As a sub-genre of science-fiction, cyberpunk isn’t something new- William Gibson’s Neuromancer(1984), Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sleep (1968), and its loose cinematic re-imagination in the cult sci-fi film Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott, laid the groundwork of a genre that deals with the dark side of technology and the nihilistic breakdown of social order- and therefore is of primary relevance in this day and age. Often associated with the “hi-tech-low-life” aesthetics accompanied by neon and electric lights, dark futuristic skylines, cybernetic implants, and the figure of the lone hacker / runaway / vigilante struggling in a corrupted and crumbling world- cyberpunk often shows and anticipates mankind at its worst, in the same way Lovecraftian and cosmic horror shows man’s utter helplessness and desperation in the face of an insurmountable all-powerful Enemy.
What makes Netflix’s 2019 sci-fi anthology show “Love, Death & Robots” so remarkable and so utterly enjoyable- is the way they combine elements from both, along with fantasy and wry humour into short under-20-minute episodes, to examine and philosophize on humanity and human-robot relations, under desperate and dangerous circumstances. Although the 18 episodes are all self-contained stories with different art-styles (some are animated, while some are live-action shorts), they are thematically connected and in constant conversation with each other- as the name suggests, each of them deal with love, death and robots in some form- and most of them pack in an emotional or satirical punch, or provide an unexpected intelligent twist that leaves the viewer satisfied or shaken with horror. Nevertheless certain episodes stand out more than others- Zima Blue, Good Hunting, Three Robots, Sonnie’s Edge– while others such Alternate Histories, Secret War and Lucky 13– contain the gem of interesting ideas, coupled with poor or average execution.
Another noteworthy aspect of the show is the way it doesn’t shy away from depicting sex or extreme violence, in order to make a point, primarily in the opening episode “Sonnie’s Edge” and in the sci-fi horror fest that is “Beyond the Aquila Rift.” Sonnie’s Edge neatly summarizes the cyberpunk aesthetic as well as the show’s over-all dark tone in just 17 minutes- and features a glorious gladiatorial battle with two genetically-engineered monsters controlled by cybernetic humans. The story follows Sonnie, a woman with a traumatic past, who risks everything to win a combat in an underground den, and how a carefully-planned attempt to control her, goes hopelessly awry at the very last moment. Meanwhile “Beyond the Aquila Rift” begins in the vein of Doctor Who and Star Trek, with a crew of astronauts waking up from cryo-sleep and discovering that because of a “routing error” they are stranded in deep space- until a mysterious woman from the protagonist’s past, claims to offer comfort.
Yet by the end of the episode, suspense is replaced with pure horror, and the narrative’s success lies in the way it plays with the idea of simulation and simulated realities, as seen in The Matrix(2000) and Black Mirror, and with pure cosmic horror, that the protagonist wakes up to just before his memory is rebooted each time. However some of the episodes are more light-hearted. In the second episode, “Three Robots” are on a tour of an abandoned post-apocalyptic city, and their attempts to understand humanity by examining random objects such as a ball or a burger is incredibly hilarious, and the comedy achieves a state of wholesomeness, when they encounter and converse with a cat. Similarly, “Blindspot” toys with the idea of a heist and the camaraderie among a cyborg crew who deftly pull it off. Meanwhile, the wry humour is particularly explicit in “When the Yogurt Took Over” which deals with a sentient patch of yogurt taking over the world and finally abandoning it.
However “Alternate Histories” which almost initially felt like an interactive cinematic adventure and is based on the brilliant premise of how Adolf Hitler may have died in six different timelines- dissolves into utter absurdity and fails to make a point. While some of the episodes are deeply rooted in either science fiction (like the ones mentioned above) or fantasy (such as the Dracula-themed “Sucker For Souls” , the surreal and poetic reworking of the Icarus myth in “Fish Night” and the Neil Gaiman-esque “Ice Age” wherein a bewildered couple spectates the birth and end of civilization inside their fridge)- there’s also this gem of an episode called “Good Hunting” that seamlessly transcends from folkloric fantasy to a steampunk East Asian sci-fi narrative about colonization and revenge. Combined with spectacular art, the narrative follows a shape-shifting fox spirit or a “huli-jing” who were once hunted as succubae, as she loses her powers and turns into a sex object for the colonizers, and how with the help of a friend, she gets back her power and agency with a new robotic body, and is finally free to prowl the night, like she once had, on the hunt of evil men.
Finally, a personal favourite “Zima Blue” examines the psychology and complexity of a once-robot-turned-into-reclusive artist, the intersection of technology and art, and how one’s life and one’s art and one’s performance, can ultimately be suffused together in a way that is almost poetic and Zen-like. There are also a few other episodes of middling quality- “Suits”, which combines family drama and Transformers, “The Witness” that turns a catch-and-mouse chase into a time-loop, “Shape-shifters” that provides a war commentary and a fresh take on the werewolf myth and “Helping Hand” which transposes 127 Hours (2010) into deep space. Of course there are certain problems with the show- particularly regarding the treatment of women characters which could have been more nuanced and the lack of queer and other minority representation which in itself is still a big issue in Hollywood- and perhaps subsequent sequels will address and rectify these problems.
But on the whole, “Love, Death & Robots” makes for a deeply-fulfilling binge-watch- one that will simultaneously delight, shock and even make you think, and like Black Mirror, push for new possibilities in story-telling in a genre as malleable as science fiction, even as it remains socially and politically relevant.