Netflix’s strategy in regards to their original content might be summed up as “Eh, you’ll still watch it.” Whether the content is good (Roma, Okja) or bad (The Cloverfield Paradox, Mute, Tau, How it Ends, Altered Carbon, Hemlock Grove, Stranger Things…) makes little difference, since they own the content forever and someone at some time will be clicking on it and sending back juicy data. The ethos of the rival giants of streaming TV: quantity control beats quality control. And so much of the worst quality “content” (and there’s maybe the root of the problem) is science fiction. This is what happens when shows or films obey the letter of the genre and not the spirit, a trap eagerly leapt into by new animated anthology Love, Death & Robots.
The “letter,” the look and feel, the show aspires to, notwithstanding its carnival of animation styles, is that of Heavy Metal magazine and the subsequent anthology film of the same name from 1981. The original plan of co-creators David Fincher and Tim Miller—to redo the Heavy Metal film from their adolescence—faltered a decade ago till Netflix stepped into the funding breach. Like Heavy Metal before it, and with episodes based on stories by Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, John Scalzi and others from the gunmetal end of the spectrum, the show is SFF of the war, bombs, and guts variety but given a digital gloss (Light Metal?). Most of the episodes feature death, a few love, but not all robots (e.g. the episode “Secret War” follows Hellboy: Wake the Devil and Raiders of the Lost Ark in being a supernatural WWII story). Instead, the show has gone for the pan-fantastical aesthetic of a comic book store.
But the aesthetic of Heavy Metal that Love, Death & Robots aspires to most is the magazine’s “adult” content; Miller is the director of Deadpool, the superhero who swears. Within the first minute of the episode “Sucker of Souls,” a monster has sliced a boy in half vertically. The episode “Blind Spot” combines the toy-action of a Saturday morning cartoon and the look of Biker Mice From Mars with jokes about dildos. The pitch for “Beyond the Aquila Rift” may as well have been “porno Solaris”: its romance between a stranded astronaut and a psychic projection of his former lover will appeal to those who learnt about the facts of life via the play-along sex scenes in Witcher 3. Two episodes even aim at the burgeoning furry market, a six-packed he-wolf and nubile she-fox between them. The show is rated R in the US, and it wears the letter with pride, like a 12-year-old who says “motherfucker” every other word and who’s definitely done it, loads, at camp, you wouldn’t know them. Taken together, this strenuously adult tone is less grimdark than grimdick.
Refreshing, at least, for all the sex and violence to come in the form of animation and not therefore be set in Netflixland, suburbs that could be Peterborough or Scranton, homes with no junk mail or bills, everything out of date but not old-looking, where British kids go to schools without uniforms and with lockers. Love, Death & Robots does look good, with animation styles ranging from anime to the Saga-esque comic book, while somehow being visually boring. The experience is like scrolling through a Tumblr feed.
In some cases, this is because the animators have strained towards the vanishing point of photorealism. “Shapeshifters,” for example, features werewolves recruited by the US army to fight in Afghanistan; an episode whose eastern wails and turbaned villains make it a kind of straight-faced Team America: World Police but with the obvious puppets replaced with photorealistic CGI. Such a decision makes sense, because all human actors are dead and actual shooting locations no longer exist.
With each new breakthrough in photorealism, the border of convincing reality is pushed further away. How spectacular the Final Fantasy movie and Avatar appeared back then, how much like kids’ cartoons they appear now. But in a recent promo video, the company Quixel asked us to behold the power of their new graphics engine Unreal 4. Following the video’s opening jumble of pretentious in-story flim-flam, the voice of one Joe Garth takes over to explain the world-making features of their product. But so long as animators can mimic the world through only two senses, the amount of money and effort put into the mission of VR raises the question—why? because the possibility is there? Aren’t the photorealistic episodes of Love, Death & Robots a category mistake when it comes to the reason for art? Imagine a portrait contest where, among all the smocked painters, a programmer wisely hands in: a photograph?!
The animation studios behind some of the episodes more typically specialise in 3D animated game cinematics—Tim Miller himself worked on Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. So Love, Death & Robots will appeal to anybody who’s wanted a Playstation cut-scene to be a short film, with all the quality voice-acting, characterisation and dialogue that that implies. One of the mech-suited farmers in “Suits,” defending her cattle from “native aliens,” says before she locks and loads her gun, “Lock and load.” This is what stories will be like when told by our post-apocalyptic descendants cobbling together estimations of Michael Bay films from their uranium-addled memories. Copying even the visual tics of live films are episodes like “Lucky 13,” which takes on the noble task of humanising drone warfare, and “The Witness,” a paltry ghost of Ghost in the Shell, both of which have the camera-shakes, visible zooms, lens-flare and lens-splatter of their meatspace counterparts. (Visually boring again.) Whether such efforts come from low self-esteem, nostalgia, or something more automatic than that, they prove one thing. No episode in the anthology had to be animation and nothing else. To think that these film wannabes and pastiches thrive while the lost cartoon classic The Thief and the Cobbler died in development hell!
Even if some episodes aren’t derivative in form and their animation is more unashamedly cartoony that’s not going to stop them from being derivative. Anti-govmint “The Dump” starts promisingly as a campfire monster yarn but climaxes with a heavy doggy nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing; while “Ice Age,” a story about a young couple discovering the perils of renting an apartment that comes fully furnished, asks the bold question: what if “The Genesis Tub” episode from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror swapped Lisa for Topher Grace—but was less funny? “Helping Hand” at least expands on the stranded-in-space plot of Gravity from which it borrows, tries to top its predecessor. Sandra Bullock’s hair never floated in zero-gravity like it should’ve done. So the spacewalking heroine of “Helping Hand” has a crop cut.
Any further attempts at invention, ideas, and not just a look, degenerate into wry sub-Vonnegut social commentary. The post-apocalyptic holiday of the title characters in “Three Robots” concludes in a way that’s triply pandering: Yay Science! plus contempt for stupid extinct humans plus internet-friendly sucking up to cats. This is one of the show’s “funny” episodes; another is “When the Yogurt Took Over,” its self-explanatory idea the kind Douglas Adams might’ve sweated out on deadline day. Or maybe you’d see on infinite cable in Rick and Morty. Narrated by the voice from Futurama’s “The Scary Door,” but lacking either cartoon's commitment to the absurd beyond the twee, the yogurt idea’s not even run into the ground. Ostensibly more thorough is the episode “Alternate Histories,” which cashes out six different timelines in a Hitler-variant universe. The pay-off: gundam Hitler, Hitler encased in jello, Hitler bedding Viennese sex workers, the kind of zany scenarios sure to be loved by forty-five-year-olds who tweet the word “epic.” This is storytelling as the lowest-hanging fruit, as the rotten windfall fruit: too many episodes rely on these corny set-ups, or they rely on voiceover or, in the case of “Zima Blue,” do both: the episode is narrated by a young female journalist off to interview a reclusive, successful, “unexpectedly handsome” male artist.
This is 2019, though, and the creators aren’t so guileless and starry-eyed about their subject matter and source material. They modernise the grungy aesthetic when it comes to the sex, with sexual politics—and in doing so become guilelessly reactionary all over. In “Sonnie’s Edge,” title character Sonnie avenges her rape by engaging in dog-fighting. Sounds less heroic when you put it like that, and is not actually what happens: she’s a mind-melded monster-fighter. Even a late reveal that she is the monster and not its human handler is undermined when you consider the moral weirdness of a story in which previous wrongs are avenged by visiting violence not on those who wronged you, but on a doubly-distanced symbolic other: not sexist men in general, but sexist men’s monster avatars. Episode “Good Hunting” by Strange Horizons alum Ken Liu, a post-colonial fable about Anglo-Sino relations told through steampunk and Chinese fox myths, appears to be a Lisbeth Salander-style avenger story, but in execution is another robosex-friendly piece of borderline hentai, with a Frank Miller fixation on female behinds (in one shot the heroine glances over her bare shoulder as the hero unscrews her butt-panel.)
If only they’d spent some of the animation budget on the writing, or spread the budget around less thinly. At eighteen episodes of an average of twelve minutes long, any glimmer of a good story is snuffed out by that reliable hurrying-you-along Next Episode screen. Raising hopes, the sedate “Fish Night” is about two salesmen whose car breaks down in a desert, which is haunted by the prehistoric ocean it used to be. The start of the haunting is a web of watery light on the sand, followed by a phantasmagoria of psychedelic ghost fish, through which one of the salesmen swims. But here comes the guillotine of the brief episode length, so that “Fish Night” ends before it gets to be a story: a megalodon kills the salesman in a childishly abrupt “then a hell-beast ate them” way.
An excuse made for this kind of episode length, one of the show having to compete in the attention economy, especially among the young, is highly bullshit. Not least when you think about who profits from the resulting content churn. There is time, the problem is you now have more options on which to spend it. Nothing is breaking your attention so much as your own choice. It’s too handy to blame this rush-rush-rush White Rabbit age for your unwillingness to sit still. Or to excuse a show for having eighteen episodes of brief, what-do-you-expect? mediocrity.
Surely, though, out of eighteen there’d be a decent hit-rate? Any hit-rate? 0/18—that bad? There’s no need to order them by quality since none are any good; they repay multiple non-viewings. As the late great Edmond Caldwell warned, there’s something weird in any case about our list lust. Either the Best-to-Worst rankings tend towards Slate Pitch contrarianism or they're topped by the obvious crowd-pleasers. (Besides, Netflix is doing the ordering for you. One Twitter user aired his suspicion that the difference between the episode order on his account and his friend’s was due to Netflix adjusting towards their respective sexualities. Netflix denied they gathered such data, but admitted they had experimented with four different episode orders, distributed “randomly.” Remember: you’re never just watching streaming TV, you’re taking a survey.)
Nevertheless, the usual rota of pop culture dingbats have given Love, Death & Robots enough guarded praise to kick its Metacritic rating into the upper quartile (Calvin: “I got 75% of the answers correct, and in today’s society doing something 75% right is outstanding! If government and industry were 75% competent we’d be ecstatic!”) The question is, what’s David Fincher doing slumming it here? Then again, he was who kicked off Netflix’s reign of original content with House of Cards—freed from the acid humour and cheerful class supremacy of the British original, and into what Jacob Bacharach describes as a mix of kids’ show storylines and the “dour historical realism” of prestige TV.
If Love, Death & Robots is science fiction as identity marker, as brand, as look, rather than ideas, then all of the above misses the point, is my own category mistake. But the grungy and underground can be funny and smart and surprising; the Heavy Metal film had the talents of Dan O’Bannon, the magazine had such genre godfathers as Harlan Ellison and H. R. Giger. Alan Moore’s Future Shocks and much of 2000 AD was funny and smart while at the same time being brief, snappy, adolescent even. (Judge Dredd first appeared in British uber-tabloid The Daily Star.) So a pulpy aesthetic is never an excuse to be mediocre. But neither is the solution an animated show based on some headier SFF magazine, say New Worlds over Heavy Metal. From commissioners to creators, it’d just be nice if, now and then, known quantities were trumped by unknown qualities. How about an original science fiction animated anthology show that could be nothing but an animated anthology show? Must it sound so fantastical?