'Raised by Wolves': TV Review

Raised by Wolves
HBO
After a promising start, goes from intriguing to stultifying.
9/3/2020

Ridley Scott executive produces and directs the first two episodes of this HBO Max drama about androids, faith and raising children on a far-off planet.

The first episode of HBO Max's Raised by Wolves is, if nothing else, an intriguingly enigmatic crossroads.

Directed by Ridley Scott and shot with evocative flair by Scott's frequent cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the pilot establishes only a small corner of the show's world, introduces only a taste of the show's science fiction allegory and concentrates most heavily on the show's two most interesting characters. It's hard to walk away from those opening 53 minutes with any clue what Raised by Wolves is as a series, but it's easy to leave the episode with faith — it's kinda the theme of the show — that what you're watching might unfold as something impressive. Derivative as all get out. But impressive.

It's more than possible that the momentum of that first episode might be enough to carry some viewers — fans of evasive-yet-ponderous hard sci-fi — through the series. I found the next five episodes a study in diminishing returns, the breathtaking aesthetic fading with Scott and Wolski's baton-passing after the second episode and the overall world of the show becoming less and less compelling with each contrived plot point and thinly sketched new character. With nobody and nothing to really care about, I'll probably skip the season's last four episodes.

Created by Aaron Guzikowski (The Red Road), Raised by Wolves is a nearly impossible series to summarize. Set midway through the 22nd century after a war between atheists and the ultra-religious Mithraics turned the Earth into a smoldering battlefield, the series begins with a small capsule landing on the planet Kepler-22b. The passengers of the vessel are a pair of androids, Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), sent by the atheists to begin a process of asexually repopulating the universe. Mother and Father have been trained to produce and raise a group of children, including Campion (Winter McGrath), on terrain that is inhabitable, but not hospitable. Food is sparse and the gigantic skeletons of toothy serpent creatures suggest they may not be alone.

Several years after the androids comes a vast space ark of Mithraics heading to the same destination. That the fundamentalist Mithraics appear to be every bit as scientifically advanced as the atheists is something Raised by Wolves almost surely would prefer that you ignore. The Mithraics, whose space knight costumes are meant to not-so-subtly call to mind the Crusades, count among their ranks Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar), a couple with secrets that aren't nearly as involving as Guzikowski thinks they are — and whose presence is one of several narrative stumbling blocks in later episodes, when Raised by Wolves is spending roughly half its screen time with them.

The Raised by Wolves pilot often works because Scott and Wolski are on such familiar ground. So far there's no suggestion that this is supposed to be another of Scott's recent string of Alien prequels, but if later episodes were to introduce a xenomorph or facehugger, it could surely be a companion to Prometheus and Alien: Covenant (with just a bit of Kingdom of Heaven, thanks to those pesky Templar-esque Mithraics). Scott is transfixed by the show's production landscape and its hostile mixture of mountains and barren desert, captured with its own humanity-averse, washed-out color scheme.

Mother and Father could absolutely be white-blooded siblings to the late, great Ian Holm's Ash in an exploration of what happens when artificial intelligence evolves beyond its design and takes on an almost divine condescension toward humanity. Mother and Father's reverence for their human Creator — just one of many points of on-the-nose irony relating to these condemners of religious faith — is at least something worth exploring even if after six episodes I'm not sure Guzikowski has anything more profound to say than, "Fundamentalism comes in several varieties, all scary."

If there's a reason to keep watching Raised by Wolves after the Ridley Scott-directed opening episodes  — Scott's son Luke exhibits no skill with narrative momentum in the third and fourth episodes, while Sergio Mimica-Gezzan restores some order in the fifth and sixth hours — it's Collin, blending dancer-like grace and robotic rigidity to entrancing effect. Don't spend too much time pondering why an android would be designed to speak with a slightly Danish accent, nor any of the show's varied accent work, nor why a show whose best and most interesting character is a woman (of a synthetic sort) thought it was acceptable to have a slate of all-male directors in its first season. Salim matches Collin in figuring out how to portray android physicality and contributes the only humor in the dour series through his character's humorless effort to craft jokes.

When Mother and Father do things that make no particular internal sense, you can at least excuse it with, "They're androids and they're weird." It's less easy to pass off how consistently inconsistent and weakly developed every other character in the series is. As much as I appreciate Guzikowski's willingness not to overly explain the Mithraic religion or the dystopian world that led to humanity fleeing Earth, it's astonishing how dull Marcus, Sue and everybody else on the ark are. It's one thing to not want to tip your hand as to whether the Mithraic characters are supposed to be the villains or stealth heroes of the show, but they're absolutely the villains in that the series sags any time we cut over to their side of the story. Fimmel, who I generally thought was a terrific leading man on Vikings, turns "mumbling" into Marcus' defining characteristic, which gives him one more attribute than Algar has been able to give Sue.

There's just no reason to be interested in the Mithraic side of the story, much less care, and even the Mother/Father side of the story is muddled by a group of one-note characters and performances. Maybe there's a way of telling this story that explains the value of a spiritual belief system in parenting and how ideas like recognition of a higher power, a code of God-given morality and the idea of a soul contribute to nurturing and personal development. But Raised by Wolves can't illustrate those concepts, though man does it keep coming back to shots of Mother, arms outstretched in what Soundgarden would call a "Jesus Christ Pose." When it tiptoes into more provocative notions like a storyline relating to abortion, it flails hopelessly.

For fans of Big Idea science-fiction who are able to avoid digging too deep or asking too many questions, Raised by Wolves will have some appeal. For me, it wasn't just that, after six episodes, I'd lost all affection for every character and their world; I'd also run out of curiosity.

Cast: Amanda Collin, Abubakar Salim, Winta McGrath, Niamh Algar, Jordan Loughran, Matias Varela, Felix Jamieson, Ethan Hazzard, Aasiya Shah, Ivy Wong and Travis Fimmel

Creator: Aaron Guzikowski

First three episodes premiere Thursday, September 3, on HBO Max.