“Raised by Wolves,” the first original drama series from HBO Max, is a dark science fantasy space epic created by “Prisoners” screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and produced by Ridley Scott. Full of slow burn philosophical drama and spectacular scenery, “Raised by Wolves” revives most of Scott’s trademarks, including but not limited to interstellar colonialism, creepy androids with milk for blood and monstrous pregnancies.
In the distant future of “Raised by Wolves,” Earth has been left uninhabitable by a devastating war between humanity’s two opposing factions: the dwindling Atheists and the dominant Mithraic religious order. In a last-ditch effort to preserve society without a theistic belief system, the Atheists send a pod to exoplanet Kepler-22b. Inside are two androids named Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), along with several human embryos placed in cryostasis.
Tasked with raising the children and restarting humanity, Mother and Father set out to build a new Eden, but slowly find that Kepler-22b has deep secrets that predate their arrival — evidenced appropriately in the form of dinosaur-sized serpent skeletons buried just below the surface. When the Mithraic arrive in an interstellar ark carrying their entire population, Earth’s conflicts over faith are reignited and the two sides struggle to control humanity’s future.
Scott, whose films “Alien” and “Blade Runner” are genre-defining sci-fi masterpieces, directs the first two episodes of the series. As usual, Scott’s visual storytelling is astonishing. As a result of the grayscale color scheme, Kepler-22b looks and feels unnervingly alien. The breathtaking real locations are suffused with unknown danger, but the underlying natural beauty allows moments of hope to penetrate through an overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere.
More so than Scott’s newer sci-fi movies, such as “Alien: Covenant,” the costume and production design in “Raised by Wolves” puts a fresh spin on a lineage of literature and film, dating back to the 1927 prototypical sci-fi movie “Metropolis.” The silver bodysuits worn by Mother and Father, somehow more revealing than nudity, are both pulpy and refreshingly minimalistic. The Mithraic costumes likewise uniquely blend a medieval sensibility with the futuristic technology-centric universe. Where most recent sci-fi design, such as the tropey power armor in “The Expanse,” feels generic, “Raised by Wolves” looks like an Isaac Asimov book cover brought to life.
As with “Blade Runner,” the most interesting characters in “Raised by Wolves” are the androids. Collin’s performance as Mother, the show’s central character, is outlandish, over-the-top and incredibly effective. Salim, perhaps one of the most believable cinematic androids, balances the duo by approximating humanity; his voice perfectly evokes the struggle between his conflicted emotions and the constraints of his programming. Travis Fimmel is equally eccentric as Mithraic warrior Marcus, but his performance is not as consistently surprising as Collin’s or Salim’s.
In Guzikowski’s vision of a new humanity, the absence of Earth’s social structures allows the nuclear family’s normative gender roles to change. Mother is the hunter and protector in the couple, while Father is portrayed as more nurturing and forms stronger bonds with the children. Father’s tendency to recite unhumorous dad jokes is a small detail that adds great depth to the character, further questioning whether Father is simply following a programmed routine or displaying genuine personality.
Although the setup is exciting, this subversive dynamic is seemingly undone as “Raised by Wolves” continues. Whether by design or accident, “Raised by Wolves” suggests that humanity carries its implicit biases to fresh territory and automatically self-corrects in the face of change. Some of the stranger choices toward the end of the season may be justified by context to come, but lacking that foreknowledge, viewers may end up puzzled instead of intrigued.
Rather than tying up loose ends, Guzikowski’s finale opts for expansion. The scope of “Raised by Wolves” grows as the first season concludes, leaving some character arcs incomplete but setting up the show’s promising future. Still, the finale of “Raised by Wolves” doesn’t completely satisfy, possibly because of the lingering impact of Scott’s exceptional first two episodes. Raising further questions in lieu of denouement, these stories are left open to be resolved in a later season — hopefully with more nuance.
Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].