‘Love, Death & Robots’ Review: An Improved Season 2 Widens the Netflix Anthology’s Universe, but Not By Much
“Love, Death & Robots” doesn’t make a terrible amount of sense as a title. For one thing, it’s repetitive: part of the inherent appeal of fictional robots is that they feast on our uncomfortable relationship with death. We’re usually either afraid of robots that could possibly kill us or attracted by the implication of a robot incapable of dying. And that’s all even before addressing the idea that love is an emotion tied to caring about someone so much that you’re afraid to live without them.
So where does that leave Netflix’s anthology collection of animated shorts, each ostensibly drawing on at least one of that trio? “Love, Death & Robots,” debuting an eight-episode Season 2 over two years after its first, continues to be a vague, mystifying catch-all. Heralded around its premiere as reflecting the sensibilities of its two high-profile executive producers — David Fincher and “Deadpool” director Tim Miller — most of the original 2019 batch hewed toward the kind of “adult animation” that really wants you to be conscious of both parts of that descriptor.
So throughout the first 18 episodes of “Love, Death & Robots” — largely overseen by Miller with a handful produced by his Blur Studios — there are plenty of times where someone shows a little extra skin, takes an extra kill shot, lets the blood splatter a little closer to the frame. As IndieWire’s Ben Travers wrote in his review at the time, much of Season 1 boils down to a different set of three ideas: “masculine, violent, darkness.”
Thankfully, Season 2 tamps down a lot of the impulse that in the first group of episodes had many an animated woman do things like pour a bunch of champagne over her naked breasts for no discernible reason. (Though as a treat for those who are missing that vibe, one of the opening credits icons for one episode features an upside-down heart with nipples.)
With Jennifer Yuh Nelson — director of the second and third “Kung Fu Panda” movies — taking over as Season 2’s Supervising Director, there’s a slight widening of the show’s scope, even with 10 fewer shorts to consider and a bit of the show’s earlier DNA still intact. Some of that comes from reintroducing past contributors who managed to break out of the show’s constricting atmosphere before. Robert Valley’s “Zima Blue” was a Season 1 highlight, swimming in the existential nature of artificial consciousness rather than chaining it to a bazooka. His follow-up effort, “Ice,” is a little more of a visual showcase, but even those without a close eye on the credits list should be able to track the creative connections between the two shorts.
The first season of “Love, Death and Robots” notably jumbled its episode order, as part of what was eventually confirmed as a massive platform-wide A/B test. However these chapters are presented this time around, if your menu serves you “Life Hutch” and “The Drowned Giant” last, it’s finishing the season strong.
The former, directed by Alex Beaty and based on a Harlan Ellison story, is a claustrophobic, largely wordless story involving a crash-landed space pilot (played by Michael B. Jordan) and, well, a robot. Following a template set out by Season 1’s “Lucky 13,” “Life Hutch” finds plenty of creative value in taking the season’s biggest on-screen star and sending them to an inhospitable far-off sci-fi habitat. Without any lines of dialogue to work with, Jordan and the animation team bring a level of physicality to the short that few others of its mo-cap peers are able to shepherd.
And then Season 2 culminates with something completely different. Miller turns in a skillful adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s classic “The Drowned Giant,” one marked by a shocking level of calmness given the 25 chapters that precede it. Meditative and quiet in all the ways that so many other “Love, Death & Robots” segments are not, there’s a certain kind of freedom that “The Drowned Giant” finds in watching a seaside community respond to the sudden appearance of a football field-sized corpse washing up on the shore. There’s no formal trickery, no last-second twist. It technically falls into the second category of the show’s title, but not in the confrontational, violent way that the rest of these two seasons do.
It’s an antidote of sorts to some of the pitfalls of Nelson’s own high-concept “Pop Squad” and the windswept-landscape “Snow in the Desert.” Both are gorgeous in the almost-tactile nature of their dystopian worlds, beset by the darker sides of escaping mortality. One tells of a society riddled with extreme wealth inequality and the systematic extermination of children, another paints a tale of a man sought after for the value of his physical abilities. Yet, for all its vivid imagination, each are locked into a narrative idea that death comes exclusively at the wrong end of a sharp or loaded weapon. On its own, that can be potent. As part of a series-long pattern hammered home by so many of these shorts, season after season, the overall power of how the show sees its own title gets blunted over time.
“Love, Death & Robots”
The show isn’t made inherently better by the smaller episode order, but from a curation standpoint, Season 2 has weeded out more of the chapters that offer little besides an aesthetic. The least satisfying episodes of “Love, Death & Robots” are transparent technical exercises, designed around proving that something can exist on screen rather than proving that it should. In Season 2, most of these shorts at least have an idea that they’re wrestling with, even if the execution of the animation itself is more successful than the performances and characters that make up part of it.
More isn’t necessarily better in the world of “Love, Death & Robots,” though some of these shorts continue to be breathtaking in their amount of detail. Sparseness or simplicity don’t guarantee quality, either. “Life Hutch” and the early-season “Automated Customer Service” have roughly the same plot mechanic, but the latter is trapped in an ineffectual midpoint between farce and genuine danger. The best part of the Joe Lansdale adaptation “The Tall Grass” (aside from offering a distinct visual style) is when it evokes the same feeling of panicked helplessness that last season’s “Helping Hand” crafted in the vast vacuum of space.
“All Through the House” might be the most curious entry of Season 2. It’s a Christmas-themed story that, without divulging too much, is the most tangential “Love, Death & Robots” entry. Like last season’s “Beyond the Aquila Rift” — source of the aforementioned creative use of sparkling wine and directed by the team that returns for “Snow in the Desert” — most of its value is contained in its parting, unsettling visual idea. (And of course, in the case of “All Through the House,” it’s an idea preceded by the season’s most obvious nod to the film work of the show’s most famous executive producer.)
The show remains an anthology, but look hard enough and you’ll see at least one hint that these shorts might not be occupying wholly distinct universes after all. Then again, that idea is dangled in a way just casual enough to be a possible afterthought. Whether a production in-joke or a signal that any future additions to the collections could become more interconnected, it’s one last signal that “Love, Death & Robots” usually ends up trying to explode its cake and eat it too.
“Love, Death & Robots” Season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.
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