Netflix's 'Love, Death, & Robots' Offers Gorgeous & Gross Bite-Sized Glimpses of the Future
In 1981, director Gerald Potterton, producers Ivan Reitman and Leonard Mogel, along with a murderers' row of animators and voice actors, came together to make the adult animation anthology sci-fi/fantasy film Heavy Metal. Many of the short films were based on stories published in Heavy Metal magazine, and animated in various different ways by a number of different studios. It all came together to build a wild and imaginative view of the future, the past, and far-off planets, and swiftly became a cult classic for anyone interested in the art of animation, the art of creating fantastical worlds, and the art of, uhh, alien sex.
Because Heavy Metal and its 2000 sequel are considered "adult animation," they're allowed to put in things like boobs and blood and guns -- and plenty of it. In one memorable sequence from Heavy Metal's segment "Taarna," a mute warrior woman dressed in what's basically bondage gear arrives on the back of a giant bird and brawls with a bevy of barbarian soldiers, slicing their heads off with a swing of her sword. In another, from "So Beautiful and So Dangerous," a buxom Pentagon stenographer is abducted by a starship and convinced to have sex with a robot.
It's the kind of thing that, needless to say, wouldn't really fit in with the current social climate -- by all accounts a good thing in this day and age. Nevertheless, a Heavy Metal soft reboot of sorts -- originally planned as a straight-up sequel as far back as 2008 -- has found its way onto the nation's most popular streaming platform: Love, Death, & Robots, produced by David Fincher and Deadpool director Tim Miller, is an adult animation anthology that showcases some of the most fun, inventive, and breathtaking storytelling in the genre. The series, made up of 18 shorts each less than 20 minutes long, spans the past, the future, and the present, taking us from feudal Russia to the depths of space to a futuristic steampunk version of China in the span of an hour.
In "Sonnie's Edge," the first entry (depending on which order Netflix offers the episodes to you), a rough-edged woman is the leader of a monster gladiator team, patching her brain into the mind of their giant lizardlike beast to violently fight equally giant opponents in a huge, bloodthirsty ring. "Three Robots" introduces a trio of mechanical beings touring through a dusty, empty city on long-dead Earth. A woman watches a man kill what looks like another version of herself, and pursues him through the city to find out why in "The Witness." In "Good Hunting," a beautiful Chinese fox spirit befriends a man with a passion for animatronics. In "Fish Night," two salesmen driving across the desert get front-row seats to a ghostly ballet of long-extinct sea creatures.
What's great about each of these stories is that there really isn't a weak link in the bunch. The less compelling tales -- a humorous short about sentient yogurt taking over the planet, for example -- would play just fine if they weren't stacked up against some true masterpieces. Their length is their strongest attribute: No matter how much I long for something like "Sonnie's Edge" to make it to the silver screen as a feature-length film, I know that it just wouldn't be as freaky, as visceral, as it is in its current state. The best of these shorts are like expertly-crafted jokes or a campfire story you might hear on a distant planet. They draw you in to a fantastical story or situation and then whip out the punchline right in the last few seconds. The formula never disappoints. I won't spoil my favorite one, but it happens right before the credits roll at the end of "Suits."
Others, like the gorgeous, nearly operatic "Zima Blue," take time to luxuriate in their setting and their characters before revealing what's really going on. In "Shape Shifters," a Marine stationed in Afghanistan who happens to also be a werewolf is tasked with hunting down his own kind on the enemy side. For all their broadly thematic similarities -- apocalypse, mystery, etc. -- each story is still vastly different, and, given how short they are, it's easy to binge half the season before even realizing it.
The animation styles vary from episode to episode, too, some going for hand-drawn or rotoscope, while others opt for a realist style that's more like a video game cutscene. The series is mainly populated by well-established voice actors like John DiMaggio (Bender on Futurama) and Nolan North (Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series), but occasionally notable actors like Chris Parnell and Gary Cole will make an appearance. Orange Is the New Black's Samira Wiley, shot through motion-capture, is immediately recognizable in "Lucky 13." In the only live-action appearance of the season, Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead star in "Ice Age" as a couple whose refrigerator houses a tiny prehistoric civilization.
Fincher is not the only director who's set his sights on sci-fi shorts. Last year, Neill Blomkamp's Oats Studios produced seven sci-fi films all under 30 minutes, some of which star the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Dakota Fanning and build fantastical, sinister universes. Zack Snyder shot an action short on an iPhone, with a score composed by Junkie XL. Watching these are easy and fun -- again, precisely because they're short. They don't require the brain strain that an overstuffed Avengers movie or an intricate drama like Battlestar Galactica do. They allow us to consume possible futures in bite-sized pieces, ready for us to rewatch our favorites whenever we want.