Love, Death & Robots REVIEW – Life In The Time Of Cyborgs

Love, Death & Robots presents a nicely mixed bag of animations, in the vein of Black Mirror-style techno-fear.

love death & robots

From the dark, warped minds of Tim Miller and David Fincher comes a collection of short films playing host to a number of different animation styles and approaches. Most people will be familiar with Miller’s recent directing venture Deadpool, and Fincher has several dark thrillers such as Seven and Zodiac under his belt. The two have actually previously worked together on Fincher’s version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, where Miller was involved in the design of the title credits. Ranging from six minutes to sixteen minutes, Love, Death + Robots presents a variety of concepts and ideas with a mixture of genre styles such as horror, science fiction, and comedy, to name but a few. There is something refreshing about this Netflix anthology. Although I felt that all eighteen short films were excellent, some might only like a particular handful. But that’s the great thing about Love, Death & Robots: there is such an eclectic mixture of themes, stories and visual styles that if you don’t like one short feature it’s easy to find another one that better suits your personal taste.

Each film has its own unique style, and although none of the stories are linked, the way the collection is packaged ties it all nicely together. Three picture symbols represent the title, one for love, one for robot and one for death. However, at the start of each short feature the symbols roll like a fruit machine and three new ones take their place, representing themes that will appear in that particular film. It is a small visual addition but a satisfying one nevertheless and gives the show a trademark of sorts – one which reminded me of Ozark’s use of symbols at the start of each episode which give an indication of the themes to follow. The blurred fading of the titles and stark black-and-white colour scheme has a dark science fiction style to it which is highly reminiscent of Black Mirror, as is the slightly distorted and electronic use of sound during these title sequences.

Despite being an assortment of animations Love, Death & Robots is not for the faint hearted. There are only a few of the short films that steer clear of violence but the majority of them are pretty brutal and bloodthirsty. Even the comedies are fairly violent and there is a dark and slightly twisted side to nearly all of the animated short features. The concepts, animation styles and voice acting of all the films are excellent but if I had one complaint it would be the excessive use of blood and gore in most. A certain amount of it is expected as adult animation has a reputation for delivering ridiculously ultraviolet and blood soaked sequences. While amusing at first, it starts to lose its impact and novelty after a few of the films and I felt it wasn’t needed for much of it as it didn’t add anything to the stories. It is the concepts, scenarios and visual styles that work really well in these films, as opposed to the use of blood and guts.

The influence of blood and gore in animation is something that has been developing for quite some time now. Thanks to the unfettered and uncensored environment of the internet, flash animations such as Happy Tree Friends and Youtube sensations such as Cartoons Rejected By The Family Learning Channel have incorporated more graphic violence than classic-model cartoons could ever have dreamed of. Now the rise of online streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Now TV, means that the presence of violent animations in mainstream media is becoming more prevalent. The Adult Swim channel is a perfect example of this as it has a number of violent animated programmes which air both on TV and online – showing the influence of the internet on older media.

Anime is another form of film and television which can often use a lot of blood and gore. TV shows such as Afro Samurai and Castlevania have a big emphasis on severing of limbs, beheading and gouging, all accompanied by obscene amounts of vivid red blood. Going back further the emerging presence of this animated violence can be seen in classic anime films such as Akira and Vampire Hunter D. The short film Good Hunting included in the Love, Death + Robots anthology uses the visual style anime has become famous for, as well as the inclusion of Samurai warriors, action packed swordfights and plenty of bloody limb dismemberment.

There is a fantastic mixture of animation styles on offer with Love, Death + Robots. There are hand drawn illustrations, 3D animations, ones that are cel shaded, others that are motion captured. There are even a few instances where real actors and locations are fused with animation to create a strange blend of the two. The Witness is a particularly striking example as it takes real actors and locations and cel shades over the top of them, as previously done in A Scanner Darkly. Another short, Ice Age, has two real actors in an apartment observing a whole animated civilization existing in their freezer. These merging of styles gives the films a distinctly different and original visual stamp.

One criticism would be that there seemed to be a few too many films using the motion capture CGI style. While they looked amazing in their execution, in some instances freakily life like, I would have preferred one or two of them to go in another direction. For example, it might have been nice to see some use of stop motion animation or claymation. There are six films that use the motion capture CGI animation in total, and with Helping Hand, Sonnie’s Edge, and Lucky 13 it is understandable as the story needs that realism and lifelike quality – but Beyond The Aquila Rift, Shape Shifters, and The Secret War could have worked in another form of animation. Meanwhile, entries such as Sucker of Souls and Zima Blue are much more cartoony and comic book inspired in their design.

The stories, concepts, and ideas are particularly engrossing and many of the short films have some very clever twists and surprises which are used to great effect. I didn’t feel short-changed on any of the films as they all managed to effectively establish and conclude their narratives in the time given. This is no easy task but the plots are well-thought through and executed, and even the longer films didn’t feel like they bit off more than they could chew, or that they ended things too abruptly. There is some great voice talent provided for Love, Death & Robots, with classic voice actors like Nolan North as well as familiar Hollywood stars such as Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace. One film that really demonstrated the importance of voice acting was Helping Hand. By having an engaging and relatable voice, you really feel a sense of connection with the main character, Alexandria. This combined with the excellent motion capture gets across the emotional strain and turmoil Alexandria is experiencing throughout the course of the film. The suspense and tension is heightened because the voice acting is convincing enough to draw the viewer in, making the whole watch more rewarding.

The majority of the short films that appear in Love, Death & Robots have some particular twist that occurs at the close of the piece. Again, a similarity can be drawn to Black Mirror in that most of the twists are incredibly dark and in some cases very bleak. But a handful of them buck the trend by including a positive outcome following the twist. This is a good way of drawing the viewer in, as after the first couple of films they are expecting a sting in the tail. It creates suspense and by occasionally throwing in a more positive twist makes it harder for the audience to determine what the outcome will be. There is a good balance of content, with both complicated, intricate plots and more basic, straightforward ones. There are extremely dark and freaky features, light fun and amusing ones, and more existential examples.

The longer features tend to be the ones that utilize motion capture CGI, which works for them, as they are more action-packed, and have a deeper focus on the character’s emotional responses and reactions. Lucky 13 and The Secret War are prime examples of this. The shorter films are more about the concepts themselves, the use of humour, and the quirky visual style. Three Robots, When The Yogurt Took Over, and Alternate Histories incorporate these methods and aim to entertain both visually and in terms of their content. The Witness, Beyond The Aquila Rift, and Sonnie’s Edge are films that deliberately leave you with an unsettling feeling throughout by utilizing visceral imagery, freaky characters and creepy situations. Other films such as Suits and Blind Spot are an interesting mix of both heavy and light content. While on the surface they’re fun and entertaining, changes in their situation quickly bring out the sinister side. Many if not all the films also pose bigger, existential questions and even the shortest, light, humour-based inclusions will leave you with something to think about.

Love, Death + Robots will mainly appeal to fans of Miller’s dark sense of humour and Fincher’s bleak style, but there is a good mixture of concepts on offer and different viewers will have particular favourites. The handful that really stood out to me personally were The Witness, Fish Night, Ice Age, Zima Blue and Shape Shifters. For me it was the choice of animation styles, subject matter and the twists included. The cel shading over real actors and locations in The Witness resulted in something at once familiar and alien-looking, and the twist at the end was a stroke of genius. Fish Night had a similar animation style to Borderlands with a 3D animation style that still looks cartoony. The concept took me by surprise and there was a lot of beautiful imagery in the film. The twist was a little predictable but still effective and a very enjoyable watch.

I’ve loved anything to do with size distortion ever since I first saw Honey I Shrunk The Kids – so obviously Ice Age, in which a couple find a miniature society in their freezer, was right up my street. It isn’t the most original of concepts but it is just a visual delight to see the story play out. Zima Blue has a very artistic but also simplistic style, which nicely mirrors the core theme of the film. The end has a rather melancholy twist but it is strangely comforting to see where the main character ends up. Shape Shifters is a really cool idea and that is mainly due to the choice of setting. Taking a supernatural, fantastical topic and dropping it into a war zone in Afghanistan creates an unusual hybrid. A tale about two soldiers in Afghanistan could be interesting but it isn’t entirely original, and the same could be said about the supernatural element. But by bringing these two different worlds together, Shape Shifters creates a perfect mix between realism and fantasy.

All these films achieve what they set out to do. The dark ones were freaky, the funny ones entertaining, and the hybrid ones a nice blend of the two. Although a particular handful stand out, they all left me feeling satisfied and impressed and the variety of content and approaches delivers something different with each entry. This marks their individuality and originality while also not becoming too overwhelmingly intense and dark. Most, if not all, have some elements of darkness but in some instances there is hope and wonder as well. This is important as Love, Death & Robots would become a bit tiresome if all eighteen films had a continually dark and depressing tone throughout the whole anthology.

Verdict
Love, Death + Robots delivers an inspired collection of short animated films that present a combination of intriguing concepts, unusual animation styles and strong voice acting, resulting in an eclectic mix of twisted tales.
9

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