'Love, Death + Robots' is a Delectable Cartoon Buffet of Sex, Violence, and Humor
The Netflix anthology of animated short features Love, Death + Robots is the spiritual, if not actual, successor to 1981's and 2000’s Heavy Metal films that were based on the periodical comic anthology of the same name. Helmed by Deadpool director Timothy Miller and with visionary director David Fincher co-producing, the science fiction anthology is a delectable buffet of stories steeped in sensuality, violence, and humor.
Dealing with mature themes from dystopian futures and alternative pasts, and depicting graphic sex and violence, Love, Death + Robots are cartoons strictly for adults. Cartoons, as it happens, are an excellent way to tell stories for grown-ups.
Humorous Adaptations from Short Stories
All save for two of the episodes in the anthology are adapted from short stories and have translated extremely well into animated shorts. The three from John Scalzi, who prolifically writes incredibly short fiction, are the lightest, most humorous, and deceptively almost child-safe.
When The Yogurt Took Over is a six-minute adaptation that narrates Scalzi’s story of a perfect future orchestrated by sentient health snacks verbatim in large chunks. Three Robots follows three sardonic robots on a sightseeing tour of a post-apocalyptic city strewn with the literal remains of human civilization, and Alternate Histories hilariously explores different scenarios of the future that change depending on the manner of Hitler’s death.
Three Robots follows three sardonic robots on a sightseeing tour of a post-apocalyptic city strewn with the literal remains of human civilization.
The former is done in CGI while the latter looks like a well-textured Flash animation. Alternate Histories is hilarious, with absurd scenarios (e.g. Hitler dying by weaponized gelatin or marathon fornication) guaranteed to make viewers chuckle. All three comedic stories are directed by the pair of Victor Maldonaldo and Alfredo Torres, punctuating a collection that’s often grim and dark.
Parceled in easily digestible portions that run from six to 17 minutes long, the episodes are presented in varied animation and directorial styles that allows Love, Death + Robots to appeal to good number of sci-fi fans. Those into mecha and kaiju will love Suits, based on a story by Steve Lewis that appears in SNAFU, a series of anthologies of military horror and sci-fi.
The adaptation is significantly more enjoyable and surprising than the piece that inspired it, largely because of the comical animation style and the twist at the end which was laid out plainly from the first words of the short story. Hillbilly farmers, mecha, xenomorph-like monsters, and chickens ... what’s not to like?
Military Horror in Photo-Realistic CGI
Speaking of military horror and sci-fi, two of Marko Kloos’ stories were adapted for the anthology. Set in Kloos’ Frontlines universe, Lucky 13 is animated in realistic video game cutscene style and stars Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley. Shape-shifters gets a similar photo-realistic animation treatment in a story about literal dog soldiers, or werewolves, in Afghanistan. Lucky 13, by Sony Pictures Imageworks, is so particularly realistic in its blend of live action and CGI that it’s uncanny how it crosses the uncanny valley.
Like cutscenes in video games, Lucky 13 is so particularly realistic in its blend of live action and CGI.
Another extremely photo-realistic episode is Beyond the Aquila Rift, one of two stories based on Alastair Reynold’s works. It has one of the most NSFW scenes of the season, with the lead character Thom and an old flame reuniting for some deep penetration in deep space. The story features a crew that finds itself hundreds of light years away from their destination and a twist that’s macabrely disturbing yet coldly comforting. Produced by the Paris-based 3D animation studio Unit Image, Beyond the Aquila Rift has four directors, the most among the season’s 18 episodes.
Fever Dreams with Distinctive Visual Style
Reynold’s other story, Zima Blue, is an ephemerally haunting tale of an artist, who, seeking truth and purpose in his life and art, grants a reporter an interview after 100 years of not speaking to the press. Directed by Robert Valley, who has worked under Æon Flux’s Peter Chung and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, Zima Blue stands out with a visually distinctive style that sets it apart from a sea of ultra-realistic CGI. It is also the deepest and most introspective episode, with no sex nor violence.
Helping Hand has no sex or violence, either, but it’s a suspenseful, grisly 10-minute mishmash of Gravity, the Martian, and 172 Hours based on a short work by Claudine Griggs.
The Dump is a chilling account of a dumpster supervisor and his unusual pet, Otto.
Two stories by the prolific Joe Landsdale are translated into film: Fish Night, featuring two door-to-door salesmen who get stranded in the middle of the desert and encounter manitou from ages past; and The Dump, a chilling account of a dumpster supervisor and his unusual pet, Otto. Fish Night is a psychedelic fever dream of luminous colors, beautiful and haunting, with a slight role reversal from the source material at the end. The Dump is reminiscent of a classic Heavy Metal or Twilight Zone episode, unsettling, repulsive, yet endearing at the same time.
Mythical Creatures in 2D and Live Action
Then there’s Sucker of Souls, a slightly more classical horror story in 2D animation that proves to be just as gruesome as the other CGI episodes. The tale of a mercenary band hired by archaeologists digging up Dracula’s tomb based on a story by Kirsten Cross has one of the more memorable death scenes reminiscent of Thirteen Ghosts’ glass door.
Good Hunting deals with the clash and melding of East and West, magical realism married to science fiction.
Another 2D animated entry is the magical Good Hunting, which is based on an incredibly beautiful story by Ken Liu about mystical China and its steampunk future. Like many of Liu’s stories, it deals with the clash and melding of East and West, magical realism married to science fiction. It’s also the episode with male genitalia on full display in a couple of scenes.
The one episode that has live action starring Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ice Age. Based on short fiction by Michael Swanwick and the only episode directed by Timothy Miller himself, it’s a light and funny look at the rise and fall and rise again of civilization in miniature.
Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead observe the rise and fall of civilization in the live action Ice Age.
Original Episodes with High-Octane Storytelling
Sonnie’s Edge is a short story about beastie-baiting, underground gladiatorial combat with monsters piloted by humans using affinity technology. It’s written by Peter Hamilton and set several hundred years before his Night’s Dawn trilogy. It’s one of the anthology’s high octane episodes and has brief moments of queer sexual dalliance.
Two of the episodes are original tales made for the anthology. There’s the visionary, graffiti-augmented The Witness, which follows the Twilight Zone-ish tale of a woman who witnesses an apparent murder and the subsequent cat-and-mouse chase between her and the killer in the streets of Hong Kong. There’s an excursion to a hole-in-the-wall fetish club with a striptease that’s at once sensual and tense, a neon montage of lipstick and latex.
The Witness features an excursion to a fetish club with a striptease that’s at once sensual and tense.
The other original story is Blindspot, a by-the-numbers cyborg heist that’s part Fast & the Furious and part Robocop that, although violent, seems somewhat tame compared to the rest of the lineup.
Finally there’s Secret War, an alternate history tale of World War 2 Soviet soldiers fending off demon ghouls in Siberia. Based on a story by David Amendola that, like many of the stories that were brought to animated life in Love, Death + Robots, appeared in the anthology Snafu, Secret War is a gruesome, melancholy tale that ends on a dramatic, powerful note. It works as a satisfying finale for viewers who choose to watch the season in order.
Netflix played around with the viewing order for this series, and have four different episode orders depending on your Netflix account. Secret War is the 18th episode in at least two of them.
Pushing the Storytelling Envelope
Like a concept album or mix tape, the episode arrangement impacts how viewers absorb the stories. Netflix subscribers often also binge watch, allowing the stories to flow from one episode to the next. Netflix was accused of arranging the episodes according to a viewer’s gender identity—one arrangement kicked off with Sonnie’s Edge, which has a lesbian sex scene, while another starts with Beyond the Aquila Rift, which has a graphic heterosexual scene. Netflix denied the charge, easily dismissed by the fact that some arrangements actually begin with When the Yogurt Took Over.
It’s a wonderful collection of short films that have such variety in terms of theme and execution that most viewers will surely find a tale they’ll love. Perhaps the one issue that seems glaring across all the stories is the apparent undercurrent of misogyny that punishes women severely as part of the story flow. Even the badass Sonnie from Sonnie’s Edge is a cut-up rape victim whose weak spot is another (wicked) woman. Ken Liu’s tale, though redemptive, subjects the character to horrendous abuse
Even the titular witness in Witness is put through the wringer, her fear through all 12 minutes of the episode echoing the very real fear that women feel when chased by a man. It’s a rather surprising turn for Netflix, which has strongly leaned towards liberal and feminist representations in its original content.
A mercenary band digs up Dracula’s tomb in the 2D episode Sucker of Souls.
That said, the series is one of the freshest, most engaging shows on the streaming service. With all the episodes clocking in under 18 minutes, it’s easy to binge on the series in under three hours. The experience is greatly enhanced by reading the short stories the episodes are based on, many of which are available to read free online. Some are also included in a Kindle Unlimited subscription.
Love, Death + Robots firmly establishes Netflix’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of streaming content and, by adapting existing sci-fi short fiction, taps a limitless well of stories to bring to the screen. It’s a sci-fi fan’s wet dream and an ode to the genre of animated shorts.
Love, Death + Robots is currently streaming on Netflix.