Amazon and Netflix are locked in an original content war, which is both a good and a bad thing for viewers. On one hand, choice is great, and having new offerings served up quicker than you can weekend-binge a previous choice is awesome. On the other, flooding the market with a “throw the spaghetti on the wall and let’s see what sticks” approach means you need to wade through quite a bit of “what did I just watch?” offerings before stumbling upon the Stranger Things and the Man in High Castle gems.
Last month I reviewed Prime’s Electric Dreams, which seemed to be Amazon’s countermove to Netflix’s Black Mirror. This month I watched Netflix’s Love, Death and Robots, which seems like the logical response to Electric Dreams. Both Dreams and Robots are anthologies with wildly varying visual and directorial styles between individual episodes. While Electric Dreams was more akin to Black Mirror with a theme of technology’s dark consequences, Love, Death and Robots is simpler. As long as an episode has love, death, and/or robots, it’s in.
Love, Death, and Robots thematically is like a mash-up of 2003’s The Animatrix with 1981’s Heavy Metal. The Animatrix was a collection of shorts in anime style loosely based on the Matrix world. Most were forgettable, but the one that sticks my mind is about two children daring each other to go into an abandoned haunted building. What haunts the building is a glitch in the Matrix, breaking physics rules. Things you might encounter in a video game glitch - newspapers blowing through solid walls in a loop - appear here in real life. A child throws a bottle onto the concrete only to have it smash, reassemble, and boomerang back into his hand. It’s a brilliant extrapolation of the consequences of the black cat glitch seen briefly in the first Matrix movie.
1981’s Heavy Metal had one clear goal: be an R-rated sci-fi cartoon. Also an anthology, it reveled in plots featuring sex, drugs, and violence. There was a goofiness to it, though, which dulled its edginess. Despite its R-rating, it was intended to be an adolescent fantasy. The short, “Den”, starring John Candy is the best example of this. In it, a nerdy boy gets transformed into a muscular hero, Shazam-style, after being exposed to a meteorite. He ends up on an alien world where he rescues young women from being sacrificed and assumes the role of the hero.
I think the lack of goofiness is one of the flaws in Love, Death and Robots. The upgrade from cartoon to photorealistic CGI gives many shorts a Final Fantasy veneer which targets a slightly older age bracket. As a result, it comes off as less sincere and more enamored with violence and nudity for the sake of rendering it in high-definition realism than for anything else.
Like all anthologies, there are strong and weak stories. One of the first things I noticed when viewing the fifteen stories in Love, Death and Robots is that I’d read several of the stories behind the titles. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” and “Zima Blue” by Alistair Reynolds are two of my favorites. As for the other stories, you will certainly recognize John Scalzi, Michael Swanwick, and Peter F. Hamilton. So, Love, Death, and Robots is not a new creation of stories as much as a screenplay of several award-winning short stories. With each episode running from six to fifteen minutes, it’s designed for bingeing. What can go wrong?
Much. Much can go wrong. In the same way that the Netflix adaption of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon took a book which was already filled with sex and violence and turned it up to eleven while simultaneously dumbing-down and overcomplicating the plot, many of Love, Death and Robots episodes run themselves off the rails. I think my least favorite episodes aren’t the flat stories, they’re the ones with potentially good ideas which are squandered. It’s like meeting someone who has the recipe for cold fusion on his desk, but has written Xbox cheat codes over it.
A few of my least favorites:
The Witness - A woman witnesses a murder and is pursued in an extended foot-chase by the murder. The visual style of the CGI is interesting and unsettling, and the virtual camera work adds to the kinetic chase. The story itself makes little sense and serves only as a vehicle for gratuitous nudity.
Ice Age - A couple finds a quickly-evolving civilization in their freezer. Everything is live action, except for the civilization. The couple doesn’t react much to their astounding finding other than to periodically check how the civilization is doing, and the civilization’s progression is as straight-forward as, well, a game of Civilization.
Sonnies Edge - A woman controls a monster in an underground fight club, seeking revenge. The premise and world-building are great, and the episode does have its moments. The fight between the monsters is visceral and the music could be out of Blade Runner 2049. This is one of those stories that bothered me because it had so much going for it but fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter.
The Secret War - Russian troops fight demons in 1920s Siberia. Excellent CGI battles which make Saving Private Ryan look tame. Yet, the story itself isn’t a story. It’s literally ‘Russian troops fight demons in 1920s Siberia’.
A few of my favorites:
Zima Blue - An artist known for his grand scale art productions seeks to return to his humble origins. Drawn like a stylized-comic book, it’s visually arresting. The story is very faithful to Alistair Reynold’s original piece, which is a good thing.
When the Yogurt Took Over - Scientists make sentient yogurt, which promptly takes over the world. Narrated by the voice of Brain from Pinky and the Brain and rendered in a funny, cartoony CGI style, it’s a gem filled with satire and humor.
Suits - Farmers on an alien world climb into battle mechs to defend their land against invading aliens. Drawn as a cartoon, each of the three farmers has his own personality and custom mech. The reveal at the end flips our perception about what just happened.
I have mixed feeling about Love, Death and Robots. I’m happy to see new sci-fi anthology series, especially when several of the stories are by my favorite authors. On the downside, I’m dismayed to see a trend of stories taking a back seat to sex and violence. After the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, it seems that content providers feel there is a formula to emulate. But if you ask people what Game of Thrones is about, you’ll probably get answers like “dragons” or “winter is coming” or what characters are doing. It’s not about the nudity or the bloodshed; instead, those elements are used as seasoning to the story’s main dish. I hope content providers realize you can’t just serve a dish of seasoning and call it dinner.