Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Thoughts about Love, Death & Robots, Season 1

I watched the first season of Love, Death & Robots end to end in a single day recently. Here are some thoughts about it. (I wouldn't call them anything so grandiose as a review.) Spoilers throughout, and, much like the series itself, this is probably NSFW and carries a content warning for sexual violence (discussed but not depicted). For those unfamiliar, I've included capsule summaries of each episodes in italics.

Three Robots
Three robots tour a dead human city, which turns out to have been destroyed when humans gave cats sapience and opposable thumbs.
The three robots' contrasting voices really sell this one - I can see why these characters got a sequel. It's a good season opener, and a strong proof of concept for "anthology series of sci-fi short story adaptations". My main critique is that most of the humour isn't actually funny. I don't mean that as negatively as it probably sounds. The jokes still serve a useful purpose, setting the tone and developing the robots, but they don't induce laughter, which feels like it should count against them.
I'm not sure whether my mystification at how horrified the robots are by the concept of teabagging says more about me or the show.

Beyond the Aquila Rift
A space trucker wakes up from hypersleep to find himself off-course in a far-flung space station, accompanied by an old flame. It all turns out to be an illusion perpetuated by a spider alien that's captured the ship.
There was a Wired piece about LD&R which described one possible watch order for the first season as "an endless parade of stoic supermen and the women who deceive or escape them". This is, to be frank, a baffling assessment of the series as a whole - as far as I can remember, Beyond the Aquila Rift is the only real example of this happening. But I can see why it got this author's goat, because I got pretty tired of it here. I could see the twist from a mile off, but we actually have multiple layers of "it was all a dream!", and it really fails to play after the first.

Ice Age
A couple discovers a minature, accelerated civilization in an old freezer.
This is something I've termed a WIBFUI, or "Wouldn't It Be Fucked Up If" - that is to say, a story where a single outlandish concept is kind of the start and end of it all. WIBFUIs aren't inherently bad but they have to be really compelling to be good, and this one is right on the line. The cutaway to the construction workers making fun of Gail's teeth was a decent one-off gag, but I wanted to see more of that, more perspectives from the freezer's inhabitants; as-is, this feels like an extended tech demo with a loose framing device attached. (I'm told the second season has a lot more episodes like this, which is a prospect I don't love.)
I was really expecting Rob getting a faceful of miniature nuclear bomb to come back in some way.

Sonnie's Edge
A woman pilots a bio-engineered monster in an underground cage match, continuing her undefeated streak. Afterwards, she's seduced by the ringmaster's mistress, who attempts to murder her, but the gladiator's consciousness is actually rooted in her monster following her original body's destruction.
The visuals here are absolutely top-notch - the colour palette is moody and striking, Khanivore and Turboraptor are fantastically designed, and the fight has weight and spectacle, probably the most of any fight in the season. Good voice acting, too, a nice range of scummy Brits (comfort food for a scummy Brit like me). A strong episode.
I was looking forward to this episode, because, unlike any of the others, I've actually read the short story on which it's based (by Peter F. Hamilton, in this case). There's a change I find interesting: in the original, Sonnie's body was destroyed in a car crash and the rape-revenge narrative was completely fabricated, while this version has the rape actually occurring but just not being her "edge". I'm not sure which version I like better.

When the Yogurt Took Over
Yoghurt becomes sapient and starts directing the course of humanity.
A fairly bland AI-risk narrative where it's yoghurt instead of AI, because... I don't know, the idea of sapient yoghurt is funny? Broadly inoffensive, for better and worse. Maybe I was thrown by the animation style; it reminded me a little too much of that cursed GrubHub ad which was briefly the Hated Thing of the Week.

The Secret War
WW2 Russian soldiers hunt demons in Siberia.
A friend of mine mentioned that this episode felt like lore for some sort of strategy game. I would play that game, but I would probably not watch this episode again. Atmospheric (Siberia looks great) but forgettable, ranking smack dab in the middle of the season's three war stories.
I laughed out loud at "Operation Hades". It's so groaningly on-the-nose that it wraps around to being amazing.

Sucker of Souls
A professor and his hired muscle run away from Dracula in some ruins.
I spent longer than this episode's runtime trying to think of things to say about it. It's tonally inconsistent, I guess? I thought it would do something more with the weakness to cats? Okay, one committed observation: I did not need to see that happening to Dracula's balls. I don't know if anyone needed to see that, actually.

The Witness
A woman witnesses the murder of a woman who looks just like her, and is pursued by the killer. She ends up killing him in self-defence, which is, in turn, witnessed by a man who looks just like the man she just killed. Presumably this starts a loop. Whoa! Spooky, right?
This seems to be a standout episode for a lot of critics, but it left me pretty cold. It's clear that the plot isn't the main attraction here - the visuals are. The lead creative is Alberto Mielgo, who was also the art director for Into the Spider-Verse, a film I have not stopped raving about ever since I saw it. But, compared to Spider-Verse, The Witness falls oddly flat. The occasional comic book sound effects feel token and disjointed, and the environment design mistakes cavernous, empty scale for character.
Our lead is a stripper, and, following a scene in a sex club where latex-clad drones caress the murderer, spends the entire second half of the episode with her tits and bush fully out. I actually have a pretty high tolerance for sex and nudity in media, but, even to me, it felt gratuitous here. The story, such as it is, doesn't rely on Zawora being naked or working specifically at a sex club, so I have to assume it's an atmospheric choice, but I don't understand what atmosphere it's trying to convey. It's as though Mielgo understood that cyberpunk is often sexually charged without really understanding why.

Farmers in homemade mech suits defend their homes from alien assault.
This is my favourite episode of the season overall. It's not particularly transgressive or high-concept, just a fun romp about farmers fending off the aliens from Deep Rock Galactic (not actually the same creatures but the resemblance is strong) in some of the best-animated mecha I've seen in a while. There are a couple of wobbles; most notably, there's a weird failure of tension while the three pilots are waiting for an ammo drop, because a) they all have backup weapons and b) the timescales aren't very well established. But it's one blip in an otherwise strong episode that feels more complete than many of the other here. I really enjoy the colourful, slightly choppy animation style - it sets the mood perfectly.
Tumblr user femmenietzsche once said they would watch any movie in which scientists entered a Zone. Between Crazy Mel in this episode and VT in Cowboy Bebop, I think I will consume any media in which there's a large, gnarly blue-collar woman in a Used Future.

Good Hunting
A teenager in China on the brink of industrialisation bonds with the daughter of a shapeshifting spirit his father is trying to kill. Years later, when technology has driven magic from the world and she's been forced into sex work, he builds her a coal-fired shapeshifting robot body to replicate her lost powers, which she uses to kill rapists.
I don't think we as a society need any more stories about technology driving out magic from the world. I haven't read Ken Liu's original short story and it's possible that the motif works better there, but it's a theme I have little real patience for; technological advancement killing something mystical and special in the fabric of reality is a sentiment to which I just can't relate. Good Hunting already makes salient points about how double-edged technology can be; I'd have been happy with that alone.
I'm going to do something I usually try to avoid, and talk about What I Would Have Done Differently. Rework the entire prologue in Liang's teenage years, and cut the supernatural element altogether. We already have coalpunk superscience in the present day; adding spirits into the mix is superfluous, especially when their nature stops mattering for the meat of the story. Yan's a human now, and she and Liang bond in some other way. Maybe Liang's father is still into spirit lore and tells him stories of the Huli jing, and that way the finale is more satisfying, Liang and Yan synthesising their culture with the tools of colonial oppression to suit their own ends, rather than trying to recapture her old form.
Question: if the governor can only get off to machines, why was he ever drawn to Yan in her pre-robotic form?

The Dump
A guy squatting in a dump tells the city inspector trying to evict him the story of how he befriended an amorphous trash monster, which then eats the inspector.
I don't understand the significance of the dog. Did the trash monster start behaving like the dog when it absorbed it? Why is the dog still independently alive when Pearly dies within minutes of absorption? This probably made more sense in the original.
I complained earlier about the nudity in The Witness, but this is the episode in which the euphemistic "Love" in Love, Death & Robots feels the most shoehorned. They're shooting for comic raunchiness this time rather than sensuality, but it's more distracting than funny. Look, the gross guy has his dick out. Look, the other gross guy has a sex doll. Har har?

Werewolf marines in Afghanistan fight werewolf terrorists.
A real stinker. The premise of werewolves being discriminated against is already quite hard to take seriously. One of the Taliban werewolves (what a conjunction of words) tears through an entire camp of soldiers on his own - I can't imagine beings with that kind of destructive potential, like their American counterparts, being treated with such sneering disdain by baseline humans. Cringing, resentful respect, maybe, but not open insults, surely.
Technically, some events occur in this episode. Werewolf friend killed, werewolf sad. Werewolf tracks terrorist werewolf, except two terrorist werewolves?! Wins anyway, good job, but sad because human not respect werewolf, for some reason. It doesn't even look good; it looks like Call of Duty campaigns will probably look in five years or so, but with worse lighting. Hard pass. Not my least favourite episode, though.

Fish Night
Some travelling salesmen break down in the desert. They try to sleep in the car, but wake up to a ghostly prehistoric ocean surrounding them. One of them swims up into the ocean, becoming a ghost, and gets eaten by a ghost shark.
This is my least favourite episode. An especially abrupt and ill-defined WIBFUI, further hamstrung by shaky dialogue and a weird art style with distractingly hard lines (kind of like Borderlands, if Borderlands was about two boring men having an acid trip in a desert). I can't tell if it's not saying anything or if I'm too dense to understand what it's saying, and I don't like either option.

Helping Hand
An astronaut gets knocked adrift by space debris, and has to get to safety by ripping off her own arm.
It's a very abridged 127 Hours in space, and it's pretty good. Critics say it has very good sound editing, which is fair praise. That's really not how microgravity manoeuvres work, though; I wouldn't raise this if the episode wasn't shooting decidedly for hard sci-fi.
I would have liked to see a more out-there animation style for this one, actually. Something that really plays up the vast apathetic vacuum of space and capitalism.

Alternate Histories
A montage of six possible alternate history timelines, diverging around Hitler dying in 1908 in various outlandish ways.
Probably the closest the season comes to straight-up comedy, and it generally hits. Two actual laughs: one eye-rolling chuckle at "Vladimir Putin, first real man on the Moon", and one mortified cackle at the four sex workers' legs forming a swastika around the dying Hitler. The animation is absolutely perfect, like an extremely cursed Kurzgesagt; in fact, the episode as a whole feels oddly Youtube-y, the kind of earnest, high-effort comic short you might find there in the mid-2010s.

Lucky 13
A military pilot adopts a dropship thought to be unlucky, leading it through a series of successful missions before sacrificing it to save her comrades.
Our last and best war story. It has the same grating almost-real animation as the other two, but somehow it didn't bother me as much here - maybe because we're in sci-fi land with energy projectiles and dropships, adding a little colour and flair despite the unimaginative rocks-on-rocks environments.
For most of the episode, I liked the ambiguity around whether Lucky 13 is self-aware. The shots through its internal cameras are a very smart way of building that question in your head. I'm not sure why, but the delayed self-destruct specifically killed the mystery for me - maybe because Lucky 13 hadn't been established as mechanically temperamental, just unlucky, so "it just malfunctioned and Colby got lucky!" didn't feel like a plausible alternative.

Four plucky cyborgs are bad enough dudes to rob a convoy and steal a microchip.
I will admit to a certain vulnerability for media that leans hard and somewhat ironically into 80s attitude. Far Cry: Blood Dragon isn't one of my favourite video games to play, but conceptually it's one of the games for whose existence I'm gladdest. Unsurprising, then, that I enjoyed this. I like that it works as a straight-up example of its genre as well as ribbing it; cut out the gore and the weird innuendo (which felt like it was added when the writer realised he'd forgotten the "Love" in Love, Death & Robots) and I would have eaten this up as a kid.
The twist is weak, though. I share the team's incredulity that Rookie didn't know about the brain backups. I saw it coming, and I don't think this episode needed that kind of twist.

Zima Blue
A journalist interviews a reclusive artist, who is revealed to be an advanced robot originally built as a pool cleaner and upgraded over time. Through his art, he has found the truth of what he wants from existence, and, for his final piece, he deliberately undoes his upgrades and reverts to being a simple pool cleaner.
This is a beautiful little denouement, which makes it strange that it was originally not the last episode - apparently Netflix reordered them at some point and the original finale was The Secret War, which would surely have been a way worse note to end on. I think they made the right call.
The animation is pretty and gets out of its own way; it feels like capital-A Art, where some other episodes (The Witness, Fish Night) feel more like animators flexing tricks they've learned. Zima himself is voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson in probably the standout vocal performance of the season, lending weight and wistful age to a fascinating character. I was surprised to learn that the original short story was from 2005 - somehow it has the air of an older, higher-minded era of sci-fi.

Top 3: Suits, Zima Blue, Sonnie's Edge
Bottom 3: Fish Night, Shape-Shifters, Beyond the Aquila Rift
Anodyne 3 (after Yahtzee Croshaw): Sucker of Souls, When the Yogurt Took Over, The Secret War

Disagree with me violently in the comments.

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