Good ideas wasted are often more infuriating than no idea at all. Such is the case with Tim Miller and David Fincher’s series of animated short films, “Love, Death & Robots,” a project conceived with broad ambition and executed with a maddeningly narrow perspective. Uniting animators from around the world for 18 standalone stories of various self-determined lengths, the Netflix offering intends to be a “global celebration” of the craft, as Miller said during the opening remarks of its SXSW premiere. While there’s a lot to admire in the visuals — each distinct to their episode, with an enticing range of styles on display — the stories themselves are treated like an afterthought, and that colors everything an ugly shade of gray.
Only one-third of the first season was screened in Austin Saturday evening, but the chosen entries shared enough unwanted aspects to dissuade further viewing. For one, all of the shorts (Fincher doesn’t want them called episodes) are hyper-masculine to the point of creepiness; five of the six include shots of a woman’s naked breast. Some of those women were alive, some were dead, and some weren’t women at all, but each instance feels more gratuitous than warranted — and, combined with the violence, gore, and disturbing admiration of both, lends the series a sophomoric quality.
Consider “The Witness.” Its story is very simple: A woman spots her neighbor across the street brutally attacking and killing a woman. She panics, runs, and he follows her. The whole short is a chase, and the ending is expected, but works well enough. What’s in between looks great — little words like “bam!” and “crash!” highlight the pursuit, while lines of objects and buildings shift every so often to hint that all might not be what it seems — but the visual style is tarnished by other choices. This woman is an exotic dancer at a strange club filled with leather-clad dominatrixes and a couch that functions as a stripper pole. When she runs from home, she goes to work, and her manager scolds her into performing even though she’s on the run from a murderer. She then goes through her whole routine before the chase can start over again, and finishes the last half of the episode in an open bathrobe, which waves open to show off her naked body with every step.
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Other episodes toss in naked women in similarly cavalier fashion. Fair enough: This is “Love, Sex & Robots” — isn’t a little risqué material expected with a title like that? But there’s no real love to be found here. Between a random flasher at a protest and two lesbians hooking up as a red herring, Fincher and Miller’s initial shorts treat their characters like objects — which makes sense in that this is all about the animation, but it also endows the whole thing with a gross male gaze problem.
Which brings us to the violence. “Love, Sex & Robots” doesn’t offer a single episode for anyone unable to attend R-rated movies by themselves, and that’s A-OK. The problem lies with what the violence is there to serve. “Sonnie’s Edge” is told with bright neon colors, sharp lines, and beautiful world-building, but it’s about two people who control monsters that fight to the death in a big-money gladiatorial match. Sonnie’s “beastie” is a slick alien with a blade at the end of its long tail and claws dangling from its four legs. She has to fight a rock monster, of sorts, and their brutal smackdown is filled with bloody cuts, jabs, slices, and chops that all could be death blows.
But they’re not. The fight continues until you’re cringing from the sound effects as much as the implicit sexuality of the final blow. That’s not the end of the episode, and when it does wrap up, the arc feels like the start of a good video game instead of the end to a satisfying short. You want to spend a little more time in this world, but only if you get to control the monster instead of Sonnie.
It’s not just fighting that speaks to the video game mentality in play. The wax-figure people populating the “realistic” looking shorts are nowhere near the photorealistic quality of their environments. Their dead, waterless eyes and placid facial features take you out of the story even as the detailed hills and cityscapes create distinct locales. Some directors are smart enough to recognize these flaws and work around them; “The Secret War” has a few cool shots of Russian soldiers caught in the cold, fighting an inhuman force, where their faces are hidden in shadow or the wide shots put the emphasis on stunning mountain vistas. But there are still too many traditional medium close-ups, and a lot of puzzling compositions. When your whole story builds up to a bomb going off, why position the camera from behind a rock on the ground?
Still, there are some high points: “When the Yogurt Took Over” is cute in tone, concept, and style; “Fish Night” uses rotoscoping to stimulating effect; and “Three Robots” earns big points for incorporating cats and avoiding objectification. As a celebration of animation’s potential, the series works to the extent that many of these miniature creations are given maximum viewpoints — rich with textures, details, and savvy techniques, most of the episodes will give you more than a few aesthetics to admire at once.
But the show’s narrow perspective pervades even that sense of wonder. With such unique animators showing off their artistry, it would have been exciting to see more variation in the stories they’re telling through their art. Instead, we get a lot of the same thing: masculine, violent, darkness. And don’t we get enough of that from other shows?
“Love, Death & Robots” Season 1 premieres Friday, March 15 on Netflix.