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Love, Death & Robots [Season One] (2019)

At a time when super-serialisation is all the rage in fiction, there's something about anthologies that's incredibly appealing. Both for viewers and creators alike, it gives us a break from long-form narratives. This type of storytelling is perfectly suited to streaming, where it doesn't need to fit into the confines of a TV episode or feature film's running time- as Black Mirror can attest.

Love, Death & Robots is an adult animated anthology from creator Tim Miller (director of Deadpool) and executive producer David Fincher.  The first season began streaming on Netflix on March 15, 2019.

The first series consists of 18 animated shorts that range between 6 and 17 minutes in length. There's no obvious connecting theme and the films range wildly both in style and tone. There's a mix of (mostly) 3D CG and 2D animation and they cover a variety of genres sci-fi, horror, fantasy, comedy, thriller and drama. Several of the episodes are adapted from short stories by acclaimed authors including Alisdair Reynolds, John Scalzi and Joe Lansdale.

The promotional material proudly described it as  "a NSFW animated anthology" and emphasised that this was for adults. A lot of the criticism and discussion around the show when it arrived revolved around this side of things. Many have dismissed it as nothing but juvenile nonsense. A boobs and blood obsessed teenage boy's dream. However, write it off and you'll be missing out on something pretty special.

It's true that the series does fall into the trap that most western adult animation tends to fall victim to. In an effort to prove it's "not kids stuff" scripts are packed with gratuitous f-bombs, and there's a ton of violence, gore and a liberal helping of nudity (both male and female) and sex. There's notably very few women among the writers and directors and it shows with female characters that are largely sexualised and/or the archetypal male idea of a "strong female character". Given that, it's hardly surprising that this started life as a movie reboot of the testerone-heavy Heavy Metal, before morphing into its current form.

If you're able to look beyond that though, you'll find some excellent ideas- and some of the most amazing animation ever seen, on the small screen or otherwise.

American adult animation seems to have an almost pathological aversion to appealing visuals. Not here though. Thanks to Miller's background in visual effects (his Blur Studios are responsible for animating several of the shorts) this anthology is packed with some envelope-pushing animation.  Some including Sonnie's Edge, Beyond The Aquila Rift, Helping Hand and Lucky 13 boast incredible photo-realistic visuals. At times, it's hard to believe that you are looking at animation at all. Others like Fish Night and Blind Spot go for more stylised CG, closer to a cel-shaded look. Some, such as Alternate Histories have a more cartoony look. Sucker of Souls and Good Hunting, meanwhile, employ two very different 2D animation styles. Ice Age- Miller's only episode credited as director- even mixes live-action and animation, with a young couple discovering a lost civilisation in their fridge.

Three Robots sees a trio of cybernetic lifeforms wandering a post-apocalyptic cityscape, and trying to piece together how humans used to live- and how they wiped themselves out. The episode- adapted from a John Scalzi story- is very comedic in tone, with the bickering 'bots banter providing plenty of laughs. Although not as much as the twist in the tale which is as unexpected as it is hilarious.

The Emmy-winning The Witness sees a young woman on the run in Hong Kong after witnessing a murder. Taking us on an exhilarating, dizzying chase through a fantastically designed city, it's quite something to see. This short has perhaps the season's most distinctive look, with a visual style that could make it a cousin of Into The Spider-Verse.

Suits -based on a story by Steven Lewisalso stands out from the pack through a very video-game inspired cel-shaded animation style. It creates a fascinating world where a group of farmers defend their homestead and families from alien invaders, using home-made mechs. The contrast of the rural, mundane setting with the sci-fi elements makes for an entertaining mix. And just like the best world-building, it makes you want to spend more time there.

Blind Spot (created and directed by Vitaliy Shushko also feels like it plays out almost like a pilot for something bigger. A gang of cyborg thieves mount a raid on an armoured convoy in a high-speed chase that proves much tougher than they were expecting. The fun character interplay makes it feel almost like an episode in a pretty great kid's cartoon- were it not for all the cussing and violence.

Good Hunting (based on the works of Ken Liu) starts off as a fantasy martial arts horror-fairytale where a shaolin-style warrior fights a shapeshifting wolf spirit. The 2D animation resembles that of Avatar: The Last Airbender, combined with almost Ghibli-calibre backgrounds (which landed the series another Emmy). In its later portion, however, the story takes a completely unexpected swerve into steampunk and body-horror- and the animation begins to incorporate more  3D digital elements in turn.

In the photo-realistic The Secret War a Soviet Army unit takes on an otherworldly threat in Siberia, in a short which is heavy on grizzly horror. It also delivers large-scale battle scenes that are hard to believe it's possible to deliver on a TV budget. The same can be said for Werewolves in Afghanistan short  Shape Shifters.

It's completely understandable that some people may find the anthology's self-conscious edginess to be off-putting. But if you are interested in the advancing of animation as a medium, then you need to see this. On a purely technical level, some of this is mind-blowing.  At the same time, it's great to see western adult animation trying to do something other than trying to make you laugh, for a change.

Anthologies are by their very nature a mixed bag. Some of these work better than others, but fortunately, there's no real stinker here either. Now that the series has established itself, it would be nice if future series ( a second has been ordered) featured a wider variety of voices and didn't feel the need to push the NFSW angle so hard. However, as an opening series, this is a terrifically exciting glimpse into the future of animation.


IN A NUTSHELL:  This is a new high watermark in animation quality, used to tell some compelling tales. But be warned- the sex and violence mean it won't be for everyone