LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS: Does the second volume fix the problems of the first?
About a year ago, I wrote a piece on Netflix’s animated series Love, Death & Robots, in which I criticized the execution of some aspects of the series, while applauding the ambition and potential of the series. So the question upon the second volume of the anthology is, of course: Has it lived up to its potential? And the answer is a resounding… yes, actually. At least, kind of. Whether if it’s by the omission of the episodes that would have been weaker (this volume is only 8 episodes compared to the 18 episodes of the first), or it’s a sign of a better direction for the series, this volume vastly improves upon the first. Its heights are perhaps comparable, but its lows aren’t nearly as low, and the episodes are on average much stronger.
This volume is much less concerned with a strict adherence to genre, thematic ties, and the abundance of violence and sex that the first two words in the title suggest. This is a very welcome change, as the episodes no longer seem to force their moments of intimacy or gore, but rather these moments are used sparingly, which is to say they are (presumably, hopefully) used purposefully rather than to force a connection to the anthology’s thesis.
Many of the episodes consciously re-enact the successes of the most successful episodes in the first volume. Automated Customer Service carries over Three Robots’ off-kilter sense of humor from the first volume (adapting another story from the same author), and also serves as the most explicit justification for the “robots” part of the title. The episode is funny, though may be a little forgettable, lacking some of the charm of its predecessor. Ice carries over Robert Valley’s distinct art style, which was previous experienced in Zima Blue. The episode is similarly exceptional, setting up its science-fiction universe and characters in a way that is both sparing and impressively fleshed-out, and has little concern for squeezing in R-rated elements. While neither Ice nor any of the episodes of this volume, really, are as introspective and thoughtful as Zima Blue, their strengths still shine through.
Snow in the Desert has the same directors and animation crew as the previous season’s Beyond the Aquila Rift, which shows through its incredibly hyper-realistic animation. The contrast between these two episodes perhaps demonstrates the most overtly how this volume has changed from the last. Beyond the Aquila Rift, while a good episode, wastes a lot of time on a sex scene (such scenes have their place in media, don’t get me wrong, but the episode sacrificed complexity as a result rather than the scenes enhancing the story). In Snow in the Desert, sexuality is fleeting, despite the story almost being a love story of sorts. This season in general is a lot stronger when it comes to playing with implications. The original story for Beyond the Aquila Rift was much more subtle than the episode inspired by it, with the sex that overwhelms the episode being only a single line in the story, with most of the value found elsewhere. The episode flips this to place much of its value in the sex scene. Snow in the Desert takes a different approach, an approach that would have been appreciated in the previous season. It ultimately doesn’t have the same narrative impact as Aquila Rift (which is a well-constructed and executed short despite some problems), however, at least from a plain “shocking twist” point of view.
Pop Squad, directed by this volume’s new supervising director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, contains only resistance to sexuality, almost seeming like a refutation of the ways of the previous season, with the story and the internal struggle of the character taking precedence. The episode contains an inherently violent premise, but it constructs the horror of that premise through what it doesn’t show. It’s sparing in what it shows onscreen, which makes it all the more disturbing. I previously described the “gore economy” of the episode Helping Hand in the first volume. Senseless, endless violence isn’t what affects people, it only desensitizes them as the piece of media continues. It’s contrast that creates a response. There’s arguably a place for both depending on the goal, but Yuh Nelson’s approach was very effective in this episode.
Along with this unashamed departure from the almost hyper-masculine elements that tied the first volume together, this one doesn’t care as much about the strict application of the genre of science fiction, either. The episode The Tall Grass, which has gorgeous animation that combines stylistic elements of paintings and stop motion into a CG animated environment, doesn’t contain elements that can conclusively be described as science-fiction. The episode is instead an effective short horror story, constructing its horror in both its premise and the claustrophobic, disorienting execution of it all. It may be over all too quickly, but it’s very well-done. All Through the House, the shortest episode at under 5 minutes before credits, is similar, applying a humorous, horrific, and cute premise, that isn’t necessarily science fiction except by a stretch of the genre. In any event, I expected this episode to be rather weak, but its mercifully short runtime and an excellent final line allow it to pull itself together well.
Life Hutch, starring an eerily hyper-realistic rendering of Michael B. Jordan (it really does seem to cross the uncanny valley at times, especially with the low-lighting of the episode), is among the most explicitly sci-fi stories in the series, but its tone is very much horror, borrowing from classic sci-fi horror such as Alien. The animation in the episode is very much an improvement over what Blur Studios had done in the previous volume. The Drowned Giant, a near-direct (though truncated) translation of the short story that inspired it, is more in line with fantasy or magical realism (it’s a bit of an interesting choice of a story to adapt for the screen, and almost makes me wonder if it’s a story better left to literature and the imagination of those reading it, but it’s a strong episode nonetheless). All of these episodes demonstrate the way the premise behind Love, Death & Robots can be stretched. Science-fiction is very broad, so there’s no reason for a series like this to really constrain itself so tightly.
My suggestion that they include a wider variety of writers on these episodes remains. But this volume has managed a greater diversity in stories within its shorter length, which I have to applaud. I also felt a lack of 2D-animated episodes within this season (Ice is the closest thing, with a style that combines CG with a 2D style), which I hope doesn’t signal that the series is moving more and more toward hyper-realistic animation. While such animation is impressive and can be used really well, I like to see different styles represented. However, this volume did offer several different styles, even within CG animation. While we’re at it, I would like to see some longer episodes. Almost all of the shorts presented in this volume felt just a bit too short, and could do with an extra few minutes. What would be a dream would be to see some longer-form stories represented, with episodes north of 30 minutes. Sometimes the quick-to-consume nature of it all seems too quick, denying a lingering impact.
The first volume demonstrated a lot of potential in this format: bite-sized sci-fi stories animated by fantastic teams. This new set of shorts has shown an effort to meet that potential, and this makes me excited for what the series will do next, and how it will be able to grow further. I already felt the series earned the right to exist, as it offers opportunities to animation studios to create something cool, and the first volume had its fair share of good shorts. Volume 2 feels like an evolution, a sign of a series finding its footing just a bit more than before.
My review of the first volume: Is LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS ambitious and edgy, or is it merely a hyper-masculine parade of gore and sex?