Is LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS ambitious and edgy, or is it merely a hyper-masculine parade of gore and sex?
On March 15, 2019, Netflix released the first season of an anthology series called Love, Death & Robots. The series, originally envisioned to be a spiritual reboot of the 1981 film Heavy Metal, prided itself in marketing to be edgy and not-safe-for-work — certainly not for the children. This sensibility is made very clear through Netflix’s frantic, scattered, loud trailer for the anthology which proclaims in its opening slide: “THE FOLLOWING PREVIEW HAS BEEN APPROVED FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY.”
The series ultimately received moderate praise from critics, earning 33 positive reviews on the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, and 10 negative reviews. The criticisms among those sour toward the series were fairly consistent: the series has too strong a focus on gore and sex, and even the great animation (handled by a great variety of creatives and studios) can’t save it from a lack of compelling stories.
And, as Neal Pollack of Book & Film Globe put it, the show is “visually memorable,” but “lacks morality, in every way.” He points out that, in his opinion, the most enjoyable of the shorts were the ones that weren’t gratuitous in their adult content. The episode “Three Robots” plays out like a Pixar short with more adult jokes and harsher language, and the juxtaposition of those polar opposites is ultimately endearing — “Like Wall-E for grownups,” says Pollack.
The ability for a critic, or anyone for that matter, to enjoy the series seems to hinge solely on their ability to look past the gratuity of the violence and the over-emphasis on sex.
Nearly every episode in the first season is based on an existing short story, which theoretically would lay a decent foundation for the shorts. But, having read the short stories that inspired some of the episodes, and being a big fan of a couple of the authors, I think this is where the flaw of Love, Death & Robots is made most apparent.
Well, first I would like to mention the episode Zima Blue, for some positivity. It’s based on a brilliant short story by Alastair Reynolds. The short, being on the more succinct end of runtimes in the series at only 10 minutes long, surely does cut out layers of complexity from the story. However, it doesn’t feel like a second is wasted in that time, and in terms of adapting that story into a 10 minute film, it did its job well. Not only that, but it includes very little explicitly adult content — the terror is found in its ideas as constructed by Reynolds, not through onscreen gore.
Compare that episode to Beyond the Aquila Rift, another Alastair Reynolds adaptation. The original short story is complex, haunting, and dense. It was inevitable that some of that complexity would be removed through adaptation to screen. However, unlike Zima Blue, there seems to be a lot more wasted time. In the original Reynolds story, there is no gratuitous description of sexual acts, in fact the sexual nature of the story is in the background, and mentioned in passing rather than described. The film takes those couple lines of the story and, well, makes it the entire worth of the film. Yes, the shocking ending of the story still has a palpable impact (if not quite as horrifying) but so much complexity is pulled away to make room for an extensive sex scene, and then a few minutes that follow that scene during which the female character delivers exposition while bare-chested. Enough of the skeleton of the source material is there that, if the episode gave any time to process and think, it still has the existential impact intended by the short story. The motion capture and animation of the episode is undoubtedly impressive, but that simply makes it seem like a bit of a waste. The creative team was surely told “take this short story and make it as sexy or gory as possible,” and the uneven execution of that request across the episodes is the show’s biggest flaw.
The episode Good Hunting, based upon the short story by the remarkable Ken Liu, avoids this issue a bit. When the episode is placed in the context of the series as a whole, it does feel like yet another “woman in struggle” story. However, because the original short story had a nuanced and complex perspective and a brilliant sci-fi fantasy foundation, that carries over to the episode to some degree. Again, there is certainly a good amount of complexity that is simply thrown out the window. And the lack of subtlety that the film takes in comparison to the original story is at points jarring and uncomfortable whereas the source material evokes more natural emotions. The animation in this episode also happens to be incredible, which helps solidify it as one of the better episodes in the series. But the flaws that this particular episode has are flaws that are present throughout the series, which again just makes it seem like somewhat of a missed opportunity, as if free from the influence of the anthology, this short film would have just been that much better. However, it must be mentioned that without the funding of Netflix, most of these studios wouldn’t have the opportunity to create these films at all.
With that in mind, there are episodes where the usage of sex and gore does seem somewhat appropriate, to the point that if they were simply standalone short films disconnected from this anthology I’d see a lot of value in them. I still see value in them, it’s just deafened by the fact that, when binging through this series as I did, the gratuity of it all is seen as an overarching problem rather than something that can be localized in individual episodes.
Perhaps it’s merely the mindblowingly fantastic animation of the episode, but I have an admiration for the episode The Witness, and it does not by any means shy away from nudity and sex. But it seems somehow more natural and cohesive in its execution, and isn’t as blatant in its male gaze as the show’s worst offenders. Though it’s hard to tell the true intentions of the creatives behind the episode, as there are significant portions that are somewhat gratuitous and unnecessary. But seriously — the animation in this episode is something to be praised to the end of time. The director of the episode, Alberto Mielgo, worked in the art department of Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse, and the influence from that film is unmistakable. The Witness utilizes similar techniques, like inserting hand-drawn frames and drawing over CGI frames with more cartoonish line art. The effect is brilliant. However, along with having worked on Spider-Verse, another bit of information about Mielgo that assuredly played into the making of the film is — well, to best explain it would be to show his personal website, which is decidedly very NSFW. Now, might he be simply a free sexual soul with a deep appreciation for the human body? Yeah, perhaps, that’s for you to decide. But in a way his captions exude the same male perspective that plagues Love, Death & Robots. An excerpt:
“We were very young and she didn’t have boobs at all at the time. She told me one day that a doctor told her that she was a late kid and one day she would surprise everybody. And that Dr. was damn right. All of a sudden, after some summer, she appears with the most perfect round boobs and some centimeters added on every direction of her skinny body, shutting the mouth of many at school and awakening the desires of all of us.”
His expectation of some sexual experience with every woman he encounters (this is made abundantly clear through all of the images and captions on his site) perhaps makes him the ideal consumer of something like Love, Death & Robots: if sex can be included, throw it on in.
The show has 4 different orderings of the episodes that are randomly chosen for each Netflix viewer. For me, the first episode the series introduced me to was Sonnie’s Edge, a short film that just so happens to put on display the greatest faults of the series as a whole, and something that a critic of the show could EASILY point to as evidence that the series is inexcusably focused on feeding a male fantasy. The episode is quite literally just a CGI monster battle then a lesbian sex scene that leads to shocking gore.
There’s something to be said for gore economy, which is seen through the episode Helping Hand. The major moment of “gore” is sure to make a person cringe and wince, and it’s truly horrifying. The moment’s impact is amplified by the rising suspense that occurs beforehand, and it isn’t surrounded by mindless violence and gore that would make that moment less meaningful.
Other episodes are simply too dull and unmemorable to mention, like The Secret War, Shape-Shifters, Lucky 13, and The Dump. And Alternate Histories is truly just something I’d expect to stumble upon on YouTube, not within an anthology series that wants so badly to be prestige television.
The ambition behind Love, Death & Robots is assuredly commendable. I quite enjoy the idea of Netflix backing the production of 18 short films, distributed to a variety of very small animation studios who for the most part haven’t worked on projects of this caliber before. And the project did lead to some gems. But overall the show needs a major reworking of what it is actually aiming to do. The TV-MA rating should be something that gives creators FREEDOM to do what they want to do. But somehow, in the case of many of these episodes, it instead seems like a limiter, as the inclusion of mature content is ultimately scattershot and lacks cohesion. Either it seems out of place and unnecessary, or it lacks any remote level of nuance. I do not have an aversion to gore and sex in media, but there’s a difference between using it to fulfill some perverted desire and using it in such a way that actually serves the story being told. Appealing to the edgelords of the world gives a project a very limited scope, and it would be nice to see Love, Death & Robots being used in future seasons as a way to bolster creativity and uplift smaller creators, rather than adhere to such a narrow common theme. The vast majority of the episodes are written/adapted by the same man, it would surely serve the show well to have some variety in its writers, as funneling a bunch of different short stories from various legendary authors through a single man’s mind seems ill-advised.
Sometimes anthologies exist by following a very specific single theme, which would make it somewhat more understandable for it to have a single writer or a single team of writers, but Love, Death & Robots has quite a range in the types of stories it is trying to tell and the only thematic tie is really what the title suggests. Sci-fi stories with mature content. Many things can fit that descriptor.
Love, Death & Robots is not a deeply problematic show. It is not undoing a vast amount of media progress. But largely, the anthology is too simplistic, tied too strongly to its main gimmick. There’s little to grasp thematically in any given episode, with Zima Blue being a major exception (it really feels like a happy accident that the episode turned out as well as it did given those that surround it). The title of this article is really meaningless, but to conclude this as an answer to the title: Yes, it’s ambitious and edgy. Yes, it also leans heavily toward a hypermasculine view of its stories. But it’s also not MERELY that. There is hope in the future of the series, and even if they maintain the same track record for next season, this will at least mean that there will be a few good shorts in there, and maybe that’s enough to justify that show’s existence as it truly doesn’t feel like it’s actively harming anything, even if some episodes seem to have been written from within a social bubble.
The episodes I would consider worth watching are Zima Blue, Three Robots, When the Yogurt Took Over, Good Hunting, and Helping Hand.
The Witness and Beyond the Aquila Rift are questionable in their intentions but have enough artistic merit to possibly justify a watch as well.
Suits and Blindspot are inoffensive and fun and are both essentially just an extended action scene. I’ll throw Sucker of Souls into this category as well, which has very nice 2D animation. Fish Night isn’t an action tale, but is similarly just kinda meh.
The Dump, Ice Age, and Alternate Histories are the show’s failed attempts at humor that just don’t work for me (as much as I like Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace).
Sonnie’s Edge, Shape-Shifters, Lucky 13, and The Secret War are the bottom of the barrel. They all attempt a photorealistic animation style that never works quite as well as some of the more impressive attempts at such a style in the show (Aquila Rift really pulls it off). Sonnie’s Edge is just offensive and asinine. Shape-Shifters is ridiculous and has no thematic merit. Lucky 13 and The Secret War just don’t have compelling stories at all and are ultimately very dull and boring.