November 14, 2019

Love, Death & Robots “Zima Blue” Review | Off the Beaten Path

Man, have I been excited for this particular rewatch. After I watched it for the first time, Zima Blue was easily in my top three episodes of LDR, if not my favorite overall. I’m not gonna lie, I partly chose LDR to kick off Off the Beaten Path just so I had an excuse to watch Zima Blue again, and hopefully gain some newer and deeper appreciation. I know I’m not alone in my love of this episode; go online and you’ll see Zima Blue topping many of the rankings of LDR as much as episodes like Good Hunting and Beyond the Aquila Rift. Now, I’ll do my best to describe why this episode is thought of so highly.

Based on a short story by Alastair Reynolds (aka the author of Beyond the Aquila Rift), Zima Blue follows reporter Claire Markham as she recounts the assignment of a lifetime; to interview Zima, a mysterious and reclusive artist in a future society known for his mural work, and tell the world his life story before he unveils his final piece. It starts as Claire travels to Zima’s home, an island in the middle of a vast ocean. As she’s travelling, she describes the early life of Zima. Long ago (at least a few hundred years ago), Zima emerged onto the art scene in portraiture, but moved on to murals due to his lack of satisfaction with portraits. His murals soon become famous for both their grand complexity,and the growing presence of squares of a unique shade of blue, dubbed Zima Blue. Still unsatisfied, the blue begins to dominate his murals to the point his murals are nothing but Zima Blue, and ends with his murals becoming astronomical in size and scope. Once Claire arrives at the island, she’s struck by the appearance of Zima; at some point in the past, Zima voluntarily became a cyborg in order to fully experience the universe. Zima takes her to look at what will become his final art piece; a half constructed dug out swimming pool, like you would find in a typical American backyard. 

Zima then tells her the story of the pool. Hundreds of years ago on Earth (implied to be roughly our present, or the near future), a young woman with a keen interest in practical robotics who tested designs on her robots, her favorite being the robot that cleaned her swimming pool. Over time, the woman made the robot smarter and more effective at cleaning the pool through constant upgrades until she died. The pool robot was then passed on to multiple owners, growing more and more advanced with time. Zima ends the story by revealing to Claire that he was that very same pool cleaning robot, and that this was the very pool he cleaned all those years ago. He also tells her the source of Zima Blue; it was the shade of the pool tiles, the first things he ever saw. Fast forward to the unveiling of his art piece. Zima jumps into the pool, and willingly deconstructs his body until all that’s left is the original pool cleaning robot. Left with only enough intelligence to gain some satisfaction from cleaning the pool, Zima finally found meaning and happiness, remarking that he has finally “gone home”.

So, yeah. Safe to say when I watched Zima Blue for the first time, it blew my then weed buzzed mind. Everything just came together into a great whole, made only more apparent after my indifference to Lucky 13. The first thing that grabbed me was the animation. Provided by Passion Animation Studios, the animation was a true treat to look at. Even though the original short story was written in the mid 2000’s, the animation, thankfully some hand drawn 2D animation, gave me a retro feel. The story of Zima Blue feels like something you would find in an old school pulp sci-fi magazine, and the animation fits that to a tee, with each frame looking like it could be the cover of said pulp magazine. It also complimented the story about the dissatisfied artist, since we were able to get a true appreciation for the artwork of Zima in a way that the life like 3D CGI that populates LDR would never be able to truly replicate. 

The big thing that made me fall in love with the episode though, unsurprisingly, was the reveal about Zima’s origins. I never thought I could love a twist more. To me, the best twists are not those that prioritize pure shock value, because they often cloud the story and can either be forgotten or drag down the story if they don’t land well. On the contrary, like with Zima Blue and Beyond the Aquila Rift (the episodes with the best twists in LDR), the best twists are the ones that add nuance to the story by tying together elements both known and previously unknown into the broader themes of the story. In the case of Zima Blue, the reveal of Zima’s origins allowed us to understand why he pursued art to such a degree, but on a deeper level highlighted the theme of the episode: grand quests for meaning and happiness lead only to dissatisfaction and spiritual malaise; instead, meaning and happiness come from being true to one’s self, even if its as little as cleaning a pool. It’s a simple lesson, one we see a lot in both fiction and in real life, but the way the twist rolls out gives the story the kind of nuance the best stories have. 

On my most recent rewatch with the twist in mind, I came to notice some elements that either played up the reveal, along with a greater appreciation for the theme. On a basic, yet fundamental level, I came to understand the way the story is told. I know many people who weren’t fans of Zima Blue point towards the narration, which does the heavy lifting with presenting the narrative. In other words, the episode relies on telling, not showing the story. It was one of my few gripes with Zima Blue when I first watched it in fact. Rewatching it the other day however I began to compare it to a similar story, the non-fiction movie The End of the Tour, based on the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky. In a nutshell, The End of the Tour follows Lipsky, then a reporter for Rolling Stone, as he interviews author David Foster Wallace over a couple of days in 1996 at the end of Wallace’s Infinite Jest book tour. What reminded me of Zima Blue though was how the movie starts; the movie starts in 2008 when Lipsky hears about Wallace’s suicide, with the rest of the movie playing as a long form flashback. Once I had made the connection, how Zima Blue relayed its narrative made more sense to me. It is merely Claire recounting her assumed history of Zima and the truths she learned about him after the fact, like how Lipsky recounted his time with Wallace after Lipsky first hears about Wallace’s suicide in 2008. I doubt this would fix the criticism of the “tell, don’t show” nature of the short, but it puts it into a context that makes narrative sense. Another small thing that jumped out to me was how Zima turned into an artist. It may seem like a jump to go from a pool cleaning robot to universally acclaimed muralist, which is understandable. What I noticed this time though was that the episode accounts for this in the montage of the growth of the pool cleaning robot. We see this robot used for menial tasks besides pool cleaning, including painting walls and hedge trimming, which lend themselves to artistry. After seeing the robot perform these tasks, the jump made more sense to me; I could see a robot, yearning for a deeper purpose through self expression, go from painting a simple wall to painting a complex mural.    

If there was anything this rewatch solidified for me though, it was the appreciation of sci-fi as a storytelling medium. The great thing about sci-fi as a genre, is that when it aims for something more than pure entertainment (don’t get me wrong, I do love me some sci-fi schlock as well). It allows for the unparalleled exploration of ideas relating to philosophy and the human condition on both the macroscopic and the microscopic through specially constructed realities. In other words, it can reveal to us concrete truths about ourselves through the lens of the abstract. With Zima Blue, we see an android living a full life, with all the twists and turns we have, but given an android flair. We see Zima progress from simple minded machine without worry, to complex being burdened with a need for meaning and a burning nostalgia for the past, ending back where he began. It’s a journey we all, hopefully, are destined to make in our own way. On this journey we come to realize, along with Zima, what’s truly important; happiness and meaning comes from being true to one’s self, no matter how mundane it may be. The fact we get all this in 10ish minutes is a testament about how well suited sci-fi is for telling this kind of story, and why it should be treasured.

So, to wrap everything up, Zima Blue is, in a nutshell, everything peak sci-fi should be. It tells us a moving a story that, while given the inevitable sci-fi flair, is truly a human story that reveals deeper truths about ourselves, and given life through some amazing animation. With four more episodes to go with my rewatch of LDR (man this show has flown by), I’m not sure how anything can top the brilliance of Zima Blue.

Final Rating: A

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