Love, Death + Robots Volume 3 Episodes Ranked
Last week, Love, Death + Robots premiered its third volume of short films, a nine-episode collection that is, collectively, less ambitious and expansive than its predecessors (I’m still bummed there wasn’t an episode from “Zima Blue” and “Ice” animators Passion Animation). However, a couple stellar chapters and brilliant visual styles from returning studios ensure that LDR‘s third series is not a forgettable one, and one certainly worthy of another official ranking, as I did with Volume 1 and Volume 2.
9. Episode 1 – “Three Robots: Exit Strategies”
What’s the worst possible way Love, Death + Robots could begin its third volume? Anything that just came into your mind could not be worse than “Three Robots: Exit Strategies”, which brings back the trio of metallic comedic relief from Volume 1’s “Three Robots”… for an empty, moralistic reflection on how fucked humanity is?
It’s not what “Exit Strategies” suggests about humanity that is so underwhelming; as the robots view how the various classes of 21st century American society experienced their doom, the second Three Robots installment has a fantastic foundation to reflect on the mix of elitism and tribalism that will define humanity’s final days. It just doesn’t have anything to say about why AI turned on humanity after watching humanity turn on itself.
The whole exercise (from an adapted script by John Scalzi) is utterly mindless, a laughless bit of science fiction comedy that trades in cleverness for “thinly veiled parallels to current society” with all the fervor of a retired math teacher reading a grocery list aloud. This is science fiction by way of Saturday Night Live centrism, as numbly unfunny as it is lifelessly performed (and animated, if we’re being frank). “Exit Strategies” is a profoundly disappointing entry to open the season (it doesn’t even follow up on the twist from the first entry in an interesting way… what the fuck are we even doing here??!!!)
8. Episode 4 – “Night of the Mini Dead”
Ok? I guess? “Night of the Mini Dead” is a classic “visual concept, not really an episode” entry in Love, Death + Robots, detailing the very familiar, well-established beats of a possible human zombie apocalypse (in a non-story credited to Jeff Fowler and Tim Miller)… as if presented in miniature form, because why not, right? There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Night of the Mini Dead” – except for, you know, the sped-up and utterly pointless dialogue – but it is far too slight to be an effective short film, five minutes that left this viewer feeling like they just watched a cool, slightly comedic (?) trailer for a They Are Billions sequel that doesn’t exist. To its credit, it doesn’t overstay its welcome – but few people will remember this sketch beyond the few moments where the visual touches of visual panache from animators BUCK shine through.
7. Episode 5 – “Kill Team Kill”
Everyone can appreciate a good 80’s action war film homage – part Predator, part Robocop, and part A-Team (with a dash of Black Mirror‘s “Metalhead” thrown on top), “Kill Team Kill” is exactly the synth-laden, testosterone-soaked endeavor one would expect. The story – following a team of dudes trying to take out a mechanical bear they call a honey badger (references!) – is exactly what you’d expect, laden with explosions, visceral moments of violence, and enough cigar-chewing to put J. Jonah Jameson to shame.
(It also features a character saying, “tell my wife I fucked her sister” before they die, to really hone in on what this episode is going for).
When LDR is at its very best, it funnels these creative reimagining of familiar science-fiction trappings into something new, twisted, and thoughtful; at its most disappointing, it is just loudly riffing on familiar genre material with nothing to say but “hey, isn’t this shit cool?” That’s fine, but it is a brazen, mindless and forgettable episode in the vein of Volume 1’s “Sucker of Souls,” albeit one with a few more familiar voices (Joel McHale and former NFT owner Seth Green) behind the animation from Titmouse (who, among many other things, did the animated sequences on NBC’s Community).
6. Episode 8 – “In Vaulted Halls Entombed”
“In Vaulted Halls Entombed” feels like it was created by a script-writing AI mashing the most common elements of Love, Death + Robots together; telepathic alien, military squad fucked beyond recognition, bleakly empty ending… basically, it is every mid-episode of Love, Death + Robots rolled into one, a visually impressive, thematically hollow story where a small group of humans met their gory deaths in a glorious crescendo of blood and plotless narratives. “In Vaulted Halls Entombed” is all of those – and it is the obligatory Photorealistic Tech Demo episode of the season to boot, clearly built to experiment with ways of depicting scale within the framework of limited virtual space.
There’s just not much to it; this is a workhorse episode, one filling in the gaps between the bolder, more expressive episodes of the series – as the description suggests, it is as dry and unmemorable as it suggests. Neither aggressively awful nor particularly impressive, “In Vaulted Halls Entombed” is vanilla fodder for fans of the genre and a quickly forgettable 12 minutes for anyone else.
5. Episode 9 – “Jibaro”
“Jibaro,” the latest entry from Alberto Mielgo (Volume 1’s “The Witness”), is unsettlingly chaotic by design, a classic story of a siren’s song told from the perspective of a deaf conquistador. Is it a mediation on man’s consumerism? A simple depiction of the classic “man alone at sea who falls in love with a dangerous being who lives in water”? Well, it is a bit of both, driven by a meticulously timed score, an absolutely unhinged sense of pacing (and framerate), and a hauntingly familiar tale of lust, conquest, and damnation. It may not be particularly allusive or illuminative, but strictly as a tone piece to close out Love, Death + Robot‘s mostly underwhelming (and strangely chaste, including here) third volume, there are certainly worse notes to end a season on (not exactly a ringing endorsement, but hey – not the greatest season of the show!).
4. Episode 3 – “The Very Pulse of the Machine”
There are distinct elements of Michael Swanwick’s 1998 short story that I’ve never been a fan of, full of awkward inner monologues and stilted dialogue (it’s one of those science fiction stories written by someone who wants their audience to understand how much they know about science and poetry, which is always fun!).
However, stripped of some of the underwhelming prose, “The Very Pulse of the Machine” is an adaptation that fits neatly into Love, Death + Robots comfort zone, a visually engrossing (if limited) episode with plenty of thought-provoking ideas that occasionally climb up its own ass (the poetry quoting from the short story is alive and well here). Animated by Japanese studio Polygon Pictures (in their LDR debut), “The Very Pulse of the Machine” is mostly a one-woman show (Mackenzie Davis, in a somewhat underwhelming turn as the ill-fated Martha Kivelson), relying on dreamy sequences and heavy-handed bits of dialogue, like “I don’t have time to get into the psychological trauma” and “If I don’t make it, better to die high!”
Despite itself, however, the premise of “The Very Pulse of the Machine” is able to carry this episode through its not-so-ambiguous conclusion in a 16-minute short that feels akin to a tossed-off subplot on The Expanse. Though never as evocative or visually ambitious as, say, Volume I’s phenomenal “Fish Night”, “The Very Pulse of the Machine” is a solid entry into the LDR catalog.
3. Episode 6 – “Swarm”
Science fiction is a great playground to explore the limits of human arrogance and how ludicrously meaningless it is on a cosmic scale, one whose concepts of time and space are incomprehensible to our pea-brained minds. Thus, is the basis of “Swarm,” another Blur Studio gem that explores what the philosophy of survivalism might look like for an alien race that’s survived for millions and millions of years.
It’s no surprise that Bruce Sterling’s 1982 short story is fascinated with the concept of survival, touching on everything from love between individuals to the collective mind of a species to push forward and survive, no matter what the economical, ecological, or physiological cost may be. “Swarm” screws its way into the viewer’s brain, because it is an outlandish premise that is very much grounded in reality, from how the parasitic interactions are based on immune system responses, to how entire races were willing to sacrifice and become subservient to the Queen, all in pursuit of evolution and survival. How far is one willing to go for the collective good – and what happens when the goals of many are interrupted by the goals of the few? “Swarm” doesn’t have to be deep, revelatory, or shocking to work – it is a classic interpretation of early 1980’s science fiction, a genre littered with cogent (and outlandish) ideas about the existential future of humanity as it looked to the stars. Like most of those stories, humanity can’t get out of its own way in “Swarm” – and even though its climactic moments are unfortunately very similar to “Bad Travelling”, still works as the episode builds to its reflective conclusion.
2. Episode 7 – “Mason’s Rats”
Anyone who has read my rankings of Volume I and Volume II knows my allegiance lies with Love, Death + Robot‘s most curious, contemplative episodes; whether “Zima Blue,” “Fish Night,” or “Snow in the Desert”, I’ve always believed LDR shined brightest when working in the abstract, using its insane visual flexibility to distill ponderances on existence into little metaphysical pockets of wonder. “Mason’s Rats,” perhaps my favorite episode of Volume 3, is none of those things – at least, on the surface.
I’ve enjoyed Axis Studios’ previous stories “Helping Hand” and “The Tall Grass”, but in both instances, I felt Philip Gelatt’s adapted scripts fell short of capturing the evocative centers of each story. Under the pen of Joe Abercrombie (and director Carlos Stevens), however, Axis Studios’ animation finally finds its home in this story of pest control, customer service, and LDR‘s brand of quasi-steampunk, where 20th-century farm technology meets 21st-century sensibilities (plus, shout out to LDR for bringing in Craig Ferguson for a role).
Where the story really hits is in its depiction of co-existence between man and animal, like Fern Gully meets Volume 1’s “Ice Age.” Without spoiling the ending, the insistence of this episode to avoid the normal nihilism of Love, Death + Robots (inherent in most modern science fiction itself), and instead depict a world where technology, nature, and humanity are able to find collective peace and purpose with each other, is beautiful. We live in dour times; our fiction is bound to reflect that, and the heartfelt resistance at the core of “Mason’s Rats” is something to be cherished.
1. Episode 2 – “Bad Travelling”
After stumbling out of the gates, nothing can help Volume 3 recover quicker than a David Fincher-directed episode about a pregnant alien crab with a hunger for human flesh, set on a boat adrift in a strange sea. Love, Death + Robots is often at its strongest when blurring the lines between science fiction and horror, and the dark, blood-and-rain soaked adaptation of Neal Asher’s short story sits on the apex of the series’ best episodes.
“Bad Travelling” works not because of its uncanny-valley animation (from series mainstay Blur Studio) or its beautifully atmospheric tone; it is in the character of Torrin that “Bad Travelling” works so well, examining the extremes of humanity within a single man facing the most important decision of his life. Voiced by Troy Baker, Torrin is the man whose morality forms the core of the episode, striking a dark, harmonic tone between a man willing to kill everyone around him in pursuit of something considerably nobler (to be specific, saving an island of people from being devastated by a killer, telepathic alien crab and its collection of extremely creepy babies). Torrin is a fascinating character, one able to channel the rampant nihilism of LDR but with an appreciated dimensionality. Torrin makes a lot of terrible choices in the short 19-minute span of the episode, but those terrible choices are defined in compelling ways, as pure an expression of the series’ exploration of the human soul, as any of the 28 episodes preceding it.