When Love, Death & Robots Volume 1 released in 2019, it drew from an existing, cultish stream of adult animation that has its origin in the 1980s sci-fi magazine Heavy Metal—a mix of dark and sexy not just in terms of themes and storylines but also its graphic, striking visual style. Bit-sized treats for those with a taste for all that lies in the intersection of sci-fi, horror and speculative fiction, even though it featured 18 episodes, I remember finishing it in one go on a very stoned night. Created by Tim Miller, with David Fincher as one of its executive producers, Volume 2 has less than half its number of episodes–eight. But the core remains the same: R-Rated material exploring larger themes of alienation, and consumerist excesses, and human folly, with an imagination that is too ambitious for live action but perfect for animation.
Here are the episodes of Volume 2, ranked.
Pushing the limits of what we normally perceive as animation, some of the episodes of Volume 2 are CGI driven stories featuring real actors, like this survival thriller set in space where Michael B Jordan is under attack from malfunctioning and malevolent robots. But by the time Life Hutch arrives, seventh in sequence, you've seen a fair amount of Man versus Bad Robot scenarios. A visual fatigue set in. It's beautiful to look at—like all shorts in the anthology—but seems more of the same. The central action lacks the surprise and you keep waiting for something to happen, exposing the limitations of such shorts which have to, both, fall under the same umbrella genre and clock below 10 minutes.
Christmas and horror go as far back as Dickens but this twisty little stop motion animation Christmas special has a set-up that's mined straight from the movies: The kids, (presumably) home alone, tip toe out of their bed to catch a glimpse of Santa. They are in for a surprise. The shortest of the anthology, running under 5 minutes, its progressive messaging makes you think of the works of Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro.
Snow stands out in the desert and so does the titular character–a fugitive with a joke of a prize on his…testicles, which contain the secrets of superman healing powers that everybody is after. The steampunk world-building features a local tavern that recalls Star Wars–with its freak bounty hunters and criminals–and a harsh desert landscape with its own modes of adaptation. The obvious action sequence is the blandest. Far more evocative are the vistas of Snow, with his partner, looking at the sunset from his lonely tower tucked in the crevices of a rocky mountain.
Nolan North, who plays the protagonist in this segment, is a specialist in video game performances. His guilt-ridden face—that lies somewhere in the Uncanny Valley—is the soul of Pop Squad, which renders human characters in CGI. He is a hardened, noirish detective who's on the verge of an existential breakdown in a world that's reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men with a cruel dystopian twist: humans have traded the idea of giving birth to children with the promise of eternal youth. What enlivens the story is the parallel artificial utopia of aqua blue 'rejoo treatments' and the high society parties that pushes our protagonist to the edges of self-realisation.
Punkish, bold, 2D animation set in a night of hedonistic teen daredevilry of spectacular proportions featuring frost whales and racing against cracking ice beds. It's a successful example of the uniqueness of form in this type of snacky anthologised storytelling, which is centred on an elaborately staged action sequence, rather than a story as we know it. And what the hell, it works!
The first ever episode of Love Death Robots–titled Three Robots–was a cheeky, self-aware sci-fi comedy that made fun of the visual boredom of post apocalyptic atmospheres. Automated Customer Service, based on a short story by the same writer John Scalzi, that kicks off Volume 2, has the same nose for satire. It plays like Alien set in sun-dappled American suburbia, but with the high concept of the tech paranoid Black Mirror universe. An advanced vacuum cleaner runs amok and turns against its elderly owner in her gleaming, sanitised abode. Adding to the tension is her pet poodle. As much a critique of American consumerism as a monster movie, with a fitting style in caricature animation.
The classic straightforward horror story is a fine bedtime story, but you wonder how the simplicity would have played in live action. The animation style is a big reason why this particular story works, rendered in painterly strokes, with soft lighting and vividly realised characters–namely an unsuspecting gentleman passenger in Victorian attire who gets on that godforsaken train, and the wizened old attendant who knows the old stories. It's about a steam engine that makes a stop at a desolate countryside between two stations. Could the protagonist's facial resemblance to HP Lovecraft be a coincidence, given the kind of terrifying cosmic horror that's going to unfold?
Simultaneously harking back to the golden age of SF as well as providing a timeless rumination on society, the wondrous final episode is directed by series creator Tim Miller. He exploits the power of the prose in the short story by JG Ballard (Crash, Empire of the Sun) by making the narration the central device. A giant humanoid corpse washes up on the shores of a British small town after a storm, and the townsfolk, like gleeful little people from a reverse Gulliver's Travels, vandalise it, and eventually dismember it, like some sea creature rotting away in the beaches. The narrator–played by the British actor Steven Pacey, also known for his audiobook readings–describes all this with with the eyes of a discoverer and the words of a diarist. Miller creates a worthy visual accompaniment in the way he conceives the giant, taking a cue from the ideal man from classical sculptures. As melancholy as a Cohen song, the film ends on a note that goes beyond the wide blue yonder.