Love, Death, + Robots Highlights Netflix’s Underused Strengths

Every once in a while Netflix messes around and releases something genuinely awesome. Love, Death, + Robots fits that bill, and hits a lot of other check marks for me. It’s sci-fi (some horror and fantasy mixed in). It’s animation. It’s really good animation. It’s a bunch of different types of animation.

Love, Death, + Robots is an anthology, and as such talking about it as a whole is difficult. It makes me realize why the Coen Brothers were so serious about ensuring people understood Buster Scruggs was one movie. Spiritually, it feels like it. These shorts do not feel that they’re building towards anything, not even on a tonal level. They’re a curated collection, but they’re really just a series of shorts, so it’s best to treat them as that and then maybe, at the end, I’ll see if I can draw any conclusions. They may lack ties, but they were curated by a team, and released as a series, so to dismiss them as a package all-in-all is silly.

One thing that must be commended, across the board, is that someone has finally looked at the “episodes can be however long we want” model streaming provides and said: cool, let’s make them really short. The shortest episode is about five minutes, the longest few all land at the seventeen minute mark. It makes them short and sweet and watchable, and there isn’t any “filling.” It turns out that the confines of a half-an-hour program is a good editor, and released from it most people take what could be taut and turn it into a slog (Disenchantment a prime example of a widely respected show runner just not trimming enough).

Let’s dive in (light to heavy spoilers, depending on the episode). Also a note: apparently Netflix is showing the show in various orders (another idea I’ve championed for a long time!) so this is the order I happened to see them in.

Sonnie’s Edge – It makes sense to lead with this one. The animation is pretty good, though verging a little too close to “photorealistic video game-y” for my personal taste. We can get this out of the way here: animation is awesome because it can look nothing like reality. Trying to make it look like reality is a perverse quest, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s why I’m so happy something that looked so bonkers (Spider-Verse) won best animated feature this year over the gorgeous but expected Incredibles 2. It leads to this feeling like, as friend Frank put it, a video game cutscene. That being said, Sonnie’s Edge is probably the best episode from a storytelling perspective. It’s tight, taking place over a confined space and time, and it sets the stage well and quickly for big payoffs. There isn’t a wasted moment or line.

Three Robots – This episode is funny and cute. At first I was nervous it was going to end with a cliche moralistic ending, but it threw in a final hilarious twist. Narratively it’s pretty simple and straightforward – take a tour and joke about humans – but it definitely has a more distinct look than Sonnie.

The Witness -Hands down the most incredible animation of the series. I don’t know what to compare it to. Some shots look like paintings? Most do not? It’s a weird mix, and I love it. The story is pretty simple and predictable, but it frankly doesn’t matter, because the world it takes us through feels (and looks) so unique and special. The grain, the color, the light, the fog… chef kissing finger emoji.

Suits – I would compare this animation vaguely to Telltale Games or Borderland, both animation that I love. It’s clean and easy to understand, but still has style to it. As for the episode… it’s a bunch of cool farmers in mech suits fighting a swarm of aliens. What’s not to love?

Sucker of Souls – Another episode with some serious sense of style. Hand-drawn ish? Rounded cute looking characters, with scratchy pencil mark edges outlining their features. I guess it most closely resembles Hilda. The plot is totally straightforward, and it’s definitely more horror than sci-fi, but it’s super fun and runs exactly the right amount of time. The plot is basically like: what if Dracula was chasing someone? That’s a plot that can sustain about twelve minutes. The episode is twelve minutes. Great.

When the Yogurt Took Over – This is the tightest episode of all, coming in at just about six minutes. It’s more of a concept pitch than a narrative, but it’s pretty funny.

Beyond the Aquila Rift – Another one that looks like a cutscene from a video game. It’s less compact than Sonnie’s Edge, which again, is just such a tightly written episode, but it’s still fun enough.

Good Hunting – Another of the all-star episodes of the series. Distinctly drawn, but also just a fun story. I thought for the first half it would be an outlier, like Sucker of Souls, the sole fantasy entry, but then half-way through it shockingly goes steampunk, which is just a whole lot of fun. The story is a little brutal, but overall it’s about a friendship. Or not even a friendship? The relationship between the man and the huli jing feels almost like a familial bond, where they don’t necessarily hang out a whole lot (huge amounts of time pass where they are separated twice in the story) but still love and rely on each other.

The Dump – The main character of this one lets his only friend get eaten by a trash monster he then befriends. Not sure about that.

Shape-Shifters – This is the only episode I’d suggest just skipping. At first I was afraid it was going to be an episode praising war or the army. It’s not, but that doesn’t mean it works. What if werewolves were in the army? It’s a fine premise, but it sort of doesn’t evolve much beyond that. They’re ostracized and then fight other werewolves. Sure. Also, another “realistic” looking one.

Helping Hand – Okay, this one is just Gravity. I don’t know how they let that happen. Gravity is a pretty fun movie though! Subsequently, this episode is pretty fun!

Fish Night – I’m not totally sure what this episode is trying to teach me. Don’t get too involved with ghosts? It looks really awesome though, even before the fish ghosts show up. Reminiscent of Borderlands. I guess it’s a little boring to just equate one piece of animation to another? It’s sort of reductive, because each artist is different, but I don’t know enough about animation to talk more intelligently about it. C’est la vie.

Lucky 13 – I know I just wrote an entry about how skeptical I am about anything that is propaganda for military. But this is a sweet story. Anthropomorphism is something that is so distinctly human – we want to have a relationship with things because we love things and want them to be able to participate in that love. It’s implied the ship does have nascent consciousness, but maybe that’s just because the viewer is able to “see” through it’s eye and we too are casting characteristics on it.

Zima Blue – An almost Buddhist appreciation of the world – not ignorance is bliss but rather appreciation of small things is bliss. The animation and framing technique is very cool. I don’t have much to say about this one, but it’s definitely one of the best of the series, and should probably just be watched on its own without preamble.

Blindspot – A greatly fun crew who I want more episodes with. Sometimes a simple concept with simple stakes is all it takes. A heist, especially one involving vehicles and robots, is always fun.

Ice Age – A supremely goofy story. Like some of the other weaker entries (Shape-shifters) it doesn’t really go anywhere past its original concept – what if there was an civilization moving at super speed in your freezer. There’s no twist or turn or even elaboration on the idea. Futurama did it better with Bender in “Godfellas”. Still, it’s fun. It’s episodes like this that highlight how good it is that Netflix allows these episodes to be short. Anything over ten minutes would feel filled out needlessly, but this is short and sweet and allows it to maintain its fun without overstaying its welcome. It is supremely funny to just go ahead and use real actors in what is billed as an animated series.

Alternate Histories – Not really sure what this one is all about. I guess we could go ahead and skip this one too. As Frank said: “it’s not very funny but also trying very hard to be funny.”

Secret War – Okay, final time: this one also looks a bit like it’s aiming for “photo realism” but it does it… well? It looks just awesome. Again, I unfortunately can’t speak to animation well enough to articulate why it’s something that sometimes works for me (here and Sonnie’s Edge) and sometimes doesn’t. Maybe it’s the cinematography? Maybe it’s the grain? Maybe it’s just style. Regardless, this one is dark and a blast. All in.

Do they say anything collectively? I’m still at a loss on that front. Part of me wants them to, because then they are an anthology instead of a series of short films, and while I think a series of short films would be fine something about an anthology – that these are all in dialogue with each other – appeals to me more. Maybe it’s just because that’s how they were packaged and I don’t want to be lied to? But still, what do they say? They have the general anxiety one might expect to find in science-fiction, but beyond that…? And, with no clear exit strategy or unifying thought to turn to, I will end the post here.

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