Epic sci-fi comes to HBO Max in Raised by Wolves, created by Aaron Guzikowski and executive produced and directed by Ridley Scott. The series unfolds in a universe where a war between Atheists and a religious faction called the "Mythraics" left Earth uninhabitable. While the Mythraics load up an ark spaceship to send survivors to a new colony planet, the Atheists launch a lighter ship packed only with embryos and two androids to care for them. The androids arrive at their destination first and set up an encampment to raise their human children, but the Atheists' experiment in android-human child-rearing takes a turn for the tragic even before the opposing Mythraic forces set down on the same sphere.
The title of the series refers to non-humans raising human children, which is the narrative's backbone. Those non-humans are the androids Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim). Collin elevates the idea, portraying the tempestuous mother with feral movements, pawing away at the dirt to search for or to bury secrets and, at times, becoming rabid, though there's a less obvious meaning, as well. Raised by Wolves is a two-fisted narrative that is, without giving too much away, telling the story from both the point of view of the androids and that of the Mythraic soldier Marcus (Travis Fimmel). As the story progresses, it becomes clear that another, more subtle case of children being raised by those who would not be considered their own is taking place on the other side of the conflict.
Collin's animalistic performance is a choice that foreshadows revelations doled out as the story progresses. That and the gradual reveal of what's happening on the Mythraic side of the story speak to Guzikowski's writing strength. Raised by Wolves is a series that rewards close viewing and listening, as Guzikowski will employ a single line of dialogue to tell you everything you need to know about a character's past and recontextualize everything that character has done up until that point. He never belabors the beat, eschewing the overly dramatic reveals that characterize modern "mystery box" style sci-fi.
That even-handed approach is typified by how Guzikowski and Scott present their subjects. Despite inhabiting their points of view at different intervals, the ones pointing the camera never seem sympathetic to what's taking place on the screen. It's shot and presented in a way that feels like the creators dropped these characters into this foreign landscape only to step back and allow events to unfold, observed from a distance as if filming a nature documentary. Perhaps a clearer sense of where the creators' sympathies lie will come through in later episodes, but they seem content to avoid telling the audience how to feel for now.
That's not to say that it is all spectacle and no heart, as that's hardly the case. You will empathize with these characters as much as the series will provoke you into thinking about classic sci-fi themes and the kinds of questions that date back to Isaac Asimov's Robot and Foundation series. However, it will all be presented in such an understated manner that when the series does turn up the visual volume, it hits with the searing brightness of stepping into the light after spending weeks in a dark cave.
It is here that Scott's skill as a director shines through in the first two episodes. Scott is excellent at grounding the fantastic. There's true grit to how these space-faring robots are trying to eke out a life for their children in an inhospitable, alien world. Similarly, it is surprising, but not overbearing, how typically human the dysfunction of their family dinners can be, yet when Scott decides to bring the spectacle, he brings it with the flair of a classical poet expressing the gods' wrath, with strange, statuesque angels leaving spectacular ruin in their wake.
This strange and potent blend of mythology and sci-fi would not work without the incredible vision and skill of the production team. The design of the armor of the Mythraic soldiers, a mixture of crusader and space marine, encapsulates the faction's dedication to both their sun god and their militant lifestyle. The Atheist's drab, simple garb and lodgings speak to the desire jettison what is not useful, the very philosophy that got the androids and their children to this new planet ahead of their rivals. These items and costumes are the work of such skill that they look less like they are of workshop design, and more as if taken from a buried vault of treasures belonging to a lost and forgotten society.
Raised by Wolves is sci-fi television of a rare breed. While premium cable and streaming services have been raising the bar in the genre for years, Raised by Wolves leaps ahead in craft, scale, and vision. Its novelistic storytelling and slow-burn pacing ask much of its audience, but it offers rewards in kind. For those willing to engage, Raised by Wolves is a stunning work of operatic science fiction that will linger in your mind well after the credits of each episode roll.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Raised by Wolves premieres on HBO Max on September 3rd.