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Film
by Karin Lowachee

Love Death + Some Regression

 

While Netflix's original content can be hit or miss, nobody can fault the service for expanding the borders of what's possible in film production (see Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). The latest idea in their prolific experiment is Love Death + Robots, an animated anthology series of unconnected science fiction stories by various living writers. The pedigree of the project boasts David Fincher (Fight Club, House of Cards) as one of the executive producers, no less, and Tim Miller (Deadpool), proving once again Netflix's draw amongst Hollywood's A List. The future will not be televised, it seems, but instead undeniably streamed.

Fincher and Miller originally teamed up to reboot the 1981 and 2000 animated science fiction anthology Heavy Metal films. When that project fell through, they moved to streaming, which changed the potential viewing experience. Taking a nod from The Twilight Zone and the aforementioned Black Mirror, but pushing the aesthetics even further, each installment of Love Death + Robots presents stories unique in both content and animation, the latter partially due to the multiple international studios responsible for the visuals. There are eighteen episodes in total: sixteen adapted stories and two original. With running times less than twenty minutes, it's possible to watch the entire series in one sitting, though you wouldn't miss any momentum if you logged off between episodes. According to Netflix, there are four variations of which episode pops up first, which begs the question whether someone's viewing experience might vary slightly depending on the order of exposure. As some of the stories are more violent or abstract than others, the order in which the audience accesses the anthology might indeed affect if they continue with it or not. My series began with "Sonnie's Edge," a gruesome monster-battling episode whose visual content contrasted dramatically with just how beautiful the animation itself was rendered; I was hooked.

Regular readers of science fiction might recognize the distinctive voices of John Scalzi and Alastair Reynolds, both of whom contribute multiple stories to the anthology. "Three Robots" from Scalzi and "Zima Blue" from Reynolds are two of the strongest contributions and well illustrate the diverse tonal accomplishment of the series as a whole. As one would expect from Scalzi, "Three Robots" depicts a post-apocalyptic Earth where the titular characters comment with scathing and hilarious accuracy on the nature of human beings and their now defunct civilization. The more familiar you are with the science fiction tropes of AI and robots, the more delightful the short becomes, while some of the imagery manages to be both macabre and comedic. By contrast, Reynolds's exploration of art and humanity and the philosophical analysis of existence showcases distilled dialogue in an elegant internal voice complemented perfectly by an art deco-esque animation style. The backdrop of this tale is the cosmos itself, with the focus on one being's search for his true self. Reynolds's other story also trips the mind but in a different, more horrific way. In "Beyond the Aquila Rift," the author plays on the natural fear and suspicion of our seeming reality, compounded by the inherent mysteriousness of deep space.

Animation seems deftly appropriate for interpreting science fiction tales, offering filmmakers carte blanche on which to paint with the most vibrant and surreal palette. Some of the animation is impressively realistic (Peter F. Hamilton's "Sonnie's Edge;" both Marko Kloos's "Shape-shifters" and "Lucky 13;" David W. Amendola's "The Secret War," and the aforementioned "Beyond the Aquila Rift" in particular) so it's no surprise that these episodes present more viscerally than some of the others. On the other end of the spectrum is the lyrical art in Joe Lansdale's "Fish Night" and Ken Liu's "Good Hunting." The styles ultimately match the stories, which is key for the coherence of the anthology as a whole (there's method behind the art; nothing feels arbitrary), and the different visual interpretations also help prevent the series from becoming monotonous on the eye. You're bound to find at least one depiction that appeals to your aesthetic, even if one story might be weaker than another, and if you don't like a certain style or story at least it's over in about fifteen minutes. This was a wise decision, rather than indulging in hour-long, or even half-hour, stories that might take more sitting commitment. The anthology works precisely because the episodes are fast and dirty, or simply say what they need to before stopping.

Where the stories feel overwrought or in need of trimming in some way isn't necessarily because of length, but in visual content. Too many of the episodes feature women in exploitative situations (often sexual and violent), while the men are pretty uniformly treated violently or for comedy. Perhaps this approach wouldn't stand out so much if it weren't for the modern rise of diverse storytelling, particularly in science fiction; maybe this disparity is because the majority of the stories in Love Death + Robots weren't written by women. What would an episode look like from the minds of N. K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, or C. J. Cherryh? Why not have the majority of the episodes written by women for a change? The material is out there in abundance.

Instead, the pervading feeling is that as progressive as Love Death + Robots wants to be, the curators still have one foot in a regressive idea of what science fiction should look like in order to capture a (male) audience's imagination (or their expectations). However, the audience for science fiction is ever expanding, increasingly progressive, and as global as Netflix itself. Science fiction as a literary form has been built on the idea of subverting expectations; it is inherently a metaphoric literature that exposes the world we live in while also challenging it. If there is a second installment of Love Death + Robots, hopefully the innovation in the storytelling will continue to push the boundaries through more than the originality of the animation. Style and substance, after all, can both exist in the universe Netflix continues to create.

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