David Fincher’s “Love, Death & Robots: Bad Travelling” Episode (2022)

Director David Fincher’s tenure at Netflix has radically redefined the idea of what constitutes a “David Fincher film”. Once colloquially known by the public at large as the “serial killer director” due to the success of pictures like SE7EN (1995), ZODIAC (2007), and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011), Fincher’s multi-year deal with the streaming giant has afforded him ample creative leeway and resources to accelerate and diversify his output. Having thoroughly conquered the realm of theatrical features, music videos and commercials, Fincher’s expansion into streaming television has allowed him to develop his skills in traditional episodic fiction (HOUSE OF CARDS, MINDHUNTER) as well as the emergent visual essay format via his producing work on VOIR, a series dedicated to the appreciation of core cinematic touchstones. With the arrival of his episode for the anthology series LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS in 2022, Fincher can now add animation under his umbrella of superlative skills.

Created in partnership with filmmaker Tim Miller of DEADPOOL fame, LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS’ self-contained episodes employ an ever-changing array of animation styles in a bid to push the possibilities of the medium. Fincher’s contribution to the third season, “BAD TRAVELLING”, aims for evocative photorealism in its succinct adaptation of Neal Asher’s short tale of Lovecraftian horror. The script pairs Miller with SE7EN screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, resulting in a tight 22-minute exercise in visceral creature horror that actually benefits from the lack of expository or background information. Apparently set on a distant alien planet, “BAD TRAVELLING” could just as easily be a dispatch from 19th-century maritime literature, finding a ragtag group of sailors transporting barrels of oil across a vast ocean who soon come under a nightmarish siege from a bloodthirsty, crustacean-adjacent sea monster referred to only as a Thanopod. When the monster takes up residence in the belly of the ship, the sailors send the unnamed protagonist (Troy Baker, a popular voice actor for video games) down to establish a line of communication; they hope to negotiate something resembling a truce or deal with a sentient creature they’ve come to realize is highly intelligent. Instead, the protagonist strikes a deal (via the disturbing image of a corpse intermediary) to regularly supply the ravenous Thanopod with fresh meat in exchange for his own safety while they continue sailing to their destination. What transpires is a riveting game of shifting alliances as the body count rises and the remaining sailors jockey for control— made all the more complicated by the fact that the Thanopod has hatched a galley-full of younglings, each with their own insatiable appetite.

The immediate benefit of the animation medium is the superlative degree of control it affords the notoriously precise Fincher. Having run his actors through the intensive motion capture process, the raw tracking data could be transposed to a digital environment of his own painstaking design. Indeed, “BAD TRAVELLING” shows us how Fincher’s unmistakable aesthetic can manifest outside the scope of live-action production and its attendant compromises. This unrestrained ability to exert his influence results in a photorealistic digital recreation of open water, albeit with select expressionistic flourishes like the ship’s swooping design, the exagerrated facial features of the characters, and of course, the hulking scale of the monstrous Thanopod. Fincher’s signature style remains in place, soaking the visuals in a blue/yellow wash that’s accentuated by high-contrast shadows and “practical” lighting elements like torches and fire. Longtime editor Kirk Baxter strings Fincher’s bespoke visuals together in a manner quite similar to his live-action work, emphasizing low angles that suggest power dynamics between characters while subtly selling us on his digital set’s immersiveness via its visible ceilings. Composer Jason Hill, who previously handled score duties on Fincher’s MINDHUNTER series, returns to infuse “BAD TRAVELLING” with an atmospheric musical sound, its throbbing synth undercurrents reminiscent of John Carpenter’s theme for THE THING (1982).

Fincher’s key reference, however, is a very different beloved genre property from that era: Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, ALIEN. Both stories concern themselves with a ravenous beast lurking in the bowels of a ship as the human crew works to contain it. Whereas the inhabitants of the Nostromo worked together to rid themselves of the Xenomorph, however, the sailors here descend into infighting and treachery in their solitary efforts to stay alive. In wanting to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of ALIEN, he can’t help but evoke 1992’s ALIEN 3– his own feature debut whose infamously-troubled production led him to disavow his creative ownership and almost caused him to swear off theatrical filmmaking altogether. The prisoners of Fury 161 and the sailors of BAD TRAVELLING’s alien ocean aren’t so different; both sets of mostly-bald characters find themselves in a confined industrial environment, thrust into a challenging situation where they musty employ coordinated strategy and trickery — and ultimately, primitive tools like fire — in lieu of conventional weapons. The big difference is that BAD TRAVELLING’s sailors have the luxury of firearms, but they’re more effectively used against each other instead of the giant crustacean below deck. 

Fincher’s inherent embrace of these visual similarities is rather interesting; some might see his work here as an opportunity to remake ALIEN 3 in compact form, cleansing himself of his troubled experiences thirty years ago by leveraging the total control afforded by the animation medium. His repeated public disavowals of the film over the years suggests such reconciliation might be out of the question, but BAD TRAVELLING might evidence some softening of those sentiments. In the context of recent statements about wanting to use his Netflix deal to experiment and diversify his style, BAD TRAVELLING is a sign that perhaps Fincher’s desire to loosen up and play a little helps to cast ALIEN 3 in a new light. Instead of a painful experience to be pushed past and forgotten about, Fincher may be coming around to appreciate ALIEN 3 as an important way-station in his artistic development. If it’s not too much of a stretch to say, he might even be allowing himself to take some comfort in the film’s many strengths.

All of this is not to say that Fincher’s sensibilities are softening any time soon. The razor-sharp edge that defines his work still handily asserts itself whether he’s emulating the monochromatic classics of Hollywood’s golden age or rendering the dark galley of a wooden ship entirely within the computer. His partnership with Netflix continues to enable his revitalized productivity and increase his output at a far faster rate than a traditional studio would allow. The ultimate outcome of streaming’s innovations (or disruptions, depending on your point of view) remain to be seen, but the existence of more Fincher films in the world is an objective good. Whether or not he returns to animation in the future, BAD TRAVELLING stands as a compelling example of his superlative grasp of the medium. Indeed, this is a language he’s spoken since his earliest days in the industry, from way back at his time in visual effects at Industrial Light & Magic. He’s come full circle, in a way, to reconnect with his roots; to recalibrate the fundamental essence of his artistic worldview. What happens next — an upcoming Netflix feature titled THE KILLER and starring Michael Fassbender — promises to vibrate in similar frequencies while furthering his forays into the streaming frontier.

Credits:

Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker, Tim Miller

Executive Produced by: Joshua Donen, Jennifer Miller, Tim Miller, David Fincher

Edited by: Kirk Baxter

Music by: Jason Hill

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