmakers make shallow pools out of oceans, something to dip your toe in and never think about again.
Taking the reins on its final episode, Miller himself directs what is at least a quiet gem, and a refreshing thematic answer to “Pop Squad”. An update of an original story by Ballard, a drowned giant washes up onshore. Narrated by a curious academic, we traverse across time as fascination waxes and wanes over this peculiar colossus, just as decomposition bears its effects on the body, and more hardened interests cleave it for their own purposes.
The totality of this arc again reminds us of the show’s potential. But it’s one end of a frame that holds an empty centre.
The total duration of the season is approximately 110 minutes. If spread out over separate sessions, episode by episode, one might dwell on each story as its own self-contained piece. But viewed as a whole, the show’s glaring lack of unification among its more dispassionate entries becomes apparent, leaving a lot more to be desired but a lot less to anticipate for its potential third outing. After two years of radio silence, Love Death + Robots doesn’t seem interested in adding anything but teasers for a technical sophistication that has yet to be matched by a breathing, unified narrative.