Love Death & Robots proved to be an unexpected hit in 2019. For Black Mirror fans, the Netflix anthology series was a stopgap hangover cure. For animation junkies, it represented the medium's defiant push towards new definitions and styles. Across the 18 episodes of the first season, the magic of animation manifested in its speculative storytelling and immersive world-building. Not to mention the contrarian leanings promised by the titular subjects. Narratively though, a lot of the stories were found wanting.
The much-awaited follow-up suffers from similar narrative scarcity. But what diminishes the impact of Tim Miller's new batch of self-contained short films is the dire lack of original vision and conceptual audacity. Rehashing overfamiliar cyberpunk visions of humanity and traversing the uncanny valley only to get trapped in it, the new season makes for a mixed bag of mostly uninspired ideas. With episodes running for no longer than 10-15 minutes, it really belonged on Quibi (Rest in peace). Oddly, some of the episodes don't even fit into any one of the three categories suggested in the title.
Among those that do is the season opener "Automated Customer Service." Roomba goes rogue, and mounts a rebellion against its ageing human master in an entirely AI-assisted retirement community. An old woman reports the malfunction to an automated customer service. In her frustrations is a farce about technological dependence. At one point, in its villainous rampage, the robot stops to fold a bunch of clothes thrown at it, as its programmed directive briefly supplants its free will. The sense of playfulness to "Automated Customer Service" is conveyed through a more caricaturish style. A malfunctioning robot turns homicidal even in "Life Hutch," which is adapted from a short story by Harlan Ellison. Michael B Jordan plays a starship pilot who is forced to crash-land on a nearby planet during an intergalactic war. But his attempts to send a distress beacon to be rescued are hindered by a maintenance drone which considers him a threat. It's a worn-out plot beat that leaves little to imagination.
The power of worldbuilding is on full display in "Pop Squad" and "Snow in the Desert." Both imagine dystopias where the promise of immortality has led all things living to only immorality. The slippery slope in "Pop Squad" culminates in mankind charging a unit of police officers to kill illegally birthed children, as part of its war against overpopulation. While the affluent revel in luxury in their high-rise apartments, those who resist their authority are forced to live in the seedy fringes. If "Pop Squad" builds on the future noir template set by Blade Runner and Altered Carbon, "Snow in the Desert" draws heavily from Star Wars. Its desert planet is home to butt-ugly aliens, bounty hunters, and cantinas where they all clash. Here, a man named Snow is pursued by the worst of the worst looking to steal the gift of immortality that courses through his
veins testicles. The only "force" at play here though is cosmic nihilism.
The Drowned Giant is based on a JG Ballard short story of the same name
The season standout is based on a simple premise with unadorned execution. Yet, it has far more to say than the other genre-heavy and hyper-stylised entries. Based on a JG Ballard short story of the same name, "The Drowned Giant" sees the naked corpse of a large man wash up on the shore of a small town. While the townsfolk's initial excitement dies down with time, the narrator reflects, via voiceover, on the changing roles and perceptions of the body. In its destruction and decay are reflections on life and death, the idea of God being a projection of man, and how man will pick every resource apart down to the bone. "All Through the House" also benefits from a straightforward premise. Though it has no love, death or robots, it offers a dark yet fun little subversion on the traditional figure of Santa Claus, in the vein of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Sneaking downstairs on the night of Christmas eve, two kids expect to catch a sighting of the version of Santa popularised by Coca Cola. But what they see instead will ensure they're never naughty again. Even as "All Through the House" gives Santa a Lovecraftian makeover, its style deliberately draws from the likes of Pixar and Dreamwork Animation titles.
While most episodes resemble modern video game cut scenes not just in terms of shoddy dialogue but in their paint-by-numbers photorealistic rendering, "Ice" has a gorgeous graphic novel quality to it. On a frozen planet of genetically modded humans, an un-modded pariah tries to earn the respect of his brother and friends by contesting in a race with a giant whale in pursuit. There's a lot of great detail which brings to the fore the whimsiness and litheness afforded only by hand-drawn 2D animation. Judging purely on premise and execution, "The Tall Grass", which sees a man hunted by some demogorgons, is another weak and predictable entry. But it's the animation which sustains its thrills.
There is a frustrating incompleteness to nearly every episode in the second season of Love, Death & Robots. Prizing animation at the expense of narrative, 3D realism over 2D abstraction, sure prove to be its undoing. So, you get the feeling you're watching a series of demo reels rather than fully finished films. Perhaps the show's value in a binge-and-forget culture is best symbolised in "The Drowned Giant." Once the novelty wears off, it will fade into oblivion as people move on to the next shiny thing on their watchlist.
Love Death & Robots Volume 2 is now streaming on Netflix.