TV Review | Love, Death & Robots: scintillating taste of the apocalypse

Though hampered by some retrograde storytelling and attitudes, Tim Miller marshals a dizzying and intermittently inspired anthology of sci-fi shorts in this colourful Netflix release

Dark Desires: Still from 'Witness' by Alberto Mielgo in Netflix's sci-fi anthology series Love Death & Robots
Dark Desires: Still from 'Witness' by Alberto Mielgo in Netflix's sci-fi anthology series Love Death & Robots

One of the most natural assumptions to make about the so-called (by me) ‘streaming revolution’ is that serialised TV has once again stepped into a terrain previously occupied by books and magazines. The books’ angle is fairly obvious: shows like Game of Thrones, Outlander and A Handmaid’s Tale are directly adapted from literary material, and one season of any given series – made up of roughly ten one-hour episodes – plausibly corresponds to the narrative make-up of a 300/400 word novel.

But what about the now almost entirely obsolete culture of magazines featuring prose fiction? They still exist, of course – though largely as a specialist interest that no longer captures the cultural zeitgeist in the same way.

Until now, apparently. Appropriately born out of the ashes to present yet another audio-visual adaptation of the ‘Metal Hurlant’ magazine – known in English-speaking markets as ‘Heavy Metal’ and made famous by its violent, erotically charged but beautifully illustrated comic book short stories – Tim Miller and David Fincher’s Love, Death & Robots does manage to provide the same bite-sized fun in a new format. (It is also telling that many of the segments have been actively sourced from some of the genre’s best prose writers of recent years).

Consisting of 18 stand-alone episodes running the gamut of roughly five to fifteen minutes each, the anthology is a welcome shot of adrenaline for any sci-fi fan looking to scratch an itch for short-form entertainment. However, what could have been a rainbow gamut of crazy variety is often samey and a little bit rote, as a few of the entries could easily be grouped under specific groups, which isn’t much to boast about with this kind of project.

That said, there’s plenty of fun to be had regardless, and the overall thrust of the project certainly appeals to the indulgent, to-be-read-on-the-commute feel that something like Heavy Metal would have certainly tapped into. The cyberpunk heist caper ‘Blindspot’ (dir. Owen Sullivan) and the horror-inflected ‘Sucker of Souls’ (dir. Owen Sullivan) offer dollops of appealing hi-octane pulp, as does the decidedly edgier and zanier ‘The Witness’ (dir. Alberto Mielgo), which makes good on the R-rated spectrum of the entire collection by openly indulging in underground BDSM trappings amidst its killer/doppelganger narrative. While these do just fine as digestible little thrills, the farmers-versus-aliens story ‘Suits’ (dir. Franck Balson) and series opener ‘Sonnie’s Edge’ (dir. Dave Wilson), based on a story by genre mainstay Peter F. Hamilton, are more well-rounded. As is ‘Good Hunting’ (dir. Oliver Thomas), a wonderful blend of folk tale and steampunk revenge story based on a story by the award-winning Chinese-American writer Ken Liu.

Less effective are the military offerings, with ‘Lucky 13’ (dir. Jerome Chen) and ‘Shape Shifters’ (dir. Gabriele Pennacchioli) trading in a very basic kind of machismo, as does ‘Secret War’ (dir. István Zorkóczy) which, however, transcends a too-frequent tendency towards such lazy, retrograde attitudes by telling an impressively Lovecraftian tale of cosmic horror rendered in staggeringly realistic 3D animation courtesy of Digic Pictures.

The philosophical and memorable ‘Zima Blue’, directed by Robert Valley and based on a story by bestselling author Alastair Reynolds, is a stand-out episode. Rendered in a strikingly angular 2D animated style and narrating the story of an ambitious intergalactic artist, Valley’s short boasts a completeness and maturity lacking from many of its counterparts. It certainly makes for more satisfying viewing than the other Reynolds adaptation on display: ‘Beyond the Aquila Rift’ (dir. Léon Bérelle, Dominique Boidin, Rémi Kozyra, Maxime Luère), which plays like a videogame cut-scene version of Tarkovsky’s Solaris.  

Thankfully, the dystopian bleakness of it all is leavened by the more humorous shorts, most of which are still lean on the ‘humanity is screwed’ side of things, but still manage to get some chuckles out of that funereal morass – such as the animate lump of garbage as the centre of ‘The Dump’, directed by Javier Recio Gracia and based on a short story by Joe Landsale, whose work was also the basis of the far more haunting and melancholy ‘Fish Night’ (dir. Damian Nenow). The work of another powerhouse author – John Scalzi – was mined to create the single-gag but nonetheless charming ‘When the Yoghurt Took Over’ (dir. Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres), which is probably the best way to spend six minutes on Netflix so far.

And cat lovers will whoop in knowing delight at the climax of ‘Three Robots’ (dir. Maldonado and Torres again), which also comes packed with hilarious observations about humanity’s foibles, as a group of robot friends trek their way across a post-apocalyptic city formerly populated by our misguided kind.

The verdict

Your mileage will of course vary as you work your way through this 18-strong anthology of animated short films, all executed by different creative teams which still manage to cleave to gratingly old-fashioned stylistic and aesthetic choices in an unhealthy bulk of the micro-stories presented. But Fincher and Miller have nonetheless managed to craft something noteworthy with this out-of-the-blue jolt of pulpy adrenaline, and here’s hoping the quality and variety on display only improves if subsequent seasons of the show are in the offing.

Love, Death & Robots is currently streaming on Netflix