Netflix dropped the eight-episode second volume of the animated anthology show Love, Death & Robots on 14 May. Created by Deadpool director Tim Miller, and co-produced by David Fincher, the first season had been distinguished by its ambition and the sheer variety of animation and narrative styles on display.
Does the second season live up to these expectations? I am afraid not. Only one or perhaps two of these episodes match the high standards set by the best stories of the first season, like Sonnie's Edge, Good Hunting, and The Witness. A couple of others miss the mark narrowly, and the rest are mediocre on the whole, despite the occasional moment of startling imagery. Here, then, is my episode-by-episode ranking of Volume 2.
8. Ice (Episode 2, directed by Robert Valley)
The director of the intriguingly baroque Zima Blue from Season 1 should have done better, I am afraid. Ice is set in a world where just about everybody has been "modified" ie given superpowers. Our protagonist is a rare un-enhanced human, pejoratively referred to as "Extro," trying to fit in with his modified brother and his friends, who are on the trail of a gigantic whale-like creature. The premise itself is tired, to be honest (especially considering the crowded superhero genre right now), and not very well fleshed out. The animation is flat, and does not quite capture the vertiginous thrill associated with 'creature movies.' Ice, then, is the weakest episode in season two for me.
7. Snow in the Desert (Episode 4, directed by Leon Berelle, Dominique Boidin, Remi Kozyra, and Maxime Luere)
Adapted from a story by the British science fiction writer Neal Asher, Snow in the Desert is a disappointingly thin meditation on immortality. The titular Snow is an albino man whose body can regenerate itself rapidly, making him immortal. When he is hunted and on the run, a mysterious warrior named Hirald protects him, and the two strike up a friendship.
Once again, visually there is not much to write home about, the lighting in particular overdoing the black-blue palette. In the absence of unique visuals, the thinness of the plot and its derivative twists become all the more glaring.
6. Pop Squad (Episode 3, directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson)
This story had potential and ambition, but did not quite know what do with its premise " in a world where disease has been eradicated (leading to cellular or biological immortality), overpopulation has led to reproduction being outlawed. Our noir protagonist (veteran voice actor Nolan North) is a government agent tasked, quite simply, with eliminating babies and their outlaw parents.
A la the Christian Bale dystopian movie Equilibrium, the hunter grows to appreciate his prey's humanity, leading to an eminently predictable outcome. An opportunity wasted, in my book, because I quite liked the visuals and the acting with this one. Nelson is the director of the second and third Kung Fu Panda movies, and therefore, we expected more.
5. Life Hutch (Episode 7, directed by Alex Beaty)
The episode with star power: Michael B Jordan plays the protagonist, a wounded fighter pilot whose spaceship has crash-landed after an epic battle with an unnamed, unseen alien force. When he comes aboard a second, damaged ship upon the planet he lands, he must fight an out-of-control maintenance bot that is pretty much killing anything sentient.
There are two reasons why this man vs machine survival story does not make it to my top three " the first is that this same rough premise is done much better, with style and humour, by Automated Customer Service, the first episode of the second season. The second reason is that I am not sure why Jordan was cast here, in what amounts to little more than a silent role. Yes, there is only so much you can do, lines-wise in 10 to 12 minutes of runtime, but there are films in this anthology itself that do much more with even less.
4. The Tall Grass (Episode 5, directed by Simon Otto)
Simon Otto, the head of character animation on the How to Train Your Dragon movies, directs this simple, spare 'creature film,' which ultimately promises more than it delivers. The Tall Grass is the strongest when it combines the visual charm of steampunk pop culture (the action is set on and around a train with a steam engine) with the eye-catching grotesqueness of an Alien. It also, however, feels like the preview to a much more meaningful whole (in fact, I would bet money on Otto making longer animated stories in this universe).
3. All Through the House (Episode 6, directed by Elliott Dear)
What is Santa Claus if not an alien highly skilled at sliding down chimneys undetected"and detecting the goodness of children? All Through the House takes this simple premise, and interprets it with a sense of monstrous glee, exposing its two child protagonists to the whims of a ruthless albeit fair creature.
The story struck a chord with me because it works on several levels. It is a classic nighttime fable for children. But like the best examples of this genre, it is also subtly subversive and questions some of the more totalitarian tendencies of organised religion.
2. Automated Customer Service (Episode 1, directed by Kevin Dan Ver Meiren, David Nicolas, and Laurent Nicolas)
A senior citizen in a battle of wits with a megalomaniacal customer service bot: armed with this delicious premise, Automated Customer Service opens this season of Love, Death and Robots with a sense of delightful whimsy and narrative verve. At times reminiscent of The Mitchells vs the Machines, perhaps the best animation film of 2021 so far, this thrill-ride will keep you laughing along and 100 percent invested in its protagonist's fate until the end.
1. The Drowned Giant (Episode 8, directed by Tim Miller)
No surprises here as series creator Tim Miller is responsible for the best episode of the second season. The Drowned Giant is as immediately arresting (especially visually) as Steven Spielberg's ET or Ted Hughes' The Iron Man, two all-time great stories of the Other. This is the story of a giant's corpse that washes up on the seaside one day, as told by an academic who charts the body's desecration and ultimate decay. The curiosity that the body generates, as well as its eventual humiliations and repatriations, end up becoming nothing less than a treatise on the human condition itself, in the vein of Plastic Bag, the Ramin Bahrani short film where Werner Herzog voices a sentient plastic bag. An all-time animation classic and deserved number one for Love, Death & Robots Volume 2.
Love, Death & Robots Volume 2 is streaming on Netflix.
All images from Netflix