One of my favorite things about Netflix, Amazon, and streaming services in general is their willingness to take risks on edgy material targeted at a niche audience. Over the past few years we’ve gotten some fantastic science fiction, which I never thought I would see on screen, big or small. The Expanse. Altered Carbon. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. The Man in the High Castle. The list goes on and on. Science fiction is alive and well in the 21st century.
Love, Death + Robots is a great example. This collection of animated short films isn’t for everyone. And that’s exactly the point. I’m trying to imagine what this series might be like had it been made as a traditional Hollywood film. There would certainly be a lot less nudity and violence. But I also wonder how dumbed down it would be as well. My understanding is that this is Tim Miller’s (Deadpool) love letter to nerds. A few years back he was attached to a remake of the film Heavy Metal, an animated anthology from the 80s based on the French comic series Metal Hurlant. That project was ultimately scrapped, but it seems like much of the material he was pulling together for that film ended up going into this series. I think the results are far superior than anything we would have seen backed by the studio system.
I won’t go through each episode of the series individually. They’re really worth checking out on their own. My overall impression upon first viewing is very positive. There are a few I think I’ll go back and rewatch, just to see what I might have missed. Something that adds rewatch value, I believe, is that many of the films are based on short stories, which have appeared in magazines and anthologies over the years. There’s layers and complexity to some of the epsiodes that are many times overshadowed by the visuals. In some cases, they unfold so quickly, there’s little time to grasp the basic storyline before we’re hit with a barrage of action.
I’d read three of the stories before and was excited to see how they’d been adapted. The first, “Sonnie’s Edge,” from Peter F. Hamilton’s short story collection A Second Chance at Eden, published back in the 90s, is probably the strongest piece in the entire series. It oozes cyberpunk style and atmosphere, with bioengineered monsters and underground fight clubs. In many respects, the adaptation is slicker and more engaging that the story it’s based on, playing up the strongest moments while removing a lot of clunky exposition that’s better conveyed visually. To me, this is the ideal adaptation.
The two other stories I was already familiar with were “Beyond the Aquila Rift” and “Zima Blue.” Both are detailed narratives, with twists and turns further complicated by cerebral concepts. Despite this, I can see why they were chosen for adaption. Alastair Reynolds, who wrote the original stories, creates distinct, visually appealing universes on the page, and they’ve certainly captured that weirdness in the films.
Though I’d read and enjoyed the story, I really felt that “Beyond the Aquila Rift” was one of the weaker points of the series. In trying to cram everything from the short story into a 16 minute film, a lot is truncated, leaving the viewer feeling confused and ultimately unsatisfied. Some parts of the story are downplayed or simplified, while one off-page sex scene is expanded into an unnecessarily gratuitous sequence. In general, copious amounts of sex are to be expected with a series like this, but it felt wrong coming from a story in which the sex is important to the plot, but its main impact is deflated by alterations to certain aspects of the characters involved, leaving us with nothing but a surface level experience.
“Zima Blue” on the other hand worked quiet well. The style is unique and refreshing, departing from the hyperrealistic CGI found in most of the shorts, and despite its reliance on exposition, captures the tone of the original story, while giving the audience some trippy visuals to enhance the overall experience.
Other highlights for me were “Good Hunting,” based on a short story by Ken Liu, “When the Yogurt Took Over,” based on one by John Scalzi, and “Suits,” based on another story by Steven Lewis. There’s a lot to like in this series, and even though some episodes are weaker than others, there’s not a dud in the lot. One of my only criticisms is that the series relies quite heavily on CGI over other, more interesting animation styles, and I would have liked to have seen more of a variety. While the CGI is top notch, at times I felt like I was watching clips from a video game rather than a short film. Additionally, while there are a number of different stories and genres represented, there seems to be more of a focus on spectacle than story, with prolonged action scenes starting to feel repetitive when many of the shorts are watched in sequence.
Overall, Love, Death + Robots is a weird, engaging, and entertaining collection of adaptations from some of the best genre writers around, and I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff make it to the screen. I think animation is an underserved medium, especially adult animation. I really hope this series continues, if only so we can get more short story adaptations. The possibilities are endless. Though I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, I think there’s much to enjoy in this series. Each episode is under 20 minutes, so it never overstays its welcome, and I certainly think there’s some rewatch value.