Review: ‘Love, Death & Robots’ 3 (2022)

Spoilers abound.

Two overarching impressions. 1) The Telegraph wrote that LDR 3 is about the pitfalls of human greed. I came to a different conclusion. Almost all of the episodes in LDR 3 were about humans meeting the ancient, the mysterious or the new and coming away humbled or humiliated, if they came away at all. It’s an important, but not necessarily interesting, choice of theme at this moment: the apparent centrality of exploitation to the human condition. Perhaps more importantly, LDR 3 seems to reflect on the violence that being good demands of us – call it revolution, survival, whatever – in this age of the banality of greed. Be good. It won’t be easy, but be good.

The second impression is at the end.

Episode 1: [Exit Strategies] The very end of the ending delivers a punch that is immediately humorous but out of sorts with the tone and narrative of the rest of the episode. The rest – in the form of a social commentary of humankind’s last days – was informative coming from robots but nothing quite eye-opening or mind-blowing. But it’s short, so it’s easy to enjoy.

Episode 2: [Bad Travelling] “There’s nothing more terrifying than a man prepared to live by his conviction.” This quote appears in the Netflix series Unabomber, about the manhunt for Ted Kaczynski. This line, or a minor variant of it, apparently originated with Kaczynski and it’s easy to see its imprints on his choice of lifestyle and his radical beliefs about the environment, industrialisation and self-governance. This said, the line has remained with me because it reads like one of the few fundamental truths about the human condition – something you can’t drill further down, something that leads to a fount of insights into what it means to be human. The episode brings this truth to powerful light, and demonstrates how the absolute adherence to doing the right thing – while it may lead to morally desirable outcomes – can appear just as devious as the actions of a chaotic-evil character might.

Episode 3: [The Very Pulse of the Machine] One thing this episode gets right within the first two minutes is that it resolves a long-standing what-if that two movies have left us with: Prometheus (2012) and The Martian (2015). At the end of Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw is stranded on an alien moon with the rest of her crew dead and only one spacecraft left to operate, which she intends to use to get to the home-planet of the Engineers. She is determined and focused. Through most of The Martian, Mark Watney has no self-doubt, no anxiety, no panic attack – even though he’s stuck on Mars and needs to find his way back to Earth, and also figure out how to feed himself and keep himself alive. He is instead simply determined and focused. What would it look like to be stranded on an alien world, with the hope of going or returning somewhere, and to have self-doubt as well? This is how this episode of LDR 3 begins – but the problem is that the character quickly consumes some potent drug that makes her high, and the self-doubt is replaced with visual and auditory hallucinations. Ugh.

Episode 4: [Night of the Mini Dead] This was funny from start to finish, but the laughter didn’t last. It began funny because of the medium – miniatures on a tapletop acting out the deceptively innocuous beginnings of a zombie apocalypse, followed by the apocalypse itself – and stayed funny because the rapid pace of events keep you from thinking too much and because the apocalypse for once seems neither unpredictable nor offers redemptive value. Even the ending, a climax that lasts for all of a second, carries the tone on and leaves you with a chuckle. But give it a few more seconds and you’re probably thinking what the point was. I did. I didn’t get it. Silly little things can set off non-silly non-big things, and when it’s all said and done, none of it matters? Fuck you.

Episode 5: [Kill Team Kill] This one was pointless. Really. I mean, LDR 3 like its two predecessors keeps its bodily obscenities focused on the male form, which makes sense only if you’re going to make a larger point about toxic masculinity and such things. But this one’s just adrenaline from start to finish.

Episode 6: [Swarm] LDR 3 was released earlier this year, unintentionally (maybe) coinciding with a time in which experts and stakeholders around the world were pondering how we should treat genetic information – in line with the biological specimens from which they’re obtained or with a separate policy. The man’s ambitions in this episode encode the hubris that we’ve come to expect from the corporate sector vis-à-vis our biological resources – the conviction that the exploiter will triumph by virtue of the destructive tendencies of exploitation. But as in the episode as in the real world, such conviction obscures the complementary admission that we assume we know everything there is to know. We never do, and exploitation always backfires.

When scientists working for a large company sequence the DNA of a rare plant using a single leaf plucked from a sacred forest, return it to the forest’s stewards once they’re done, and go on to replicate a compound encoded in the genes that provides a beautiful fragrance eventually bottled as an expensive perfume, should the stewards benefit? Should they have asked the stewards first? Should the stewards have much of a say? To my mind the answers to all these questions is ‘yes’, but few of the reasons are rooted in science. The stewards and indeed the complex community of organisms of which they are part often possess an intelligence to which science blinds us. Yet these discussions frequently begin among scientists, involve scientists and repeatedly appeal to scientific principles to claim moral, and eventually political, authority – and it inevitable leads to exploitation. The same thing happens in the episode, which I must say ends on a very gratifying note.

Episode 7: [Mason’s Rats] No particular thoughts beyond the two impressions.

Episode 8: [In Vaulted Halls Entombed] One thing that many (but not all) horror productions fail to get is that it’s not the grotesque that really frightens us but that momentary but singularly immense shock of being faced with something that we never expected to face – to have our minds confront something that they can’t possibly conceive. Even more fundamentally, terror erupts when we need to fill in a blank in reality (or in a movie if we’ve suspended disbelief). The brain is a prediction engine, so when it has no reasonable options to choose from, it seems to go haywire, populating the blank with monsters lurking in the dark of our conscience. A production succeeds the moment it creates a suitable blank and forces us to admit that we can’t ignore it. But I’d say there’s one fear that’s even deeper, even more unsettling: the incomprehensible. It’s the blank that’s clearly been filed yet which evades complete comprehension. Hans Giger’s art captured this sensation wonderfully well as did H.P. Lovecraft’s lore of the Old Ones – but I experienced it most profoundly in the latter’s The Outsider. It’s the thing that you know and that you struggle to know, both at once – and it’s the sensation to which this episode builds up. Excellent stuff. Also: “Embrace the suck” – a line worth remembering.

Episode 9: [Jibaro] The internet suggests this was the most popular episode. I’m going to stick with In Vaulted Halls Entombed but only because of my fascination with the unknown. Without that, the fever-dream that is Jibaro would easily cut ahead. It brings together a “baroque” combination of “film and animation” and “dance and mythology” (source), a melancholy soundtrack and a story so replete with metaphors that it’s hard to come to one conclusion about it – and that apparently was also its maker’s intention. It’s shot through with greed but it doesn’t seem reasonable to stop there, with that conclusion, that Jibaro is a parable about one of the seven deadly sins. Instead, the tale seems to me to be about what how perfectly acceptable being our worst selves looks like (as its maker told Awn), how familiar the Knight and the Siren seem to us. We’ve seen them before, at least parts of them, in the people around us, in the people we read about.

Recommended reading: Alberto Mielgo’s Sci-Fi Short ‘Jibaro’ Is Not a Critique of Colonialism. Excerpt:

I don’t want to fall into the same trap as the readings I am criticizing and try and ‘pin down’ Jibaro into a single parable or message. Mielgo is not deliberately making a comment on Cervantes here. Rather, his short film, like his characters, is meant to ‘dance’. It spins on and through and around a variety of tropes, the central one being that of toxic relationships and the way these are both frightening and alluring. But the textual bed in which the deaf knight and the siren sleep together is less that of Spanish colonialism than that of Spanish mythology. The correspondences to the latter are much more precise.

The second impression: Many of the episodes seem to bear the echoes of episodes in LDR’s still-the-best season 1. Exit Strategies is obviously related to Three Robots, but the other episodes are connected more subtly. Night of the Mini Dead brings to mind Ice AgeMason’s Rats brings to mind The DumpIn the Vaulted Halls Entombed brings to mind both Shape-Shifters and The Secret WarThe Very Pulse of the Machine brings to mind Fish NightJibaro brings to mind Good Hunting (and The Witness in style of animation). Bad Travelling brings to mind Sonnie’s Edge. It’s hard to say if this was intentional (I’m being lazy and not googling), but it’s also hard to explain the raft of similarities. This said, the ultimate effect of LDR 1 was mind-expanding (Beyond the Aquila Rift and Zima Blue remain unmatched); LDR 2 was to remind us that LDR can also be bad; and LDR 3 is a contemplation of the costs of being good.

Featured image: A scene from Jibaro. Source: Netflix.