Saturday, June 12, 2021

Stupefying Stories Reviews: Love, Death, and Robots

I’ll watch anything if you don’t waste my time • by Pete Wood

I had serious déjà vu with two movies I streamed last week. Triangle (2009) tells the story of five shipwreck survivors who are rescued by a deserted ocean liner. Great premise. They wander around the ship, behaving stupidly, and really bad things happen over and over and over again. I’m not going to rehash the plot or waste your time with a review, but the film had a great hook, a great nugget, until it became repetitive. Encyclopedia Brown or Fred and Velma would have figured out how to get off that damned ship in half an hour. It didn’t take 100 minutes to tell this story. I eventually just fast forwarded through large chunks of the movie to see the resolution.

Same experience with Winchester (2018). Amazing premise. True premise. A premise that hooked me when I was eleven years old to the extent that I convinced my parents to go a hundred miles out of our way on a California vacation so I could tour the real Winchester House. The widow of the founder of the Winchester Rifle Company believed she needed to keep adding onto her house or the spirits of the victims of all those Winchester rifles would—well, she didn’t want to find out what they’d do. A great hook for a Ripley’s Believe it or Not article. Not enough for a two-hour movie, even if you add dimwitted characters and the same jump scares repeated ad nauseum.

What I’m getting at is that not every idea can sustain a movie or, God help us, a miniseries. Netflix seems to specialize in dragging out ideas that might make good Twilight Zone episodes. Behind Her Eyes, Oxygen, and Stowaway were padded beyond belief.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate everything done by Netflix. If you want to watch a good Netflix series, check out Money Heist—the first season only; or the Queen’s Gambit; or the best time travel show ever made, Dark.

Or Love, Death, and Robots. This animated Netflix series will not waste your time.  Almost all of its 26 episodes clock in at around ten minutes or less. Just about any episode has more authentic characters than Oxygen or Stowaway or Winchester or Triangle combined. Like it’s great granddaddy, The Twilight Zone, it realizes you don’t need length to tell a compelling story. Most Twilight Zone episodes sucked you in with plots under 25 minutes. Love, Death, and Robots doesn’t wear out its welcome either.

Pop Squad, for example, might remind you of Bladerunner. In a dystopian future, elite polite officers seek out illegal children. No spoilers here, but the story is haunting and the characters reactions to their plights are logical and believable.

Zima Blue packs in more theology and philosophy into its short running time than most big budget films. You’ll want to rewind this one and watch it again.

In Beyond the Aquila Rift, a ship’s crew awakens from suspended animation in uncharted space. This might be the show’s best episode. Its economical story telling is in sharp contrast to bloated space adventures like Prometheus. And it’s infinitely better than Prometheus.

Look, I don’t have a short attention span. I have no qualms with watching long drawn-out story arcs. I enjoyed all seven seasons of Mad Men, for God’s sake. I just can’t stomach bad story telling. I didn’t fast forward to the ends of Winchester and Triangle, because I lacked patience. I zipped to the ends because the films were wasting my time. I never skipped ahead in Bladerunner or Total Recall or a single episode of Mad Men.

Love, Death, and Robots debuted in 2019 and is the brainchild of animator Tim Miller. Miller directed a couple of episodes and wrote six more. The show is largely a group effort with a rotating gang of directors, writers, and talented voice actors.

Not every episode of the series is a gem. Some have issues, but you won’t squander an evening finding that out. For every bad episode of the show, there are five or six compelling ones. Some are based on stories by the likes of J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison.

Love, Death, and Robots works because it doesn’t milk a premise. So many bad movies have characters behaving implausibly and not asking intelligent questions just so the plot can drag on. Not so with Miller’s series. Characters act like most people would. They don’t go into the basement. They don’t split up so they can be picked off one by one. They ask intelligent questions and have a self-preservation instinct. You know, like real people. They figure things out and don’t waste your time.

And in the process, something magical happens. The characters transcend being in cartoon shorts. They become multi-dimensional and sympathetic. I didn’t give a crap about any of the characters in Triangle or Winchester, but emphasized with every character in Love, Death, and Robots.

That’s good story telling.

—Pete Wood

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Pete Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them


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