When Love, Death & Robots Volume 1 released in 2019, it drew from an existing, cultish stream of adult animation that has its origin in the 1980s magazine Heavy Metal—a mix of dark and sexy not just in terms of themes and storylines but also its graphic, striking visual style. Bit-sized treats for those with a taste for all that lies in the intersection of sci-fi, horror and speculative fiction, even though it featured 18 episodes, I remember finishing it in one go on a very stoned night. Created by Tim Miller, with David Fincher as one of its executive producers, Volume 2 has less than half its number of episodes. But the core essence remains the same: R-Rated material exploring larger themes of alienation, and consumerist excesses, and human folly, with an imagination that is too ambitious for live action but perfect for animation.
Here are the 8 episodes of Volume 2 of the anthology series, ranked.
8. Life Hutch
Pushing the limits of what we normally perceive as animation, some of the episodes of Volume 2 are CGI driven stories featuring real actors, like this survival thriller set in space where Michael B Jordan is under attack by malfunctioning and malevolent robots. But by the time Life Hutch arrives, seventh in sequence, you’ve seen a fair amount of man versus bad robot scenarios. A visual fatigue set in. It’s beautiful to look at—like all shorts in the film—but seems more of the same. The central action lacks the surprise and you keep waiting for something to happen, exposing the limitations of the form when you’re dealing with multiple shorts with limited time.
7. All Through the House
Christmas and horror go as far back as Dickens but this nasty little stop motion animation Christmas special has a set-up that’s mined straight from the movies: the kids, (presumably) home alone, tip toe out of their bed to check on what presents Santa has got. They are in for a surprise. The shortest of the anthology, running under 5 minutes, its progressive messaging makes you think of the works of Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro.
6. Snow in the Desert
Snow stands out in the desert, calling attention to itself and so does the titular character, a fugitive with a joke of a prize on his…testicles (which contain the secrets of superhuman healing powers). The steampunk world-building features a local tavern that recalls Star Wars–with its freak bounty hunters and criminals–and a harsh desert landscape with its own modes of adaptation. The obvious action sequence is the blandest. Far more evocative are the vistas of Snow, with his soulmate, looking at the sunset from his lonely tower tucked in the crevices of a rocky mountain.
5. Pop Squad
Nolan North, who plays the protagonist in this segment, is a specialist in video game performances. His face—that lies somewhere in the Uncanny Valley—is the soul of Pop Squad, which renders human characters in CGI. He is a hardened, noirish detective who’s on the verge of an existential breakdown in a world that’s reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men with a cruel dystopian twist: humans have traded giving birth to children with eternal youth. What enlivens the material is the parallel artificial utopia of aqua blue ‘Rejoo treatments’ and the high society parties that pushes our protagonist to the edges of self-realisation.
Punkish, bold, 2D animation set in a night of hedonistic teen daredevilry of spectacular proportions featuring frost whales and racing against cracking ice beds. It’s a successful example of the uniqueness of form in this type of snacky anthologised storytelling, which is centred on an elaborately staged action sequence, rather than a story as we know it. And what the hell, it works!
3. Automated Customer Service
The first ever episode of Love Death Robots–titled Three Robots–was a cheeky, self-aware sci-fi comedy that made fun of the visual boredom of post apocalyptic landscapes. Automated Customer Service, based on a short story by the same writer John Scalzi, that kicks off Volume 2, has the same nose for satire. It plays like Alien set in sun-dappled American suburbia, but with the high concept of the tech paranoid Black Mirror universe. An advanced vacuum cleaner runs amok and turns against its elderly owner in her gleaming sanitised abode. Adding to the tension is her pet poodle. As much a critique of American consumerism as a monster movie, with a fitting style in the caricatured animation.
2. The Tall Grass
The classic straightforward horror story would work fine as a bedtime story, but you wonder how it would have been played in live action. The beauty of the short is the animation style is a big reason why this particular story works, rendered in painterly brush strokes, with soft lighting and vividly realised characters–namely the unsuspecting gentleman passenger in Victorian attire, and the wizened old attendant of this steam engine who knows the old stories. It’s about a steam engine that makes a stop in desolate country between two stations. Could the protagonist’s facial resemblance to HP Lovecraft be a coincidence, given the kind of terrifying cosmic horror that’s going to unfold?
1. The Drowned Giant
Simultaneously harking back to the golden age of sci-fi as well as providing a timeless rumination on society, this wondrous final episode, directed by series creator Tim Miller, milks the power of the prose of the original short story written by the iconic JG Ballard (Crash, Empire of the Sun) by making the narration and narrator the central device.
The protagonist—played by the British actor Steven Pacey, also known for his audiobook readings—describes the giant humanoid corpse that has landed up in the shores of this English small town with the eyes of a scientist-discoverer and the words of a diarist. Miller creates a worthy visual accompaniment in the way he—and the animators—conceive the giant, taking a cue from the ideal man from classical sculptures. It creates a spectacle among the townspeople who proceed to vandalise it, and eventually dismember it, much like the dead sea creatures that land washed up on shores. As melancholy as a Cohen song, the film ends on a note that goes beyond the wide blue yonder.