Monday 24 June 2019

Love, Death and Robots: Volume 1

Love, Death and Robots is a series of short animated films, mostly based on short fiction published by established science fiction and fantasy authors, and marks a collaboration between Netflix, David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) and Tim Miller (Deadpool). There are eighteen short films in total, marking the first time that SF stalwarts Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and John Scalzi have seen their work adapted for the screen.

Sonnie's Edge, based on a Hamilton short story from his Night's Dawn universe (and available in A Second Chance at Eden), is a hyper-violent thriller set in late 21st Century London. It depicts a battle to the death between two genetically-engineered monsters, controlled by human "operators" via the affinity gene (which plays a much larger role in the novels). It's a short, simple story with a killer twist that survives the translation to the screen, although the visceral nature of the violence is quite startling.

Three Robots, based on a Scalzi short, is arguably one of the best films in the collection, and easily the funniest. Three robots land on a post-apocalyptic Earth to take a tour guide of the ruins of human civilisation. There's plenty of paths and comedy, along with an amusing ending. It makes the other two Scalzi offerings, When the Yogurt Took Over and Alternate Histories, feel amusing but slight, short and inoffensive in comparison.

The Witness, written and directed by Alberto Mieglo (one of the visual consultants on Into the Spider-Verse), is one of only two originals in the collection and it is comfortably the worst of the stories by quite a margin. The SF nature of the story is only implied and otherwise the episode is an excuse for an extended chase sequence through some very sleazy locations for no readily apparent reason. The animation style is quite breathtaking, but that doesn't help the short survive when it is in the service of a story this thin.

The other original story for the series, Blindspot (by Vitaliy Shushko), is fun with some good character interplay, but it also ends up feeling a bit underdeveloped. It might have been better to have given these two slots to other modern SF authors to adapt more stories (I could see one of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha short stories being exceptional in this kind of adaptation, for example).

Suits, based on a Steven Lewis short, is another of the strongest films in the series. The story feels like it takes inspiration from the original StarCraft, with hard-working homesteaders defending their crops from a rapacious alien horde with some impressive battlemech suits. There's some deft characterisation and some great action sequences in this story, although the "twist" ending is a little rudimentary by SF standards.

Beyond the Aquila Rift is the first Alastair Reynolds story to make it to the screen, and they chose a good one. A starship drifts off course due to a warp jump mishap and arrives at a remote space station, with remote chances of rescue or escape. The captain tries to adjust to life, especially after an immense coincidence means he knows one of the people on the station. A brooding sense of mystery ends in outright existential horror. This would be one of the strongest stories in the series, if it weren't for a number of totally superfluous sex scenes which eat up the screen time to no dramatic benefit. The other Reynolds short, Zima Blue, is also very good, but suffers a little dramatically from being a story that's more told than shown.

Ken Liu's Good Hunting, a sort-of cybernetic fairy tale set in a chronologically ambiguous Hong Kong, is another one of the strongest stories in the batch, a fever dream melding fantasy, technology and romance.

The Dump, by Joe Lansdale, is impressively animated but otherwise feels a little pointless. His other story, Fish Night, is more obtuse from a plot perspective, but it is visually beautiful and amusing.

Another three strong stories in the series follow military personnel: Marko Kloos's Shape-Shifters is about werewolves openly serving in the US Army in Afghanistan; Lucky 13 (also by Kloos) is a terrific story about the bond between a pilot and her dropship (there's a distinct Aliens colonial marines vibe to this story which is cool); and David Amendola's Secret War is a terrific story about Soviet soldiers who uncover a horrifying secret in the Siberian wilderness. All three stories are a little bit "video game cut scene CGI," but the character work and action in all three stories is remarkable.

Ice Age, based on a Michael Swanwick short story, is the only one of the set to use a live-action framing device. A young couple, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace, discover than a entire civilisation exists inside their freezer in a time-accelerated state and became witnesses to the civilisation's rise and fall over time. It's a fun story.

Sucker of Souls by Kirsten Cross is an enjoyable but fairly standard horror story. Helping Hand, by Claudine Griggs, is a much stronger, hard SF story. Feeling a bit like an addendum to the movie Gravity, it features a maintenance worker who gets into trouble in Earth orbit, and is a terrific slice of classic, old-skool short SF.

Overall, the series is successful in that it brings some genuinely innovative and interesting SF ideas, crafted by some of the strongest writers the genre has at its disposal, and gets them on screen with arresting and often breathtaking visuals. Some of the stories don't work - The Witness is particularly pointless - and one might wish for a broader range of authors (do we really need three Scalzi stories?) but for the most part, the first season of Love, Death and Robots (****) is a success. A second season has been commissioned.

1 comment:

LeftHanded Matt said...

I have to agree with just how horrible and tacky/pervy The Witness was.