A critique of Love, Death & Robots Vol. 1
- About the mature content
- The episodes
And now for something completely different!
I recently watched the first volume of the Netflix series Love, Death & Robots. I really want to talk about it, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
In case you haven’t heard, Love, Death & Robots is a science-fiction animated anthology series for adults, of which the first volume of episodes was released in 2019. There are spoilers here, so I recommend that you watch it for yourself first. There’s enough good stuff to make it worth your time, especially considering it’s a lot shorter than most series on Netflix.
I’m happy something like this exists. Many writers and designers have good ideas, but making a memorable feature-length movie or show requires so many good ideas (ideally with a consistent style and quality) that it’s very difficult for smaller teams to pull off. A sci-fi anthology series is the perfect testbed for ideas that would otherwise never reach a wide audience.
The downsides of anthology series are their hit-or-miss quality, and limited time for “TV basics” to get the viewer invested, e.g. in-depth characterization and complex intriguing plots. That said, even for the weaker episodes, I find the short format still makes me feel a kind of connection to the team: with their limited resources and abilities, they decided to focus on this instead of that. Those personal touches are often drowned out in bigger productions.
This intimacy can even make some episodes feel like school projects, but make no mistake: Love, Death & Robots has a Netflix-sized budget and is made by experienced professionals. Some of the animation actually looks so good that in Ice Age (the only live-action episode) I needed a minute to convince myself it wasn’t CGI. Crossing the uncanny valley is no small feat!
And of course, a show made by professionals deserves to be critiqued accordingly.
About the mature content
Many episodes focus heavily on action, and include a lot of gore. Such mature content is typical in sci-fi stories, but I would’ve liked a bit more variety; some episodes are only action.
And then there’s the other kind of mature content, the sexual kind. This show loves nudity and suggestiveness, and uses them to the point of damaging the experience. It’s so prevalent that it must come directly from the show’s core team, there’s no other explanation. Not all the nudity is sexual, but in those cases I still have to ask whether it’s necessary. It reduces the signal-to-noise ratio of the affected episodes without adding anything valuable.
I’m not raising this issue to say “yuck”; I think that kind of content has its place. But here it isn’t just unnecessary and distracting, it’s also discomforting: Love, Death & Robots has one of the most blatant cases of male gaze I’ve ever seen. I’m a member of the target demographic (read: straight men), and I wouldn’t call myself a radical feminist, but even my testosterone-addled brain quickly said “enough already” way too often while watching Volume 1.
You might disagree, and say I’m being too prudish or reading into it too much, but it’s a fact that it affected my experience, so I’ll be including it in my criticisms of certain episodes.
Let’s go through all of Volume 1’s episodes one by one. I’ll say some words about each along the way, and give a score. Note that the scores are normalized, so the 1-star episodes are the worst of this volume in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad; I couldn’t do it better myself! Furthermore, I’ve tried to distribute the scores uniformly across the 18 shorts.
Group 1: comedy
The following six episodes are notable for trying to be funny as their core objective. For a writer, comedy is always dangerous: if their jokes don’t work, they’re just left with a messy story that’s unlikely to impress the audience. Every viewer has a unique taste, so the experience will generally be mixed, and that’s indeed my opinion of these six.
Brief but very entertaining. The humor maybe gets a bit too absurd for my taste, but it certainly has its moments, and the jokes that don’t land lead to other jokes that do. This episode’s use of sexuality immediately brings us to the series’ obsession with mature content, but honestly, in this case, it’s a pretty good fit for the madness of it all… although I never would’ve expected I’d enjoy a scene where a 19-year-old future dictator (that one) dies of good sex… and I can’t believe that I actually wrote those words, wow.
The graphics are simple but functional, and are a good fit for the tech commercial the episode presents itself as. All in all, this is an excellent video, and exactly what I’d wish for in a (mostly) humorous anthology series like this. Let’s see if the next one is as good, shall we?
Oh dear. These are the quality variations I’d expect from an anthology, but still… The premise is so bizarre that it totally failed to capture my imagination, and this is the only episode that relies on live-action footage like this, making it feel cheap compared to the rest of Volume 1. The acting isn’t very good either, appearing rather lifeless, further ruining the attempts at humor.
That’s not to say it’s all bad; it isn’t. The CGI parts are well done: there are some nice touches, like the flashes of green along the great Brussels sprout quarry, and how the actors’ faces are frozen in time when we see the miniature construction workers’ perspective. But those aren’t enough to make me enjoy myself, so this ends up being a disappointment.
Sucker of Souls
Simply failed to entertain me. It tries to be an action story, but it never takes itself seriously, so I can’t either, and the raunchy jokes didn’t even work on me, leaving… not much, plot-wise. I feel bad about being so critical: it was clearly made by a highly competent team, but I kept checking the progress bar the first time I watched it, which is pretty damning.
Graphically, the artstyle is also one of the weakest of the season. Again, clearly some talented illustrators put a lot of work into it (as far as I can tell, the whole thing was drawn by hand), but compared to its “competitors” with high-quality CGI and/or inspired art direction, this episode comes across as pretty basic.
Same issue as the previous two episodes: I wasn’t entertained. Since I’m a European, maybe jokes about hillbillies don’t tickle me as much as they would an American audience? I’m just guessing. Graphically, this is an upgrade over the previous two, but apart from that I really don’t have much to say. The mature content is a bit over the top, but for a comedy it’s not too bad.
This is currently listed as the first episode on Netflix, which I think they did to make the most of the “gotcha” opening scene, but it’s also a great introduction to the series. The graphical quality initially surprised me, since I was expecting something with a lower budget, and the tongue-in-cheek writing warms the viewer to Philip Gelatt’s style.
I think this episode’s humor is a bit too self-aware for its own good (and also too self-aware about being self-aware), so I didn’t find it particularly funny, but I was entertained and intrigued enough to continue watching. All in all, this is actually a mediocre episode, but I’m glad I saw it first.
When the Yogurt Took Over
Short and delightful. Of all episodes, this one feels most like a school project, like some students just wanted to make something simple but funny, and at that they definitely succeeded. This is the only episode whose humor fully worked on me, since it mostly avoids the “non sequitur trap” the others fell into… although “we want Ohio” was pretty hilarious. The graphics work well for the light-hearted theme; especially the spaceships’ shape is a brilliant touch. A great episode.
Group 2: action
These six episodes clearly belong to the action genre, meaning they try to entertain the audience with violent spectacles instead of, say, thought-provoking storytelling. Consequently, I don’t have too much interesting to say about any of them. They generally look great, but are unfortunately quite forgettable since they mostly consist of action tropes.
This one was surprisingly nostalgic to watch, because the artstyle reminded me of some of the cartoons I watched as a kid. Like the other episodes in this group, its plot is pretty basic, but it deserves credit for the final twist, which I didn’t see coming, although it doesn’t have such a big impact on the story. The graphics are Blindspot’s saving grace, as I now remember this as “that episode with the nice cartoon action”. Without that, it would be fairly generic.
This is the only episode where I recognized one of the actors they used as models (Samira Wiley from Orange Is the New Black), and that’s honestly the main thing I remember about this episode. It’s a standard action plot brought to life with realistic CGI. The execution is as excellent as you’d expect from this series, but the simple story makes the experience forgettable. I like how they left the ship’s implied sentience unspoken, and the total lack of raunchiness was refreshing.
The plot is pretty empty, relying on military clichés rather than exploring its one interesting idea: werewolves in modern times. As a result, it ends up in the “boring story” bucket. Compared to the other episodes in a similar situation, Shape-Shifters’ art direction fails to offer any redemption: this is Blur Studio’s weakest showing in Volume 1. They went for a realistic style, but the drab military props are uninspiring, and the result ends up looking too much like a video game (in a bad way), as if their render settings were too low, especially in the first half. I’d even go so far as saying this episode should’ve been cut, since Volume 1 could use a diet anyway.
This one is interesting to me, because it’s trying to be progressive by establishing that Sonnie is the only female pilot and the best of them all. But despite that, the episode still suffers from a male gaze, like there’s a kind of clumsiness to its feminism: at first, it lets Sonnie be defined by her trauma as a rape victim, and then places her in a lesbian scene that’s clearly aimed at male viewers. But in the end it turns out her trauma isn’t her “edge” after all! So… the joke is on me, I guess?! I’m left scratching my head.
That confusion is a shame, because otherwise this episode would be fantastic. Visually, it looks awesome with its well-executed cyberpunk style, and I can’t imagine how much work went into the main fight scene. The story also manages to be stronger than most other episodes’, some of it just needed to be toned down a bit in my opinion, that’s all.
In CGI, I think a stylized look is harder to pull off than realism, as it requires a more pronounced artistic vision. This episode has good art direction: its painted visuals are a great fit for the rural theme and are executed well. But sadly, the artists’ talent is weighed down by a framerate so low that it kept distracting me, and I don’t get why it’s like that. Is it deliberate? I’d be surprised if it’s due to technical limitations, because I believe the scenes consist of shaded 3D models?
I don’t have much to say about this episode’s storytelling, because it’s a cookie-cutter action plot with familiar tropes. In a format like this, there’s no time to make the viewer care about the death of a character, so it doesn’t have the emotional kick I think they were aiming for. That’s not to say that the writing is bad: the scarecrow’s thread is pretty well done in fact. But again, it’s nothing special, so the story gets a resounding shrug from me.
The Secret War
This one was developed by Digic Pictures, who are known for making cinematic trailers for video games including Elden Ring and the Assassin’s Creed series. Clearly, they’re experienced at making exciting short-form action content, and it shows: a condensed cut of this episode could easily be a trailer for an upcoming game. Furthermore, the fact that I’ve seen their work before means the graphics feel familiar (in a good way). Even if you haven’t, this is still top-notch CGI.
However, the plot is roughly what you’d expect from a trailer. It’s a collection of scenes that look cool, but there’s not much substance behind them. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but this episode is up against many others with good CGI and decent plots, so unfortunately it lands quite low down in my ranking of Volume 1.
Group 3: other
I struggled to categorize the remaining six episodes, which are a mix of thriller, drama, and more abstract themes. Being hard to classify is a good thing, because it means there’s more creativity here! Indeed, as a result, I ended up enjoying this group the most by far.
Beyond the Aquila Rift
Truly, an episode of extremes: it has probably the best CGI of the whole season, but is held back by a plot with more holes than any other. Why doesn’t Suzy react at first to Greta not being real? Actually, why does she react at all, since she’s a figment of the simulation under Greta’s control? Also, why is alien Greta doing this at all? The plot twist that it’s all just a dream isn’t so original either… And at the end, aren’t Thom and Greta in the cold vacuum of space? Oops!
It also suffers from being one of the worst offenders regarding the aforementioned male gaze. Sorry I keep bringing it up, but it feels like the creators just really wanted to include a showy sex scene with little thought about its role in the bigger picture. While it doesn’t actively harm the story, it also doesn’t add anything valuable, only titillating the (male) audience.
All that being said, it’s worth repeating just how good the CGI is: it took me several minutes to convince myself it wasn’t real. They’re obviously using motion capture for the animations, but adding so much detail the 3D models can’t have been automatic, surely? I’m blown away, but it doesn’t save the episode as a whole.
Didn’t impress me the first time, but the second time I appreciated it a lot more. It’s a compelling question, what the world might look like if we could see the ghosts of prehistoric creatures, and they’ve brought this idea to life brilliantly. Setting the episode in a desert that once was a seabed was a good choice, as seeing the colorful spirits floating through the air is more evocative.
The simplicity of the premise leaves room for better characterization than most other episodes can afford, but the crescendo is so short that I’m left wondering what the point was. I still feel like the first half accentuates the second half’s beauty, but I can’t explain why, since they’re barely related to each other… I think this is evidence of a good artist’s magic touch.
That’s a lot of praise, right? Unfortunately, the full package still failed to wow me. It’s yet another episode with great graphics but little substance.
This is almost my favorite episode of Volume 1, surpassed only by Zima Blue. Both rely heavily on narration to describe events over a large timespan, making the story feel a lot more “epic”, which I really enjoy. The flow of themes feels very natural, smoothly moving from Chinese mythology, to an unlikely friendship, then to survival in a changing world, and finally to revenge.
I’d also say that the nudity here is more tasteful than in other episodes, although the male gaze is definitely still there, and you can again argue that it’s all unnecessary. The cartoon style softens the sexual content’s impact, and generally looks great, although the characters’ noses can look a bit weird. I find it difficult to express why I like this episode so much, so I’ll stop myself here and hope that you watch it too one day.
Conservation of momentum: the movie. This episode is the epitome of a simple idea executed well, managing to be way more thrilling than many other more complex episodes. The dangers of space debris, our helplessness in zero-g, the body horror of 127 Hours, and the inevitable puns are a great combination. However, it doesn’t really try to do anything new with its realistic visual style and less-is-more story. That lack of true originality costs it the last star.
Quality-wise, this episode is similar to Beyond the Aquila Rift, which suffered from a weak plot and a strong male gaze. The Witness manages to be even guiltier on both counts, clearly prioritizing looking good over making sense, and having the largest amount of nudity of any episode (but only of females, of course).
But wow, does it look good! The art direction is stunning and highly original, breathing life into an oppressive industrial metropolis and a claustrophobic fetish club. If you pay attention, you’ll see some nice touches, like how the camera steams up during a closeup of the dancer. A style so far from reality makes it all the more engrossing to watch.
But nice visuals aren’t enough for me. The plot doesn’t make any sense (especially since I’ve also experienced good time loops like Outer Wilds and Edge of Tomorrow), and the story’s tension could easily be partially resolved if the characters would just talk instead of staring.
Zima Blue is by far my favorite episode of all of Volume 1. Good art is difficult to explain; this feels like art, and I can’t really explain why. It feels “complete”: both literally (all its parts are sufficient together) and in a more profound sense (all parts are necessary). I’ve surprised myself with how I’m gushing praise over a short cartoon, although I’m struggling to express why… Clearly it really struck me in a way I don’t fully understand.
The heavily stylized graphics are expertly executed, and elevate the experience with a lot of visual drama. But the real star here must be the voice acting: at one point, there’s this subtle tremble in Claire’s narration, as if she can’t contain her awe while recounting Zima’s epic existence, whereas his wisened voice is steady in contrast. Maybe it won’t work for you, but my God, it did for me! Wonderful, simply wonderful.
Love, Death & Robots’ first volume was a surprisingly pleasant experience. I love how they gave big budgets and a lot of creative freedom to smaller teams, which would normally be competitors of Blur Studio (the series’ parent studio). This approach resulted in a diverse range of well-produced episodes, with some expected hit-or-miss moments. As other critics have already pointed out, the sexual content is the series’ only consistent issue. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it!
Writing this critique was an interesting experiment. It was surprisingly hard to form and express my opinions about all the episodes, as opposed to just talking about a few highs and lows. Along the way, I’ve learned more about what I like and don’t like in movies. And it turns out that I may have a soft spot for anthology series, so I suppose I should critique Volume 2 next…