Sex isn’t included in the title of Love, Death & Robots, the new animated Netflix series from directors David Fincher and Tim Miller (premiering March 15). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of R-rated eroticism—not to mention myriad Hitler deaths!—to be found in this 18-episode anthology of sci-fi shorts about the strange, surreal and sinister.
Created by Miller (Deadpool, the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate), who also serves as an executive producer alongside Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, Netflix’s Mindhunter), Love, Death & Robots is a deliberately diverse affair rife with violence, humor and a healthy dose of sensuality. No matter that its installments are all computer generated—it’s for adults only, peppered with full-frontal female nudity, intermittent profanity and a dark, demented view of the world, both now and in the future, which is where most of its vignettes are set. Delivering bleakness and black comedy in distilled form via stories that rarely last more than fifteen minutes, it’s like Black Mirror for the ADD-addled video game crowd.
Interactive games are certainly evoked by two of the six episodes that were provided to press in advance, as both boast the photorealistic environments and admirably lifelike and emotive—if still clearly artificial—human faces and figures found in AAA title cutscenes. There’s something startlingly authentic about the way vehicles move and physical spaces are rendered in “Sonnie’s Edge,” the show’s first episode, even though its grimy blacks, greens and reds define the action in somewhat familiar sci-fi terms. That’s true of its narrative as well, about a young, facially-scarred combatant preparing to compete in a fight to the death against a male opponent. The Real Steel-ish catch is that she’s not the one doing the actual brawling; instead, she uses mind-meld technology to pilot a giant reptilian creature (its head stretching backwards into a deadly spiked tail) against her adversary’s brutish beast.
That skirmish exhibits a formal polish that would impress Playstation and Xbox bigwigs—even if the ensuing material, full of lesbian seduction and head-stomping murder, might conflict with a few of their content guidelines. Developed by director Dave Wilson and Blur Animation, “Sonnie’s Edge” hinges on a climactic twist, and in doing so, sets the template for its compatriots, most of which conclude on notes meant to be jokey, or haunting, or both. In terms of aesthetics and tone, its closest sibling is episode seven, “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” from directors Léon Bérelle, Dominique Boidin, Rémi Kozyra and Maxime Luère, which features first-rate CGI courtesy of Unit Image, as well as a story that shouts out to notable predecessors (Alien, The Matrix) and climaxes on a last-second revelation intended to chill one’s bones.
In moments such as those, Love, Death & Robots gets at the tenuousness of reality, which always seems poised to shatter into a million pieces. In episode three, “The Witness,” a female adult performer sees a man in an adjacent apartment-complex window commit murder. That, in turn, instigates a prolonged chase through ultra-modern Hong Kong, with a pit stop along the way at the woman’s extremely NSFW place of work, where the series indulges in its most risqué impulses. More exciting than the sight of that protagonist unclothed and writhing about on a sofa for the entertainment of latex-suited patrons, however, is director Alberto Mielgo and Pinkman.TV’s daring style. Part hyper-lifelike, part cartoony, their material is an energetic visual marvel, replete with faux-handheld “camerawork” that bounces and swings alongside its subjects, who even fog up the “lens” with their gasps.
If those three chapters paint a disturbing picture of our prospects as a species, Love, Death & Robots also takes great pleasure in comically imagining our future, which is likely to be dominated by the interplay between pesky emotions and pioneering technological progress. “When the Yogurt Took Over” is a brief six-minute lark about the pitfalls of conducting genetic experimentation on dairy products, and is marked by Blow Studio CGI that’s more reminiscent of Minions than Metal Gear Solid. “Three Robots,” on the other hand, strikes an assured balance between those two modes for its portrait of a trio of sentient robot tourists gallivanting around a post-apocalyptic Earth, snapping photos of cheerleader skeletons, struggling to figure out the purpose of a basketball, and riffing on the illogicality of the human digestive system.
In a choice bit of mockery, the three mecha-travelers discuss the lack of authorial signature on humans, to which the triangular “female”—who’s like the lovechild of Interstellar’s TARS and Dr. Who’s Dalek, with the glowing red eye of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000—responds, “That’s because they were made by an unfathomable deity that created them for no apparent reason out of dust. Just kidding. They came from a very warm soup.” “Three Robots” doesn’t hold back in poking fun at mankind’s absurdities and failings, and ultimately, its mirthful mercilessness resonates far more than Love, Death & Robots’ gloomier passages. Ending with a punchline that’ll please those with a particular fondness for feline pets, it’s censure with a scathing smile—a modus operandi similarly embraced by its destined-to-be-most-talked-about entry.
In “Alternate Histories,” the age-old hypothesis about going back in time and killing Hitler before he rises to power gets the cheeky treatment, via a bouncy, brightly-colored look at a cutting-edge app called “Multiversity” that lets users modify any historical incident, and then see the ramifications that change has on subsequent events. In this case, each Hitler “death scenario” results in even greater catastrophe, not only for the Fuhrer but for the Earth itself. With each of its situations punctuated by a different explorer landing on the moon, it’s a rambunctious ode to “the butterfly effect” that’s overstuffed with ever-sillier nonsense, be it a Russian “gelatin-encasing weapon,” highly intelligent squid, time-space paradoxes and “marathon fornication by four Viennese prostitutes.”
“Alternate Histories” crams a lot into seven-and-a-half minutes, and the fact that it does so with such ridiculous bite is a testament to directors Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres, here collaborating with Sun Creature Studio and regular series writer Philip Gelatt. It’s proof that Love, Death & Robots is at its finest when it’s short, sweet and satirically nasty.