Remember Heavy Metal, the 1981 animated movie based on the French magazine Métal Hurlant? That feature-length hodgepodge of stories about stoner aliens, voluptuous androids, horny space travelers, dragon-riding heroines in dominatrix gear and other interstellar-overdriven pulp touches? “A step beyond science fiction” was the tagline; a 13-year-old boy peering at intricate drawings of rayguns and boobies with a flashlight under the sheets was the vibe. For a generation of geeks, this was solid gold. Fast forward to right now — past the years of Spike & Mike’s Twisted Animation festivals and MTV’s Liquid Television, the endless rewatchings of Akira and the rise of Adult Swim — and you can find outré toons a few keyboard clicks away. But perhaps you have a certain animation itch that needs to be scratched, and only a topless cyborg who can turn into a mecha-fox hellbent on vengeance will do the trick. Maybe Netflix knows this. Maybe they even have just the thing to scratch said itch.
Executive-produced by David Fincher and Deadpool director Tim Miller, Love, Death & Robots is the streaming service’s attempt to colonize a hard sci-fi/NSFW animation niche that’s been left dormant. In the spirit of truth in advertising, they could have named it Sex, Violence & Future-Shocked Irony and the effect would have been the same. Over 18 episodes, some as long as 17 minutes and others as brief as six, some based on short stories and others from original ideas, this anthology show runs the gamut of styles, storytelling modes and science-fiction tropes. But the overall goal seems to be to give the post-millennial generation a Heavy Metal to call their own. In that sense, you can say the show accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. As for every other marker of success, who knows? Like any grab bag, what you get varies from chapter to chapter, nanosecond to nanosecond.
In fact, the worst installments feel like the show is simply hitting every lowest common denominator for the Comic-Con demographic and turning the volume up to 11. Both “Sonnie’s Edge,” about psychics who engage in Lovecraft-monster cockfights, and “The Witness,” about a belle du jour running from a homicidal perv, look and play like toxic cut scenes from old PlayStation games. (The latter in particular feels like it’s merely getting high on its own hentai fumes.) A few, like “The Dump,” takes a single-joke premise, stretch it to the breaking point and then keep beating things into the ground for another five to 10 minutes. Others are content to excise any sort of context and just cut to the chase — literally in the case of “Blindspot,” a rock ’em sock ’em set piece involving a heist that neglects to exceptionally rock or sock anything. Ditto “Sucker of Souls,” which unfairly assumes that a Johnny Quest-like cartoon involving guts, gore, vampires and profanity is enough to sustain the interest of anyone above middle-school age. These are the moments that you feel like you’re stuck watching someone’s highlight clip reel instead of the real thing. At least they’re not that long, despite feeling interminable.
Those are the low points. And while many of the entries here fall into an inter-zone of “meh, OK then” mediocrity, there are a handful of highlights as well. “Fish Night,” based on a story by the great Texas crime-fiction novelist Joe R. Lansdale, starts with two salesmen stuck in the middle of nowhere and gets gorgeously hallucinogenic when everything transforms into an aquamarine ghost town. (Like any ocean, of course, there are predators and there are prey.) You can skip British sci-fi writer Alastair Reynolds’ first contribution, “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” unless you’re truly jonesing for animated softcore porn, but don’t sleep on his second short: “Zima Blue,” an oddity about a reclusive artist that looks like a Roger Dean album cover come to life. “Suits” is a hillbilly take on Starship Troopers — mecha-armored farmers vs. big ol’ alien bugs — that somehow manages to evoke a summer blockbuster in miniature yet doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Then there’s the one-two punch of the class clowns of the bunch, “When the Yogurt Took Over” and “Alternate Histories.” The former turns a story by Hugo-winning author John Scalzi about sentient dairy products lapping us humans in intellectual capacity — they’re willing to solve all of our economic woes in six months, they just want the state of Ohio — into a brisk, bleak metaphor about the crumbling of a sociopolitical foundation. The latter is a first-season MVP that introduces a mock educational tool running through alt-universe scenarios; in this case, it’s six different timelines involving Hitler’s death, ranging from “killed by runaway horse-drawn wagon filled with bratwurst” to “killed by marathon fornication.” No matter what the scenario, however, WWI still happens, Europe and America are still mired in turmoil and someone — Neil Armstrong, Vladimir Putin, a Viennese prostitute, a squid — lands on the moon. Both are under eight minutes. Both land beautifully.
We’re not suggesting that the shorter, sillier installments are stronger than the longer, serious ones (and “Histories” is just as mature-audiences filthy as anything else here). But there’s a sharp, focused edge to these two in particular that suggest how, with a bit more tightening and trimming, Love, Death & Robots can tweak the hit-to-miss factor in their favor. Consistency is not a priority compared to variety, clearly. Still, if Netflix wants to aim higher than just Heavy Metal: The Next Generation and do something a little closer to a certain British anthology series they are also running — the one that has a remarkably similar opening credits sequence to LD&R — they will need to sacrifice quantity in favor of quality. Instead of 18 episodes covering the demented-to-dystopic waterfront, boil it down to your top 10. Until then, the show isn’t going to be fit to hold Black Mirror‘s beer.