Love, Death & Robots Vol.2

ldr2bThe first season (or ‘volume’ as Netflix would have it) of Love, Death & Robots, an animated anthology show apparently curated by David Fincher, remains one of the highlights of everything I’ve ever seen on Netflix. Its eighteen shorts were so varied in subject matter and animation style that, while there were some duds amongst the average and the great, there always seemed something worthwhile in each instalment. 

One never knows how popular a show is on streaming services, or how decisions are made regards greenlighting more seasons, especially with something as intrinsically weird as Love, Death & Robots, but the news a second season (ok, ‘volume’) was getting made filled me with joy. So news of this second volume getting dropped this month was pretty exciting, although that was tempered by disappointment at there being just eight episodes this time around. I guess this is due to production issues from the Covid pandemic and quite understandable, and news of a volume three coming presumably means that the original second volume has been split into two to facilitate dropping episodes now before a fickle public forget all about the original.

As was the case with the first volume, there are hits and duds even amongst just eight instalments, but again at the very least each is visually arresting. There is still a suspicion that the show is more of a tech demo from animation wizards let loose than a properly scripted anthology like The Twilight Zone– the series it most closely resembles- indeed it reminds me a great deal of the Japanese anime Genius Party films. Even the best episodes feel like the scripts need more polish, but as in the first volume, their advantage is their brevity; I think the longest is just 17 minutes and some run just about 10. Ironically, that’s possibly also a disadvantage, as the brevity means a lack of context and character is a weakness common to all. Once the ‘wow’ factor of the visuals drops, one realises there is often little else.

But what visuals. This show is constantly gorgeous, endless eye-candy. Some of the photo-realistic animation hints at where genre film and television may eventually go, with impossible vistas and pretty convincing… what do you call them, synthetic thespians? I guess its mostly motion-captured performances anyway but goodness, the tech has moved on since that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie amazed me years ago. What I tend to enjoy most though are those incredible vistas, the impossible places, the sense that I’m watching what could easily have been branded ‘Metal Hurlant / Heavy Metal’ and it would have just fit perfectly (albeit the branding meaning nothing to most Netflix punters). I loved that magazine back in its 1970s heyday, and this just looks like the mag transformed into this new medium (that mags weakness, artwork over narrative, is carried over too).

And hey, we even get a Christmas episode this time around, a cautionary morality tale reminding kids to be good or Santa’s presents might not be what they’re expecting/hoping for. That ones quite fun and typically gorgeous. 

The Abominable Heavy Metal Movie

heavy1Those Satanic Algorithms of Netflix caught me out last night, as I noticed in its recommendations the Heavy Metal movie, a film I first saw it on VHS, sadly on a regretted sell-through copy rather than a rental, many moons ago. I’d been curious of watching the film for years (it came out in cinemas back in 1981) and was expecting something quite special – I recall a glowing review in Starburst magazine when the film came out. I don’t know what they were watching (or what they were smoking) but goodness me that VHS was a shocking disappointment. I was somehow expecting something like the imagery of that picture above, which that damned Starburst review splashed across its pages as if that’s how the whole thing looked. I mean sure, in hindsight I was clearly an idiot- you could make that imagined movie that ran in my head look like that today, with CGI etc, but back in 1981, on the limited budget typical of any animation back then? Impossible. Instead we got jerky, flat and horrible animation, and even worse, crudely assembled and adapted stories with imagery that was just about sex and titillation.

Sure, the film obviously knew its audience, or at least assumed it knew the readership of the original magazine: as it turned out, I think they were proven wrong as the film deservedly flopped. Over the years, who knows, maybe young boys loved the movie, but I’m pretty certain women must have hated it, and rightly so: each female character is pretty much just a sex object and spends as little time as possible stripping off and having sex. Its like the very worst it could possibly be, and in this day and age would have the producers of the new mightily progressive Dr Who in hysterical fits.

So anyway, idiocy once again got the better of me and I pressed ‘play’ on the remote, wondering if that movie was really as bad as I remembered. Sometimes old films surprise you by being better than you recall; maybe its the familiar face of an old actor, or old styles of the time. Most of the time its as bad as you feared, but sometimes its even worse. This was the latter.

Such a shame. Even back in 1981, the magazine deserved better. I think the true Heavy Metal Movie would be an assembly of the best segments of Netflix’s own Love, Death + Robots that came out last year. Infact, it occurred to me that I would be much better off re-watching some of that than rekindling old horror-experiences of this movie. But it was late, it was a worknight, so I cursed those Netflix algorithms and stopped the regrettable play through of this terrible movie, hoping I’ll never have to suffer it again.

Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Love, Death & Robots (2019) Pt.1

Well I never saw this coming- its strange in this Information Age when something just drops suddenly (in this case, on Netflix) as if from nowhere, and it just amazes. Love, Death & Robots is a sci-fi anthology series of eighteen animated shorts ranging from just six to seventeen minutes in length, with a list of producers that includes David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club etc) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) and some of the very best animation studios from all around the world. As its an anthology show each  episode is seperate so they can be watched in any order, which is an approach I’ve taken. I’ve watched three episodes and while the stories may not be groundbreaking, the visuals truly are- this stuff is jaw dropping, frankly, especially in 4K and Dolby Vision, which helps those visuals leap from the screen. So anyway, here’s my take on this first three-

dsr2“Beyond the Aquila Rift”: I started with this one because the synopsis -a space crew wakes up from cryo-sleep to find they’ve gone way, way off course, seemed intriguing and the art style from the image alongside the synopsis looked like pretty sophisticated photo-realistic CG. Well, that image didn’t lie- this looks pretty phenomenal and features the first graphic CG-animated sex scene that I think I’ve ever seen. The sex, it seems, is a common theme that runs throughout the Love, Sex & Robots anthology – this is clearly some kind of love-letter to the 1970s Metal Hurlant magazine (and later Heavy Metal), the series as visually opulent as the artwork featured in that magazine in its prime. I watched this thinking back to that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie (which I always had a soft spot for). It was a reminder that that last years Amiga 500 is this years ZX Spectrum, because time marches on and so does CG animation. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory but its really impressive and the design work leaves it looking like a Mass Effect movie (no bad thing that, and I suspect there is going to be a videogame-visuals trend in some of this series). As for that story, well, its based on a sci-fi short and while its twist hardly startles, I did appreciate some of the touches in the direction and visuals- indeed, at the end the big reveal is gently teased through use of light and shadow in a very clever way, the lighting catching parts of a character’s form to suggest one thing before the horror unfolds as it moves further into the light. This episode is one of the longer ones, and while it pushes the limits of its story, its short enough not to out-stay its welcome, thankfully minus any padding- likely due to the cost per second of all that rendering time, which may benefit the series as a whole. Anyway, having dabbled, I was hooked. Seems Love, Death & Robots may dominate my weekend- I followed this episode with…

dsr1“Three Robots” : Based on a short story by John Scalzi, it features our three titular robots enjoying a tour through a post-apocalyptic landscape, apparently on a holiday checking out the sights of what humanity left behind. Visually it’s in a similar photo-realistic vein as “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, but has a gentle humorous vibe rather at odds with the desolate scenery littered with skeletons. This is a much shorter episode and benefits from this – even at this point I’d suggest that the way the series just lets episodes runs their natural course without arbitrarily setting a minimum of 20 minutes, say, is one of its biggest strengths. This episode is really quite fun with a nice twist that left a smile on my face.

dsr3“The Witness”: With this very short episode, it’s clearly all about the visuals rather than anything like a story- it’s basically just a chase scene, but one that is just simply jaw-dropping visually, really cementing the Heavy Metal feel of the series. Written and directed by artist Alberto Mielgo it’s possibly a glimpse of the future of animation- lovely touches like dodgy focus, blooming exposure, camera crash-zooms and jitter, almost as if Mielgo got himself a virtual go-pro and shot some scenes from inside a computer simulation. It has a tactile, you-are-there feel, how frantic and energised it is. I expect most people get distracted by the semi-nudity etc but I was swept away by the setting, the buildings etc. Its breathtaking, frankly- not photo-realistic but somewhere between that and hand-drawn anime. Reminded me of one or two of the better Animatrix shorts. I haven’t seen Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse yet but this did seem similar to that in style from what I remember from that film’s trailer.

So Love, Death & Robots seems pretty solid so far. Really enjoying it.

Riddick (2013)

is a fascinating proposition. Pitch Black was an original film (unusual in itself these days) that came out of nowhere to great success, at least on home video, where word-of-mouth managed to gain the film a second-wind financially, meriting an eventual sequel. Unfortunately that sequel was as overblown and pretentious as its title, The Chronicles of Riddick, although that said, it made a commendable attempt at original world-building with a gothic look straight out of Lynch’s Dune. Having become the very antithesis of the original, the second film was deemed a critical and financial failure, and that seemed to be that for the character and a franchise.

But Vin Diesel’s anti-hero Riddick remains an original and enduring character, and nearly ten years later we have another movie (take heart, fellow Dredd fans, there is yet hope!). And here is the fascinating part- the title itself is perhaps indicative of the films’ approach; Riddick is simple and stark minus any pretensions of its epic predecessor, and so it is lean and mean, costing less than $40 million to make in comparison to something close to the $120 million that Chronicles cost. You have to admire film-makers who listen to the fans and act on what they have to say, because its evident in how the film returns to the roots of Pitch Black that such corrective action has been taken.

Riddick reminds me of the best stories from Heavy Metal magazine in its 1970s heyday; heavy in style and hardware with a hard adult approach in its sensibilities, much akin to Alien, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior and the original Robocop. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Riddick is approaching any of those films in quality but it does share with those films an inherent, integral self-logic of purpose. Alien was a silly monster-in-space movie elevated by incredible production design and realistic, life-worn middle-aged characters, in which the steam-drenched, haunted-house corridors of the post-2001 space ship somehow made sense. Blade Runner‘s central premise (making superior artificial humans without any way of actually identifying them) is nonsensical but in its grimy, rain-saturated city it has a reality beyond its central proposition with its fascinating investigations regards death and humanity. Both films are violent, edgy and adult, traits further exampled in the brutal  dystopian future of The Road Warrior or in Robocop’s corporate satire. Its rock and roll science fiction of the senses, decried by literary purists but damned effective film-making nonetheless. They may not have been based on Heavy Metal comic-strips but they all feel as though they could have been.

riddick2So we have Riddick. After that bloated second film Chronicles I really didn’t expect very much from this, but you know how low-expectations somehow have the opposite effect, raising your sense of enjoyment? Well, I think I enjoyed this film more than I should have. Its low budget goes pretty far, and while its hardly a high-concept movie, it works. Riddick is left marooned on another hostile planet, and the set-up for this post-Chronicles turnaround is the only real false step, as the film attempts via flashback to establish an explanation/continuity that feels awkward as it refers back to the second film. This may work better in the extended cut on Blu-ray, but I saw the film on a HD stream via Amazon Prime so can’t comment on that. But anyway, Riddick is on the planet struggling to survive, and after several weeks (months?) finds a more habitable region and an abandoned outpost. Figuring the bounty on his head is the biggest pull, he sets off an emergency beacon announcing his identity, and sure enough two rival bounty teams fly in looking for his head. But soon all of them have more urgent dangers pressing on them, as a stormy rainy season sets an army of amphibian monsters onto them, leaping the film back into original Pitch Black territory. Its simple and, at its best, direct- in a similar way to how Dredd worked so well, it uses the limitations of its budget to strip the film down to its core fundamentals and make the best of them.

No doubt some fans, and particularly those fond of the second film, will be disappointed by a perceived  lack of ambition, in not pursuing the world-building set-up by the second film. Maybe a fourth film will return to add some closure to that as Riddick works on his revenge. I don’t know if a fourth film is in the works but after watching Riddick I’d be rather interested to see it. If Riddick‘s purpose was to breathe fresh life into a dead franchise then it seems to have succeeded.