The first thing that needs to be said about Love, Death + Robots is that there is nothing like it on TV. An animated anthology that retains something of its underground comics roots, the show can be described as a wayward cousin of Black Mirror, joined at the hip by a caustic, dystopian view, but nerdier. Its commitment to the ethos of the kind of speculative fiction it takes from has remained consistent over the first two seasons and the new one is no exception. The first episode is a callback to the season one opener. The three robots are back, taking us on a guided tour through a post-apocalyptic earth, providing cheeky commentary on the human follies that have led to it. Turns out Elon Musk didn’t survive either, and cats are much cooler than tech billionaires. Either way, the joke is on humans, and it’s one of ‘cosmic’ proportions.
Horror fans worth their salt will know what that word means in the context of the genre. In episode 2 (“Bad Travelling”) David Fincher taps into a very Lovecraftian brand of dread with a maritime tale that works at multiple levels: a sea monster with unspeakable features takes hostage a bunch of whalers and lurks in the basement of the ship, while politics of survival are played above; it brings out the worst in the protagonist – worse than the monster itself.
Love, Death + Robots changes gears with every episode, but a majority of them are variations on survival scenarios. In episode 3 (“The Very Pulse of the Machine”) the protagonist crashes a rover in an inhospitable planet, that kills her colleague by accident, and on her futile walk against all adversities, she gets high on morphine. The mind expanding effect of drugs, coupled with the idea that the mind, with a little help from machine, can outlive a perishing body, ends the segment on a mysterious note while imbuing it with a profound sadness. Like the best science fiction, the show teases us with concepts that open up new possibilities.
Yet it never loses its sense of fun. The fourth one (“Night of the Mini Dead”) casts something we have seen a hundred times in a new light with inventive deployment of the medium’s tools: a zombie outbreak in miniature stop motion animation shown aerially. The episode begins with a night of wild sex in a cemetery and ends with a fart, a reminder that it doesn’t loose its somewhat sick sense of humour either. (It might be relevant that Tim Miller, the co-creator of the show along with Fincher, also made Deadpool).
In more than one segment, the implication is how ignorant man is of the vast unknown, how small he is in the larger scheme of things. In no other episode is this better portrayed than in the sixth one (“Swarm”), in which a scientist’s overreach disturbs an advanced, alien race – it’s a cautionary tale. With its hive-mind, presided over by a Queen, and a utopian ecosystem of super foods, this one lies somewhere between Alien and Avatar.
Despite its assortment like offerings, a couple of episodes, with similar premises, make you wonder if the show has stretched itself. It’s glued together by thematic unity and a worldview that propagates coexistence and empathy. Consider the emotionally satisfying “Mason’s Rats”, in which a rats’s armed uprising in rural Americana is first treated as a pest problem in need of next-level pest control. But the rats’ resilience and resourcefulness moves the old farmhand, who has the good sense to identify the real evil in the exterminating killing machine that he had employed.
As in “Mason’s Rats”, we see in other episodes a kind of steampunk aesthetic, or a fusion of tech and something organic, which the wonderfully synthetic rendering of nearly lifelike humans is often in tandem with. Almost as if to serve as a reminder that animation can be sublime cinema, Love, Death + Robots in the wordless final episode (“Jibaro”) becomes a sensuous dance of audio and visual, a form built into the premise: an enigmatic siren with a fatal call seduces a deaf knight. The conception of the siren is a piece of work in itself, as though a met gala goddess, with eyelashes resembling those of a Kuchipudi performer, was born in a jungle pond. I will say no more.