It’s messy and uneven in the way that high-minded Ridley Scott science-fiction tends to be, but Raised By Wolves also has enough lofty ideas and instantly-iconic imagery to be well worth a look.
This review of Raised By Wolves is spoiler-free.
Aaron Guzikowski created HBO Max’s new sci-fi series Raised by Wolves, but it’s Ridley Scott whose name and stylistic fingerprints are all over it. Scott executive produces the show and directed its first two episodes; both of those and a third will premiere together and undoubtedly entice a sizeable audience with their high-concept premise, lofty philosophical musings, impressive visual effects work, and instantly-iconic murderous android.
That android is Mother (Amanda Collin), and she seems designed explicitly for marketing and gory set-pieces. She spends most of her time as a smiley but deliberately off-kilter woman with pale skin and close-cropped hair, but when the mood strikes her she swoops imperiously through the air encased in bronze, pulping meddlesome religious zealots with her banshee scream. When she’s halfway between the two she bleeds white goo, howls like a wolf, and plucks the eyes from her head. It’s complicated.
It would be a great deal more complicated if Raised By Wolves was less fascinated with Mother. The show’s premise is built on the ruins of a religious war and wants to be a strange parenting drama as much as a sci-fi actioner. But it tends to frame its ruminations on belief and childrearing as tests of Mother’s character, and always feels like it’s cooking up the next excuse for her to go postal and start flexing the obviously sizeable FX budget. Any fans of that sort of thing are going to be well-served here, but they might find themselves wishing that the show would double-down on its themes.
There’s a lot to unpack here. In the first episode, Mother and her partner, Father (Abubakar Salim), land on Kepler-22b, a disappointingly drab-looking planet where they have been tasked by atheist forces to seed human life with a dozen frozen embryos. They’re on the losing side of a war against the Mithraics, religious nutters who dress like Templar Knights and practice a religion that’s basically Catholicism with some creative license to prevent any awkward questions being asked. The show is built on little idiosyncrasies and paradoxes; Mother and Father resemble human beings but move and speak in that weird way androids in film and television always do, they’re redoing the Genesis creation story but are programmed to instill atheism in their children, they’re supposed to be emotionless yet quickly prove themselves to be anything but, and most embrace their synthetic nature in pursuit of distinctly human aims.
These things are very Ridley Scott, obviously, as is a sense of humor that’s contained almost entirely in Father’s deliberately terrible dad jokes. Perhaps a sense of humor wouldn’t be fitting, though, since the show is very grim; of the twelve children Mother and Father sire, all but one of them are dead in the space of a single episode, killed by disease and tragedy, leaving behind only Campion (Winta McGrath), a dangerously precocious and rather annoying kid who is veering closer and closer to faith with every loss he endures and whose meddling brings the dangerous believers right to Mother and Father’s doorstep.
This, it turns out, isn’t as bad as it sounds. The Mithraics represent villains, sort of, but they also represent an excuse for Mother to go ballistic, which is when the show’s at its best. The Mithraics also include a couple – played by Travis Fimmel and Niamh Algar – whose own story with their son Paul (Felix Jamieson) works as a nice contrast to Mother and Father’s attempts at raising Campion. Who exactly the good guys and bad guys are here is deliberately ambiguous, and only made more so when a major development early on rather significantly complicates every character dynamic.
There’s no doubt that Raised By Wolves is uneven, but the six episodes provided to press held my attention all the way through, and for all its faults it’s jam-packed with lofty notions to ponder and gloriously soggy action to enjoy. There’s a slew of cool-looking, imaginative stuff, a bevy of uncomfortable truths, and plenty of potential to take the story in all kinds of directions, despite how obviously – nay, proudly – it evokes its familiar influences. If HBO Max were looking for a real killer original for the frontlines of the streaming wars, and if Ridley Scott wanted to prove that he’s still got it when it comes to ambitious science-fiction, then Raised By Wolves absolutely fits the bill.