Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots is many things all at once. It’s a multi-layered beast whose title sounds like it’s one Netflix’s algorithmic data points that supposedly governs what makes one of their original programs binge-worthy that starts off, it’s a sci-fi anthology of short films in different art styles that can easily be watched in an afternoon sitting, and it looks like what would happen if you put Heavy Metal (1981), Black Mirror (2011 – Present), Robot Carnival (1981), and Liquid Television (1991-1994) in a blender, loaded them into a shotgun, and haphazardly fired them into the general direction of a target. Nothing really hits the bull’s eye and there’s far more misses than hits, which could not only be a criticism leveled at Love, Death & Robots in particular, but Netflix’s attitude towards the quality control of its original content as a whole.
Love, Death & Robots is the brainchild of Tim Miller and David Fincher, of Deadpool (2016) and Fight Club (1999) fame respectively, and a “love letter to nerds” in Miller’s own words, features eighteen short, animated films by a variety of auteurs that feature some kind of variations of the titular love, death and robots although there’s plenty else. There are werewolves, paradoxes, garbage monsters, sentient yogurt, demons, and even alternate histories, although rest assured there’s plenty of robots and an inexhaustible supply of death for those interested.
The love part of Love, Death & Robots though is conspicuously absent. Perhaps the creators confused copious amounts of female nudity and violence towards women with love, because so much of the former is spread throughout the span of the entire series and a lot of the latter packed neatly into the first three episodes that it might turn off viewers right out of the gate. “Sonnie’s Edge”, the very first short film, is about a woman’s traumatic sexual assault and how she enters an underground cage fighting match where the pugilists are monsters as a way to get revenge on her tormentors. The entire storyline makes her trauma the focal point complete with a twist ending where she gains the upper hand that would have made the Cryptkeeper groan with its hackneyed writing.
In this regard, it’s a toss-up whether “The Witness” or “Good Hunting” takes the title for worst treatment of their female characters. “The Witness” is a short that would get points if it were judged purely on its visual merits in which a sex worker is relentlessly chased after witnessing a murder. The relentless pace and arresting visual style are at odds where the short comes to a screeching stop when the characters enter a sex club and all it can do is focus on the main character’s nudity and her pursuer distracted by some latex-clad nymphomaniacs. It seriously makes you question whether or not the scene was written by a fully-grown adult.
“Good Hunting” is a similar case, there’s a great style as rural China is transformed into a steampunk wonderland that again comes to a halt when it can’t help but put its female character, a mythical being that has no place in the modern world, under gruesome torture that is so gratuitous and unnecessary to the story it jarringly takes the viewer out of the experience entirely. Even later in the anthology, “Beyond the Aquila Rift” is still pretty bad at depicting female characters that don’t spend every second onscreen topless, although in this case they aren’t being abused to some minor relief.
Then there are the shorts that can’t justify their existence. “Sucker of Souls” is about a group of mercenaries fending off blood-thirsty vampires and “The Dump” about an old man living in a dump and the monster he finds there. They’re both juvenile, unfunny, and have twists that aren’t clever. It’s at this point Netflix feels like it’s just ticking off the boxes of bloody violence, cussing, and dick jokes so Love, Death & Robots can fit under the category of adult animation. The same can be applied to “Blindspot,” a story about cyborgs going on a heist that only has enough onscreen to remain somewhat engaging, but yes, is essentially just more blood, cursing, and dick jokes.
“Shapeshifters” and “Secret War” are indicative of Love, Death & Robots preoccupation with the more juvenile aspects of the science fiction genre. They have storylines that would have your inner fifteen-year old screaming “that sounds awesome!” and look like a PS3 game but are far less engaging once delved into. “Shapeshifters” is about a unit of marines in Afghanistan made up of werewolves and “Secret War” pits the Red Army against demons. They sound and look cool and have manly military men doing manly military things with a slight supernatural twist and these shorts will satisfy those looking for a quick dose of action and gore.
And then the anthology, almost entirely by accident, has a few good shorts. While none of them are masterpieces, they manage to showcase what Love, Death & Robots could be if the aim was quality over quantity and offer a glimpse of something better should there be more shorts on the horizon. “Three Robots” features, well, three robots that go on a sight-seeing tour of a ruined earth and it is a riot from start to finish. It has clever banter and is genuinely funny without overstaying its welcome. “Zima Blue” and “Fish Night” are the most directly inspired by Liquid Television with their art style, although the themes aren’t as well-explored as they could be, and while “Helping Hand” and “Lucky 13” don’t break the mold visually or with their story-telling, they have characters we can invest in and are a bit more upbeat.
“Alternate Histories” and “When the Yogurt Took Over” are a bit too convinced of their own cleverness, but are still funny and unique in their presentations. “Alternate Histories” imagines an app that can predict what would happen to Hitler in absurdist, fantasy scenarios while “When the Yogurt Took Over” looks at what happens when yogurt starts thinking about solving the world’s problems documentary style. They’re fun and goofy and offer up a nice break from the more pretentious fare and NSFW, “love letter to nerds” genre fodder.
Most importantly, they feel the most original of the shorts. Despite the odd mixing of art and style, there’s really nothing in most of the shorts that would truly stick with the viewer long after watching or can be claimed to have not been done (and done better) elsewhere. Perhaps “Ice Age” and “Suits” feel the most familiar, especially since “Ice Age” is so ridiculously close to The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror segment “The Genesis Tube” it borders on idea theft. “Suits” has the vibe of a mash-up between Tremors (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997) with farmers fending off alien insects overrunning their land and the visual style looks like something straight out of Fortnite (2017). While both are still entertaining in their own rights, it’s hard not to shake the feeling you’ve seen it all before and for what should be a series of audacious, original shorts, feels lazy.
Taken as a whole, Love, Death & Robots has a lot of segments that miss the mark, and is “edgy” in the way that movies and shows throw nudity and graphic violence as a way to be “mature” without actually saying anything or having any kind of real depth. The good segments never reach the greatness they should and the ones that are bad, are really, really bad. It’s a rapid-fire anthology that epitomizes the Netflix strategy that, don’t worry, here’s another fully-loaded magazine and maybe if they keep firing eventually one will hit. It lacks the imagination and maturity it needs to make the idea work instead of grab-bagging everything in sight to try to appease everyone. Love, Death & Robots should have maybe opted to pick one of its titular subject matter and stuck with it, and most importantly have had something to say about it.