Love Death + Robots review: Netflix animated series is LSD-laced gourmet popcorn entertainment

Mihir Fadnavis

Mar 17, 2019 12:36:31 IST

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5 stars)

Following the trajectory of original programming on modern streaming platforms has become a very interesting exercise. Some platforms either don’t make you care, or go on autopilot, while others simply don’t put out content as good as we’d love them to.

Love Death + Robots review: Netflix animated series is LSD-laced gourmet popcorn entertainment

A still from Three Robots. Netflix

Then there is the juggernaut that is Netflix, easily the most recognisable of all the streaming services, which could take a vacation after churning out easy populist content. But the platform’s gigantic balls prove over and over again that they feel the need to constantly reinvent themselves with fresh projects and new challenges so audiences, no matter how niche their tastes, could continue to revel in all kinds of movies.

Enter Love, Death + Robots, which ranks as one of Netflix’s all-time best offerings. This is a show that teamed up David Fincher and Deadpool’s Tim Miller, and merging their talents has belted out 18 short films packed to the gills with juicy genre film ingredients. It is simply wonderful to see Netflix experimenting with popcorn entertainment that is so different from everything else out there; it’s not a stretch to call this LSD-laced gourmet popcorn entertainment.

All the 18 shorts are babies of Miller’s Blur Studio, mainly written by Philip Gelatt, and juxtaposed to fever dream visuals they all ooze an obsessive love for the fantastic fiction, sci-fi action, comics lore, and everything else that encapsulates the cosmic energies of nerd culture.  Some of the stories are in servitude of the geeks, some of the freaks. But wherever there is fantasy, there is also flesh; there are visual wonders but thought provoking ideas to make you ponder. The consistent duality of Love, Death + Robots makes it aspire to be more than just another noisy blockbuster animation spectacle, often seducing us with big ideas without telling us how or what to think about them. Make no mistake, every one of the shorts is a visual and thematic overkill, but they do contain radical ideas that have been constantly overlooked in both the movies and society, and some of them do make cases to be turned into full length feature films.

There are four set pieces in Love, Death + Robots that rank among the most incredible I’ve personally ever seen. One is the flawlessly executed opening segment of The Witness, where a woman is chased by a murderer and storms through a city which looks like a futuristic blend between the East and the West. The sheer kinetic energy and visual style explodes in our faces as the lead gives us a tour of a dangerous, sleazy but undeniably seductive nature of this future, and goads us into figuring out what the killer wants.

Still from Beyond the Aquila Rift. Netflix

Still from Beyond the Aquila Rift. Netflix

Equally impressive is the moment in Three Robots where we’re introduced to the ultimate cliché of a post apocalyptic world but then the rug is pulled from under our feet in a hilarious reveal, complete with cats, comedian John Mulaney’s unmistakable voice on a robot, as well as the sardonic banter of another robot which seems like a hat tip to GlaDOS.

The third is the entirety of When The Yoghurt Took Over, a side-splittingly funny short that presents an alternate future when a dairy product ruled the planet because the humans messed up. The animation style and tone is hilariously stoic in a setup that is ludicrous, leading to an expanding perspective shift that unfortunately ends just before it gets really addictive. And finally there is the finale of Beyond the Aquilla Rift that cobbles together themes of Event Horizon and Solaris which slowly creeps up on the audience to reveal its true purpose in a virtuoso display of timing and horrific surprises.

There is also Blindspot which is essentially a heart pumping heist thriller starring cyborgs as characters from Fast and the Furious; it starts out on a very crowd pleasing note and develops into a melange of mag car jumping, jetpacks, laser guns, Robot karate, ending on another extremely pleasing note.

If it weren’t clear to you already, Love, Death + Robots is an absolute unit of visual feast. There's so much eye candy to digest and so many little details to drink in. Characters and the characterisation, however, fade into the background mostly because a short film with so much action doesn’t have time to focus on those films, but also because the atmosphere is the hero in all the stories here. Tim Miller, who before Deadpool, was renowned for his work as a sequence designer in films uses his skill to maximum effect here; there’s a plethora of homages to Japanese anime as well as American graphic novels, all with a playful vibe that works as a bridge between the retro and the futuristic. Other shorts play out like tips of the hat to the works of Satoshi Kon and even video game cutscenes found in the Metal Gear Solid series. One of the shorts also calls back on social commentary established with the bond between a villager and a shape shifting creature who is forcibly turned into a robot.

Still from Zima Blue. Netflix

Still from Zima Blue. Netflix

But mainly this is all very exciting and a glimpse into what cinema could become if studios look beyond the box of Hollywood ideas. Even in the simpler stories, like the one where a band of farmers defend the Earth from an alien attack has actual character based gravitas amongst the adrenaline rush of manned Titan robots and Starship Troopers-like insects that eat cows. All the high tech candy on display effectively shows how technology could use a design revolution in sci-fi cinema, because clearly we’ve outgrown the thirty-year-old ideas from Alien and Terminator.

The definition of what is universally considered as ‘fun’ in mainstream cinema needs to examined as well – sci fi and post-apocalyptic films are seldom very funny. Love, Death + Robots is by turns amazing and thrilling but apart from a couple of shorts, it is also mostly devoid of humour. But if these shorts illustrate anything, it is that neither love nor death can lead to very funny jokes, and only a few robots have a sense of humour. That doesn’t mean all this is not fun – in fact we’re entranced by the casually depressing grace that some of the shorts reflect as they sweep us up and dazzle us with their visually slick beauty, giving us a peek into possible technological advancements but morally gray decisions even from its protagonists. Take for example the opening short Sonnie’s Edge, where the mixture of sanitised sci fi atmospherics and their grungier counterparts receive equal play in a story whose tension only increases with the gore and the Brian de Palma-like pulpy twists. There is no light without the darkness in its world and it is left to the viewer to differentiate between the two.

As someone who loves genre cinema, I haven’t seen a more fun show than Love, Death + Robots so far this year; both Miller and Fincher deserve equal credit for shepherding weird stories made by new emerging talent, instead of using Netflix as a magnetic highway to drive their own careers. In years to come, this is going to be remembered alongside Big Mouth as influential pieces of Netflix programming that is in equal measure prurient and challenging. One can only hope that the participants involved, especially Netflix, will be able to make futuristic content like this forever because that’s a future I’d be on board for.

Love Death + Robots is now streaming on Netflix.

Updated Date: Mar 17, 2019 12:49:41 IST