Raised by Wolves takes place in a distant future where the earth has been consumed by a war between atheists and believers. It’s a premise so insufferable you can almost feel it walking to your bookshelf to judge your taste. Thankfully, that’s kind of besides the point – at least for a while. The dazzling new sci-fi series is, at first, mostly about being raised by a robot mom who may or may not secretly want to kill you. And yet, it still manages to not be terribly exciting to watch.
HBO Max’s latest show is pulling out all the stops. A lavish, expensive-looking series with the first two episodes directed by none other than Ridley Scott, Raised by Wolves is hard to ignore. It’s the sort of big, sweeping show that’s meant to fill the void left by Westworld or Game of Thrones, cerebral-yet-thrilling while giving the impression it has just as much money as any blockbuster movie. However, like each of those shows at their worst, Raised by Wolves swiftly descends into barely comprehensible nonsense, mostly because it forgets to have actual characters.
The scope starts refreshingly small: two androids, Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) are sent to a seemingly uninhabited planet with the mission of raising six children from viable embryos to grown adults. This proves difficult in the hostile terrain of this strange planet, as complications quickly begin to arise, like an attack by predatory Gollum-like monsters or an army of religious zealots who want to rescue the children from their android caretakers.
As it moves from one scenario to the next, Raised by Wolves slowly widens its scope: Mother and Father were sent by atheists to raise children free of religious tyranny after a war that destroyed earth. Thankfully, this war is not waged by angry men yelling God isn’t real! and angrier men yelling yes he is! It’s a war with strange androids and people who change their face to go undercover and a Matrix-like virtual world. So yes, while it’s a turgid show, it’s also one that touches on aspects of every kind of popular sci-fi film – which makes sense because Ridley Scott made most of them.
While the series is created and written by Aaron Guzikowski (perhaps most widely known as the writer behind the Denis Villeneuve thriller Prisoners), it quickly aligns itself with a number of Scott hallmarks: barren alien landscapes, a doomed Earth, androids that look and feel like people, and a dim view of humanity. Because of this, it also feels rote: a science fiction project that wants to present itself as bold but is mostly interested in very tired ideas. As the title suggests, nature versus nurture is a thematic interest, but so is religion, science, consciousness, identity, and artificial life. All are gestured at in the first three episodes alone, and while nothing terribly compelling comes of it early on, the show does feel like a relief in an era where story scraps are frequently stretched over too many episodes.
It’s possible, then, that these ideas will collide in ways that make for television that is as rewarding to think about as it is gorgeous to look at. The spectacle, while devoid of color, is wonderfully composed and endlessly unsettling: crops grown in spirals, boneyards suggesting massive dinosaur-like aliens, and androids made of synthetic organs and metallic skin that can emit a scream capable of popping humans like a balloon. The performances are disconcerting and effective. Amanda Collin’s turn as Mother is particularly good, walking a strange line between mechanical and feral.
Also possible is the fact that these are just ideas, not stories. Across three episodes, I know very little about the atheists and the religious who fight them or the specificities of their faith. And until I do, I will always be tempted to mock them with some kind of joke recalling Richard Dawkins circa 2007. The same goes for any of its characters: they’re all up to things, maybe even interesting things, but I couldn’t tell you what, specifically.
Most television needs time: to find its footing, to develop big ideas, for its cast to start to gel and connect with the audience. Raised by Wolves has the potential …