Netflix’s flagship animated anthology series Love, Death & Robots has often been a hard show to love. On the one hand, it’s a dazzling showcase for VFX artists at the top of their field, adapting some of science fiction’s most interesting short stories to a new medium (not unlike the Heavy Metal comics from which executive producers David Fincher and Tim Miller derived the premise).
On the other, that same love of Heavy Metal extends to the exploitativeness of many of its stories — especially in its first season, which never met a woman it didn’t like to punish, hypersexualize, or exploit for gut-wrenching violence.
Still, despite the Reddit-iness of it all, there are still quite a few gems to be found amongst the Call of Duty commercials and Starcraft cutscenes, especially as the show course-corrected in Seasons 2 and 3 with the arrival of showrunner Jennifer Yuh Nelson to break up the boys’ club — the newest season contains some of the best shorts the series has showcased (though also one of its worst: We’re looking at you, “Kill Team Kill”).
With that in mind, and with no word as to whether this is it for the series, we wanted to go back over the 35 shorts Love, Death & Robots has featured in its tenure, and picked out the cream of the crop. This way, you can marvel at the imagination and ingenuity of the series at its height, without having to cringe through yet another short about a Special Forces team fighting one supernatural beastie or another.
15. “Helping Hand” (Season 1)
I’m a sucker for space-disaster stories, ones in which the realities of space travel and their effect on the human body are laid terrifyingly bare. “Helping Hand” from Season 1 is potentially the slightest of these on the list, but it’s full of that nail-biting Gravity-adjacent tension of what happens when you get in deep trouble in the black and have nothing but your spacesuit and your wits.
In the case of astronaut Alexandria Stephens (Elly Condron), the only way back to safety is sheer physics — throwing something in the opposite direction to get you back to your spaceship. Only trouble is when all you’ve got is your spacesuit… or, eventually, your vacuum-frozen hand. Gruesome but effective stuff.
14. “Ice” (Season 2)
Animator Robert Valley, who will show up much later on this list, has an enticing visual style, with his characters rendered as Peter Chung-esque statues of too-long limbs and sharp angles. And that unique look works wonders for this short-but-sweet tale of two brothers — one with genetic enhancements, the other without — who’ve moved to an icy colony planet with their parents and get into some late-night shenanigans with a group of local kids.
What follows is a playful race that doubles as a moment of connection between two brothers who bristle against each other’s differences, with some outstanding shadow and light work when the Frostwhales finally make their appearance.
13. “Lucky 13” (Season 1)
Military sci-fi is a well-worn, often repetitive genre, especially in Love, Death & Robots, so a good deal of the show’s love for military porn didn’t necessarily make this list. But most endearing among them is Jerome Chen’s bittersweet love story between a hotshot pilot (Samira Wiley, one of the most realistically-rendered visages and performances of the whole series) and an unlucky dropship she must pilot in the midst of an interstellar war.
Before her, the last two crews on “Lucky 13” perished in horrible circumstances; but in her hands, the ship works wonders — and it’s implied that the ship itself is a little bit alive, and fights specifically for her. Plenty of Top Gun-esque dogfighting and fist-pumping sci-fi action here, but it’s underpinned by Wiley’s understated performance and a sci-fi-tinged spin on the undying bond between pilots and their planes.
12. “The Tall Grass” (Season 2)
A foppish businessman, enticed by the “economic growth” of the New World, takes a train across the American prairie, only to run afoul of inhuman beasties lying, you guessed it, in the tall grass when the train mysteriously breaks down. Love, Death, and Robots loves to dabble in the Lovecraftian, but Simon Otto’s textured, high-concept Victorian thriller makes the most out of its stripped-down premise.
“The Tall Grass”‘s lovely, Laika-esque stop-motion CG is unexpectedly dazzling; it feels like you can see the brushstrokes on every character and surface. Sometimes, the train conductor tells our terrified hero, there are worlds beyond our understanding, and they occasionally impinge on our own.
11. “The Drowned Giant” (Season 2)
Series co-creator Tim Miller’s first short in the series, adapted from the J.G. Ballard short story, is a viscerally existential tale of a seaside town that marvels at the presence of a giant naked man washing up on the beach. Through the eyes of an academic, we see the way the town reacts to its presence, first with fascination, then with craven consumption as the body decomposes and pieces are cut and sold off.
Unlike most of the others in the series, it’s a quiet, contemplative chapter, an elegy on the frailty of our own bodies and a long hard look at what happens to us when we die. Plus, y’know, it’s also got a photorealistically-rendered donger the size of a Buick, so if you don’t want to think about that stuff, there’s still plenty else to focus on.
10. “The Very Pulse of the Machine” (Season 3)
While the anthology certainly loves its photorealistic, grimy CG right out of a Blizzard cutscene, it’s nice when Love, Death & Robots can sit back for a second and just allow us to drink in the wonder and possibilities of the animated medium. That’s certainly the case for this Moebius-inspired short, which sees an astronaut (Mackenzie Davis) crash her rover on the moon of Io, killing her co-pilot and marooning her.
To deal with the pain of her own injuries, she begins taking pain meds that have some unfortunate psychedelic side effects, the world around her shifting and morphing to dazzling effect. The cel-shaded feel amplifies the trippiness of the short’s wilder moments, especially as it takes more metaphysical turns and a suitably ambiguous ending.
9. “Mason’s Rats” (Season 3)
Look out, Redwall, there’s a new group of anthropomorphic rat warriors in town — more specifically, a barn in a far-off Scotland farm, where curmudgeonly Mason (Craig Ferguson!) eventually turns to the high-tech solutions from a posh weapons salesman (Dan Stevens) to rid himself of the infestation.
But the cute thing about Carlos Stevens’ whimsical short is the contrast between its brutal violence — the drones and robots Mason sends after the rats do deadly, bloody work, and Stevens makes you see every head-ripping moment of it — and its eventual note of sweetness as Mason learns to respect the rats’ drive to survive. (And, of course, their ability to distill a good Scotch.)
8. “Snow in the Desert” (Season 2)
Love, Death & Robots’ occasional dips into the epic can be a bit overstuffed for their own good — too repetitive, hyperviolent, hypersexual — but “Snow in the Desert,” based on the Neal Asher short story, is a rare exception, translating the usual T&A the show’s lesser shorts resort to into a more earnest expression of the “love” in the series’ title.
We follow an immortal man named Snow, hiding from the universe on a desolate desert planet from any merc hired to take his genes to replicate his mutations (as we viscerally witness, if his arm gets blown off, he eventually grows one right back). But he finds new purpose after lifetimes of loneliness, with a mysterious woman just as committed to protecting his secret as he is.
As these hyperrealistic epics go, it’s phenomenal to look at; the faces dare you to look into their eyes for any glimpse of fakery, and the alien environments and blood-letting violence are something to behold.
7. “Bad Travelling” (Season 3)
Fincher’s animated debut is a scorcher of a high-seas thriller, as a shark-hunting vessel runs afoul of a giant, sentient crab monster that kills most of its crew, takes residency in the ship’s hold, and demands the navigator (video game VO mainstay Troy Baker) take him to a nearby populated island so he and his brood can feed. What follows is a barrage of betrayals, mutinies, and hard moral decisions, as Baker’s navigator wrestles between giving the beastie what it wants and sacrificing himself and others to keep this creature away from civilization.
Plus, there’s no small amount of wet, crunching creature designs and body horror (the crab-creature speaks to the crew by puppeteering the ripped-apart top half of a dead crewmate). Stede Bonnet should thank his lucky stars his vessel never had to deal with something this dire.
6. “All Through the House” (Season 2)
You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. Because as Elliot Dear’s short implies, Santa Claus may not be a jolly old elf with rosy cheeks and a belly full of jelly, but a soaking-wet eldritch creature with hands for jaws and razor-sharp teeth. The two tots who catch him one Christmas Eve get off lucky; they’re both “good,” and are treated with slobber-covered gifts from the creature’s gullet that are “just what [they] wanted.” But what would have happened if they were naughty?
It’s a short but sweet (and absolutely gut-busting) tale of holiday horror, animated with just enough Rankin-Bass in the animation style to make you worry for Burl Ives’ safety. Plus, not many Yuletide stories make deliberate homages to Alien 3.
5. “Beyond the Aquila Rift” (Season 1)
In many ways, Beyond the Aquila Rift is the Platonic ideal of a Love, Death & Robots short. It’s got all the ingredients of its best and worst impulses: thoughtful sci-fi with dazzling animation, coupled with gratuitous scenes of animated bodies thrusting against each other for pure titillation’s sake.
But as these things go, Unit Image’s story wrangles those elements into an intriguing story of the horrors mankind could experience at the edge of the universe, and how our memories and fantasies are the only ways we can deal with such ontological horrors. Also, if you’re gonna go out, might as well go out as the eternally-youthful sex slave of a giant spider lady.
3 and 4. “Three Robots” (Season 1)/”Exit Strategies” (Season 3)
We’re doubling up on this one-two punch of John Scalzi humor, since Season 3 gives us the only sequel to any of these shorts in the series’ history. Based on the original story by Scalzi, both shorts feature a trio of mismatched robots from a hyper-advanced robotic civilization on an archaeological trip to a lifeless Earth, studying the dead humans and theorizing what caused their demise.
Really, both shorts are just cutesy, observational musings on the vagaries of our own human follies — the unrelenting thirst of capitalism, our ravaging of the planet and refusal to do anything about climate change, and the tech-bro millionaires more concerned with their own dreams of life in the stars than helping the poor. But the shorts stop just short of being too smarmy, and I’m convinced that “Exit Strategies”‘ explicit dig at Elon Musk might just be what stops him from buying Twitter. (On top of, you know, the sexual misconduct allegations and Tesla’s stock plummeting like a rock.)
2. “Jibaro” (Season 3)
Alberto Mielgo’s Season 1 short “The Witness” was similarly visually dazzling, even if it told a tropey, exploitative story that delighted in its frightened female protagonist being fully naked for much of its runtime. “Jibaro,” though, keeps what works and builds on it while telling a remarkable fable of a bejeweled siren defending her patch of land from a horde of conquistadors.
Her screams and undulations (“Liza Minnelli Turns Off a Lamp” vibes abound) cause the men to break out in violent ballet towards the water, drowning themselves in their heavy armor. Except, of course, for the titular Jibaro, whose deafness protects him as he pursues her, vengeance and greed on his mind.
Mielgo’s heady mix of 2D painted backgrounds and 3D models, the quivering hand-held camera, the expert command of shallow focus — it’s nothing less than jaw-dropping to watch. You haven’t seen anything like this or “The Witness,” but “Jibaro” in particular is easily one of the best shorts the series has to offer.
1. “Zima Blue” (Season 1)
A galaxy-renowned artist prepares for his final piece, the culmination of a career of startling works, and invites a journalist to hear his story before its unveiling. Another stunner from Robert Valley (from the Alaistair Reynolds story), “Zima Blue” is undeniably the crowning achievement of the series, a touching chronicle of the ways that artists build and deconstruct themselves for their art.
The short’s use of color is naturally astounding (you’ll immediately want the short’s titular shade of blue in the tile for your bathroom), and Valley’s design of Zima himself is an intoxicating bit of Afrofuturism. But at the end of the day, it’s a touching tale of a machine learning to think, feel, and — most of all — create. One has to imagine Valley, and so many of the other visual artists behind this anthology, can relate to the blood, sweat, and tears an artist sacrifices to put their work into the world.