Today sees the second instalment on our series reviewing the shorts of Love, Death & Robots. I’ve decided to put the writing and directorial credits up top as it’s probably best to keep an eye throughout the run. Three Robots is directed by Victor Maldonado & Alfredo Torres from a script by Philip Gelatt.
In a destroyed city, three vacationing robots survey the remains of human society and ponder its decline. Turns out, global warming killed us and our creations just went about doing their own thing.
The opening image of a skull being crushed under the foot of Gary Anthony Williams’ XBOT 4000 before he pauses and announces himself lost is a nice comic turn, it sets the tone of the film well. I was reminded of the opening of Rungano Nyoni’s fantastic feature I Am Not a Witch (also currently available on Netflix), which takes time to skewer the myopia of cultural tourists.
It’s fun to watch these characters blunder about this tragic place without consideration, the demise of all human life repackaged as a guided tour. But that’s basically what poverty tourism is, and that business is booming.
The film doesn’t quite land that connection though. The city through which they wonder is a literal cartoon, there’s a visual gag early on of a ship impaled through a skyscraper and the rest of the depiction follows that broad tone. A skeleton rotting beneath graffiti written in blood, like environmental storytelling in some lazy early 2000s video game.
The choices being made in creating this environment are not brave. They are not intended to challenge the audience or problematise our lead’s relationship with the world. It’s a comfort, ‘look at how absurdly things came to an end.’ Then, when the robots make goofs, we can laugh — their critiques simply aren’t of us.
Josh Brener voices K-VRC, the most enthusiastic of the bunch, and the third robot (uncredited) seems to have been given life to by some sorta text-to-speech program. There’s an easy rapport between them. A series of scenes has them pondering the purpose of sports, eating and cats, the takeaway largely being that they don’t understand us.
The way that they misunderstand unfortunately isn’t very compelling. In its impulse to throw jokes out fast and thick it fails to give its characters a consistent philosophy through which to view the world. We are told that they are on ‘vacation’ but what does that mean in this context?
In the closest thing we get to any self examination we discover that one of the leads is descended from a games console and another from a baby monitor. Yet, rather than interrogating what this may mean to the characters and their sense of self, it just leads to an extended bit about teabagging.
It’s like it doesn’t trust itself to be able to actually say anything: whenever it seems to be edging close to saying something meaningful it giggles nervously and hastily backs away. All the conviction of a Ricky Gervais stand up set.
Mercifully this one looks better than the first, and actually tries to be something — even if that something is simply ‘funny’. It succeeds in creating the right sorta tone, it’s just that there’s basically nothing of substance underneath.
Love, Death & Robots is currently streaming on Netflix.