I love animated anthologies, and I've watched quite a few, from the "Fantasia" movies to "The Prophet." Cult classic "Heavy Metal," alas, was never one of my favorites, so I was nervous when I kept hearing the new Netflix anthology, "Love, Death, & Robots," being compared to it. Created by "Deadpool" director Tim Miller, the major selling point of "Love, Death, & Robots" is that it's unapologetically adult-oriented, and features lots of sex, nudity, violence, and other adult content. I've learned from experience that the more that projects like this lean on those adult elements, thinking that they'll make up for any deficits in creativity and innovation, the worse they tend to come out.
And boy are there some prime examples of that fallacy here. "Love, Death, & Robots" is comprised of eighteen animated shorts, all under twenty minutes. They're a nice mix of different tones, genres, and animation styles, most of them based on previously published science-fiction short stories. Not all of them involve robots. In the mix are a trio of humorous tales based on John Scalzi's work, two contemplative ones based on Alastair Reynolds' pieces, and a great steampunk short based on a Ken Liu story. As you might expect, the installments vary wildly in quality. Unfortunately, there's a major exploitative streak apparent throughout that I didn't care for. Naked and topless women keep appearing, for no apparent reason other than titillation, and there's some distasteful reliance on rape and revenge tropes, casual vulgarities, and gore aplenty.
These are common criticisms of adult-oriented science-fiction and fantasy fiction in general, of course. "Love, Death, & Robots" also feels weirdly retrograde at at times because so much of the content is directly aimed at a young male audience. There's some welcome diversification of the protagonists, including a fun military adventure story starring Samira Wiley, but it's very apparent that with the over-the-top fighting, gratuitous sex, and proliferation of edgy badass characters, there's a lot of pandering here to the fantasies of thirteen year-old boys. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but the approach is a little stifling. I found the series less interesting on the whole than similar anthologies like "The Animatrix" and "Robot Carnival." There's not much depth to most of the scripting, and only a handful are truly worth watching for their stories, which is a shame.
However, as an animation fan, there's a lot here to love. "Love, Death, & Robots" features the work of more than a dozen different smaller studios, with Tim Miller's Blur Studio as the primary one with credits on five of the shorts. It was especially fascinating to see how far photorealistic CGI has come in the last few years, to the point where it's almost indistinguishable from live-action in some cases. However, I didn't find these nearly as much fun as the super-stylized CGI shorts, or the ones featuring traditional 2D animation. Designer Robert Valley directs one of the most striking ones, "Zima Blue," and Tim Miller directs the live-action/animation hybrid "Ice Age," but most of the other shorts are helmed by relative unknowns. I don't know what the budget for this series was, but all the visuals are top-notch and boast feature-quality work.
It's rare to see adult oriented animation of any stripe, especially done at this level. While I may have my gripes, it is so good to see Netflix giving these shorts such a big platform and widening the scope of what commercial Western animation can look like. They're not really doing anything new - twenty years ago, we had the even trippier "Aeon Flux" and "Liquid Television" - but they are continuing a noble tradition of subversive experimental and indie animation that has always needed all the help it can get.
I've decided that since the shorts are so different from each other, it would be more fair to discuss them individually. However, eighteen shorts is a tall order and there's not much to discuss with some of them. Shorts like "Fish Night," "Ice Age," and "The Dump," for instance, feel like little more than proof-of-concept demonstrations of the animation software being used. The next post will take the form of a "Rank 'Em" list, and but some shorts will be getting more attention than others.