Ridley Scott produces a heady, intellectual science fiction series with big, sumptuous ideas and occasionally shaggy presentation.
(Editor’s note: This review is based upon the first six episodes of the series provided to critics before release.)
At the beginning of each episode of Raised by Wolves — a new HBO Max sci-fi series created by Aaron Guzikowski with Ridley Scott as executive producer and director of the first two episodes — an opening sequence details the fall of mankind on Earth using the artistic flourishes of pastel paintings in slow motion. It’s a striking counterbalance to weigh the doom of humanity’s near future against fundamentally classic artwork, and it does well to set up a series that is full of its own contradictions, sometimes when it comes to the quality of storytelling.
The cast of Raised by Wolves is quite small at first. A pair of androids crash land on a planet lightyears away from where they originated, and their purpose is simple: artificially birth human embryos they took with them from origins unknown and raise these children to live prosperous lives on a new, strange planet. The androids simply refer to each other as Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), and they affectionately name their youngest newborn Campion (Winta McGrath) after the faceless genius who created them.
Life on this new planet is hard and unpredictable, which is where the show begins to lay the groundwork for its main hook: a science fiction drama with a setting that visually and thematically draws from the Middle Ages, similar to how Firefly lovingly fused the western genre with its roguish, sci-fi setting. Mother and Father are down-on-their luck serfs fighting against a plague that threatens the lives of their children, toiling day in and day out to provide a better life in an unforgiving, primitive wilderness.
The medieval atmosphere comes into even more focus when a ship known as the “Ark of Heaven” approaches, carrying a group of religious zealots who were at war with the atheists back on Earth. Naturally, Mother and Father are atheists as well, trying to instill a life of science and reason into their children, but eventually, these two opposing groups have no choice but to clash in a new sort of crusade.
One of the key strengths of Raised by Wolves, particularly in the episodes directed by Scott, is its effortless wielding of different genres to generate excitement when the plot is collapsing into itself. This is certainly a slow burn in the vein of Scott’s more high-minded efforts in the genre, notably Prometheus. But he’s still smart enough to know when a dousing of absolute horror and violence is both welcome and inevitable, without actually being too predictable.
But it’s the later episodes directed by Luke Scott (son of Ridley Scott) and Sergio Mimica-Gizzan (Battlestar Galactica) where Raised by Wolves sheds its synthetic skin for something more organic and traditionally satisfying, if not also a tad generic as a result. Eventually, the spotlight leans more and more favorably on Travis Fimmel (Vikings), an enigmatic member of the religious cult who has more to his background than you might initially suspect. It’s through his character, Marcus, that we get deeper glimpses into what brought mankind to this rugged, uncertain place. The lore behind the androids in particular (who are more or less slight variants of what we’ve seen in Scott’s work since Alien), ends up becoming the show’s true trump card when it comes to visceral thrill.
Ultimately, the implications of Raised by Wolves end up being far more interesting than a lot of the actual storytelling.
Like the androids, Marcus has his own problematic baggage when it comes to parenthood, and like most good sci-fi projects, the show asks some insightful questions about what it means to be responsible for another life and who deserves the chance to try. It examines the good, bad, and in-between of people (or machines) instilling their own experiences and biases into others, suggesting the line between parenting and indoctrination likely isn’t questioned enough in our current society.
It’s no secret that people like to insert their own opinions into the parenting styles of others, using the betterment of the child as an excuse to intervene. But the show also takes pains to demonstrate how the children themselves manage to grow, adapt, and at times rebel against what they’re taught to believe as soon as they’re given good reason.
Ultimately, the implications of Raised by Wolves end up being far more interesting than a lot of the actual storytelling. The show suffers from uneven energy when the directors trade hands, and as the central character of Mother shifts from protagonist to antagonist, then back again and in reverse, the emotional whiplash can feel a lot like mindless wandering.
The production value and heady writing is certainly arresting enough to keep the sci-fi hopefuls engaged for at least the first three episodes. But as the first season drifts aimlessly into its back half, there are sure to be some viewers who lose faith along the way.
Raised by Wolves is currently playing on HBO Max, with new episodes airing Thursdays.