Following the success of Black Mirror and the upcoming return of The Twilight Zone, televisual anthologies have had a real resurgence as of late. Now, along comes Netflix’s newest anthology consisting of 18 NSFW animated shorts and boasting producer credits from David Fincher and Tim Miller. A re-imagining of 1981 sci-fi anthology film Heavy Metal, Love, Death & Robots literally spells out its basic premise with each episode connected by these titular themes. Like most anthologies, Love, Death & Robots has its hits and misses, and while the series’ adult tone can sometimes feel gratuitous, there’s plenty of well-executed storytelling and dazzling animation on show here too.
With an average episode runtime of just 12 minutes, Love, Death & Robots is perfectly suited to a Netflix binge and the amount of distinct, intriguing universes which are established in such short time periods is seriously impressive. Considering nearly every instalment features a robot of some kind, you’d expect there to be some repetition on display, but every design is fully-realised, well-thought out and refreshingly unique. The series also showcases a wonderful variety of animation styles, including hyper-realistic CGI, dreamy rotoscoping, soft, Disney-like animation and a comic-book style aesthetic. This eclectic mix of animation prevents the series from ever feeling boring, even if some of the scripts lack originality.
The series opens – depending on the order you’re shown – with Sonnie’s Edge, a story that perfectly encapsulates the show’s best and worst qualities. Set in a dystopian London, Sonnie (Helen Sadler), spurred on by her traumatic past, controls a genetically-modified alien in underground battles. It’s a neat set-up that gives way to one of the series’ best moments – a thrilling, superbly choregraphed and stunningly animated monster battle. But as Sonnie becomes enticed by a mysterious rich man’s wife, the pair are needlessly objectified during an intimate encounter. When things take a violent turn, Sonnie’s Edge feels misogynistic in the way it lingers on the mutilation of female bodies. Similarly, The Witness is shot in a beautifully rendered graphic style but suffers from objectification. It’s a brilliantly tense chase thriller about a woman who observes a murder in the opposite apartment and has an excellent mind-bending conclusion, but is tainted by an unnecessary fetish club scene.
Falling victim to the same trappings is Beyond the Aquila Rift, which revolves around a spaceship that awakens its crew after travelling light years off course. Uncannily lifelike CGI and a deliciously dark psychological twist is let down by a needlessly gratuitous sex scene, which depicts a prolonged shot of a woman pouring champagne down her naked body.
While many of the shorts don’t feature female objectification to this extent, depressingly retrograde gender politics are clearly a problem for Love, Death & Robots. The root of this may lie in the fact that there don’t seem to be any female directors behind the series, a fact that the show needs to address if a second season is green lit. That aside, several of the stand-out shorts feature strong female central characters, such as Lucky 13, which focuses on the changing fortunes of rookie pilot Colby Cutter (Samira Wiley) and her ship. The narrative structure is relatively straightforward, but Wiley puts in an engaging, empathetic performance in a remarkably lifelike CG role and the episode’s flight sequences prove truly exhilarating. Helping Hand also forefronts a tenacious female character: astronaut Alex (Elly Condron) faces a life or death decision when a piece of space debris knocks out her oxygen and mobility units. It’s a tense as hell chamber piece which makes Alex’s panic utterly palpable, thanks to a terrific turn from Condron.
Love, Death & Robots peaks with Three Robots, a post-apocalyptic tale following a trio of robots, who take a sightseeing tour of an abandoned city long after the destruction of humanity. This conversational piece is largely devoid of plot, but is packed full of charm and humour. All three droids are vividly brought to life through their character design and the detailed world-building. The dialogue is razor sharp and amusingly pokes fun at societal norms, while incisively using humanity as a mirror to question the robots’ own existence. Three Robots’ only negative is that its 11-minute runtime feels too short and you’re left wanting to spend more time with these infectious characters.
A few of the shorts do fall foul to weak narratives, such as Shapeshifters. Its premise of two werewolves enlisted into the military attempts to establish a subtle metaphor on war, but ends up feeling completely heavy-handed. Also lacking spark is Blindspot which focuses on a cyborg crew staging a heist and literally nothing more. It’s all surface level and the script lacks any sort of texture or intrigue. However, each episode’s brevity means it’s not long before you hit the next genius idea, such as the fantastically silly concept behind When the Yogurt Took Over, in which sentient yogurt takes over the world. Likewise, Ice Age plays out the stupidly fun idea of a couple finding a miniature civilisation in their vintage freezer. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace in the only non-animated segments of the season, Ice Age whimsically explores themes of evolution with aplomb. These kinds of off-kilter storylines are perfectly matched to this short-form mode of storytelling and provide a welcome change of tone from the season’s darker episodes.
While the gratuitous female nudity of several episodes leaves a bad taste in the mouth, Love, Death & Robots delivers enough enthralling narratives and aesthetic wonderment to cleanse the palette and leave you hungry for more.
Love, Death & Robots: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.