Animated sci-fi anthology ‘Love, Death & Robots’ is missing a prime directive

Animated sci-fi anthology ‘Love, Death & Robots’ is missing a prime directive

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New anthology series from David Fincher and Tim Miller premieres on Netflix.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons (left) and Gage Skidmore (right)

An animated anthology series of loosely-adapted science fiction short stories produced by Tim Miller ("Deadpool") and David Fincher ("The Social Network," "Mindhunter" and "House of Cards") sounds at first glance like a recipe that could only emerge out of a fever dream. This initial glance proves true throughout the over three hours worth of diverse, beautifully animated and genre-spanning storytelling in the duo's "Love, Death & Robots,” which was released on Mar. 15.

Each of the 18 episodes — ranging from five to 18 minutes in length — displays excellent production and an extremely wide variety of narrative and visual styles. The visual styles range from loosely-drawn, primarily shape-based animation to intricate computer generated and motion-capture laden pieces that would not be out of place in a high budget video game. Immersive surround-sound mixing and potent use of high-dynamic range effects add up to make the many shorts feel like a slick demo of a fancy home theater system.

In spite of high production value, a lack of restraint and editorial control make much of “Love, Death & Robots” feel like it would be more at home on less-curated internet domains — like YouTube — than the premium entertainment platform of Netflix. While the title of the series seems intentionally self-explanatory, a more apt description for the collection's often needlessly explicit features might be "Sex, Gore and Body-Horror." 

Some of the first few features — "Sonnie's Edge" and "The Witness" in particular — border on being exploitative with their liberal use of sexually indulgent displays of frequent nudity, rape, raw violence and generally disturbing imagery with little justification. The core messages at the heart of many of the shorts manage to land with as little subtlety as the vicious aliens or demonic creatures being fought in them.

More compelling episodes, such as “Zima Blue” and “Good Hunting” draw on familiar cyberpunk themes of transcendence, corporal pondering and the dilemmas of cyborg existence in questioning man's relationship to technology. At best, they go beyond referencing tropes and contribute engaging concepts of their own that feel authentic to the wide variety of short stories they are adapted from.

Other shorts, like "Alternate Histories" and "When The Yogurt Took Over," imagine a series of realities where a machine simulates the various outcomes of Hitler dying at different stages before World War II, or the prospect of probiotics gaining sentience and eclipsing their human creators to usher in a new age of prosperity. These features are done in more cartoony or digital "claymation" styles that offer a refreshing contrast to the downright uncannily realistic, computer generated graphics of most of the shorts.

A few, like "Ice Age," manage to serve as complete outliers by blending live action footage of a couple moving into a new apartment with a tiny, animated civilization evolving from the stone age to thermonuclear war in the confines of an old refrigerator unit. 

The post-apocalyptic and amusing episode, the comedy-centric "Three Robots" is one of the few shorts to actually incorporate all the three themes laid out in the series title. With no constant running length, characters, universe, or even themes to connect the shorts, viewers can take nothing for granted when viewing the series consecutively.

The sheer diversity of styles on display in every possible way is technically impressive, but the question remains of why Fincher and Miller thought producing every episode as one series made any overall sense. Previous attempts at animated anthologies like "The Animatrix" succeeded by telling various stories in a shared universe many are already familiar with — that of the popular Matrix films. None of that cohesion is present in the myriad footage cobbled together in "Love, Death & Robots."

The series is a dilemma for audiences looking for any one thing in particular. Almost every episode tries to end its short run with a climactic twist after some brief exposition of its world, but the extremely short run times and ambitiously wide range of themes explored result in some landing much more successfully than others. Some endings, like a predictable reveal seen miles away in "Beyond The Aquila Rift," are almost certain to make eyes roll at the indulgence of lazy and well-trodden sci-fi clichés.

Beyond being difficult to comprehensively review, "Love, Death & Robots" can be challenging to watch for all but the most eclectically receptive and forgiving of hardcore animation aficionados. Fans of parody superhero fare like "Deadpool" or the intense, carefully directed live action procedurals of David Fincher should be aware that this Netflix series is not as cohesive nor as purposeful as any of either producer's prior work.

While many of the profoundly creative and at times mind-bending shorts are a triumph for the various writers, adapters, and animated teams that worked on them on an individual level, they stand better on their own than bundled in this disparate, confusing collage of content presented as one series on Netflix.

Viewers would do well to sample a few stories that catch their eye but should by no means feel any obligation to binge watch all of this confusingly bundled series in one go.

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