December 13, 2019

Love, Death & Robots “The Secret War” Review | Off the Beaten Path

Here we are, at the final episode of Love, Death & Robots. So to give us the final taste of Love, Death & Robots before season 2 comes out, we have the horror-action episode The Secret War. If I had to summarize what this short is in a nutshell, it’s the perfect complementary bookend to Sonnie’s Edge, both in terms of the action and the overall quality of the episode. So without further ado, let’s take a look at what The Secret War does right, and what it gets wrong.

The Episode Summary

Based on a short story by David W. Amendola, The Secret War follows a platoon of WWII Red Army soldiers, led by Sgt. Sergei Pavlovich, as they chase a supernatural threat across Siberia. Hot on the trails of the threat (aka a horde of demons from Hell), they come across a village that has been slaughtered by a small group of demons. Despite knowing they were short on men but knowing their superiors won’t send them any help, they press onwards. Tracking them into the forest, they encounter the group. After a bloody fight, the platoon emerges wounded but victorious. They also find a frozen secret police officer, Boris Grishin, with a notebook that acts as a clue to the origins of the demons.

Camped out on a ridge during the night, listening to the far off fight of another battalion against the horde, the sergeant tells his lieutenant what he knows about the enemy based on their clue. After the October revolution, the Red Army starts “Operation Hades”, in which the government would covertly study local myths to get a leg up on the White Army. In 1919, Grishin attempts a ritual to summon an army consisting of the demons of Hell. He succeeds in summoning them, but quickly loses control of them and is quickly killed.

Back in the present day, the platoon finds a large barrow, and proceed to blow it up. However, things don’t go according to plan. It turns out the barrow is much larger than they thought. So instead of burying the demons they only further provoke them. The platoon prepares for a last stand, and Sergei sends his son away on their fastest horse with one task. That task is to relay an order for an aerial bombardment on the barrow. The platoon makes their last stand but is quickly slaughtered through sheer numbers. The next day the demons feast on the remains of the platoon until the barrow is carpet-bombed by a whole host of Soviet planes.

My Thoughts

When I first watched The Secret War in March, it quickly fell by the wayside. I thought the episode had some promise but ended up being rather boring. Once I rewatched it the other day, my opinions largely didn’t change all that much, for better or for worse. There were a couple of reasons for this.

The biggest one was with the characterization. Everyone seemed to be a stock character. Most of the men weren’t even named, and they all seemed to have the same personality. Even the named characters didn’t have much that distinguished them from each other. The few details we get of Sergei (his being a father to his men and his son), don’t change the fact that he is the typical portrait of a Soviet soldier. The only one who seemed interesting to me was Okchen, the native steppes-man, and the group tracker. So it didn’t help when he was killed off before anyone else when he was caught in the massive barrow collapse.

This lack of characterization essentially kneecapped the final battle. Since none of these men had many distinguishing features or personalities to connect to, it didn’t provoke any emotion when they were all killed in the end. I mean, compared to characters of the other military episodes Shape-Shifters and Lucky 13, it becomes even more apparent how thin these characters were personality-wise. 

The animation, provided by Digic Pictures, once again falls back on the life-like 3D CGI. Thus it automatically became even less distinct in my eyes. It’s so much like a video game, that if I had to suggest how to fix the story, it would be to change it from a movie to a Call of Duty campaign. To me at least, this would honestly be pretty fun. I have a lot of fond memories as a kid playing Call of Duty II on my computer back in the day, and The Secret War would feel right at home in the Russian campaign.

If there’s one last thing negative I’d like to add, is that there are some editing choices I don’t agree with. I’m not a post-production man, so I don’t know a whole lot about editing. Therefore it takes a lot for me to notice when the editing is wonky. In the case of The Secret War, the editing of the final battle confuses me. I don’t think cutting into the middle of the final stand was effective at all like they did. If you wanted to do that, you could do so in less clumsy ways. For instance, you could intercut the battle with Sergei’s son riding away.

That said, there were some positives of The Secret War. The way they relay the information about “Operation Hades” worked well for me. It avoided the pitfalls of “as you know” dialogue, which along with “tell, don’t show” annoys me to no end. The horror elements also work well. For example, we don’t see any of the demons right away, we only see their handiwork in the village. Thus the suspense of what’s coming is built up effectively.

Another good example is the flashback to Grishin’s summoning ritual. It’s very nightmarish, just like any good rendition of a 1980s conservative parent’s conceptions of a Satanic ritual. I also liked what action we see. Again, it would feel right at home in a Call of Duty game. Lastly, I liked the fact the episode strove to create a situation like in Chernobyl. Namely, the Soviet government is complicit in some accident that they want to hide from the rest of the world, and it falls to the common comrade to step in and make the necessary sacrifice to fix the problem. It’s a shame really since the lack of characterization makes it much harder for the emotional impact of this sacrifice to be felt. It’s like watching NPCs instead of real people.

In Conclusion

So in the end, The Secret War plays out for me just like Lucky 13. It’s a decently made but flawed episode that ends up being a rather boring watch. It’s not a great feeling that this is the final episode of Love, Death & Robots that we’re left with, though it helps knowing there’s going to be a season 2, so this episode won’t be our final impression. That said, I’d be so down to play this campaign, cause it looks like it’s hella fun to play, just not to watch.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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