On a distant, seemingly barren planet named Keplar-22b, a ship carrying two AIs and a selection of embryos crashes down and begins a new chapter in the battle for humanity’s soul. The two AIs ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ attempt to fertilise the embryos and raise the resulting infants to help repopulate this new world. They build that home, farm the land and teach their belief-systsem but the environment and an unexplained sickness causes unexpected heartache and the ‘couple’ have just about given up hope of fulfilling their mission when a ship from Earth enters the system.
It’s been over a decade since a savage, bloody war between people of faith and people of science was fought out, decimating the Earth, but it appears that the two factions may have found another battlefield. Both sides face questions within their ranks and casualties within their numbers, but as those battle-lines are drawn, secrets are revealed, the true power of ‘Mother’ is revealed and the children of Keplar-22b find themselves in the middle of a battle for the shape of the future… but with so many lies, who can they trust?
Watching the first episode of HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves you will immediately recognise it as belonging to the world of Ridley Scott. The real question is whether that description elevates it to something extraordinary or damns it in perpetuity for being sleek but ponderous. In truth, it feels like Ridley Scott combining all his best and worst impulses together.
There’s no doubt that Scott has been a seminal film-maker for much of his career, bringing some of the most interesting science-fiction experiences of the entire genre – the likes of Alien and Blade Runner will forever be landmark moments in cinematic history. But in recent years his sf endeavours – such as Alien ‘prequels’ Prometheus and Alien: Covenant have also divided critics and audiences. Some felt the canvases he created were wide and the effects impressive but that the stories were full of high-brow questioning of life, faith and existence rather than actually being that entertaining. In recent years his bigger successes have been in an executive producer capacity rather than directorial.
Raised by Wolves contains many of Scott’s signature elements – artificial lifeforms pivoting on their programming and ‘bleeding’ white goo, faith in deities being questioned by human and AIs alike, desolate planets and crashed starships abound. (Indeed if all this turned out to be happening in some oblique corner of a combined Blade Runner/Alien-verse, it wouldn’t be a massive shock) To give the series its due, you need to watch all three available episodes to fully judge the potential. But tonally, the experience of watching the first episode is a little like watching Scott do a version of The Martian Chronicles meets The Martian… with everything being very cerebral, bleak. practical yet dripping in subtext – all presented within an undeniably impressive design-budget, but also delivered in a deliberately stilted form. It’s almost literally world-building and it’s going to make you pick up a shovel to do it.
Much of that opener feels like the first twenty minutes of a bigger feature film – there’s a ton of exposition and scene-setting and a setting up of characters, though it’s notable that by the end of that first forty-four minutes, most of the characters we’ve met are dead and that we’ve only got a glimpse of the wider universe in which it’s all set. We do know – or expect – that this will be less about androids and post-apocalyptic fighting (though there’s evidence of both) and more about the idea of faith versus science. That sounds like fertile ground for a good story but is also a graveyard of good intentions when it comes to keeping pulses rating and interested peaked.
The second and third episode help reset the narrative a little, with Scott directing the second episode and his son Luke taking over thereafter (and arguably providing better balance). The second delves into the history of the warrior, Marcus (Travis Fimmel) whom we saw survive Mother’s attack and we begin to appreciate there’s more to his back-story and his reasons for being here than even his comrades-in-arms understand. We get more information about the religion/science war that decimated Earth and begin to witness cracks in both ‘camps’ when it comes to following directives. The third builds on both.
Amanda Collin as Mother is impressive in a role that requires her to be both maternal and a killing machine and the way she slides between the two (even with the help of CGI) gives the character the edge of a classic screen sociopath, clearly unhinged but not stupid or without intelligence or always entirely wrong. You can understand her imperatives without agreeing with them. Abubakar Salim as ‘father’ initially seems the more passive of the parental AIs but we see more of his spine in later episodes. Winta McGrath as the Campion avoids many of the perils that can befall a young lead and becomes the centre of the aetheist/theological debate as he has to decide who he trusts. Travis Fimmel has come a long way since his breakthrough in the early Noughties as a tv Tarzan and makes good use of the big build and wayward hair he displayed in Vikings.
Design-wise, many of the costumes (especially in flashbacks) look like they’re inspired straight out of Flash Gordon / King of the Rocketmen era. Mother and Father appear donning strange eclectic head-gear and wearing costumes that simultaneously manage to be impossibly skin-tight yet strangely asexual. When Mother goes full on beserker/banshee mode it’s like watching the Machine/Maris from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis go nuclear and it’s effectively chilling, if sometimes a little set-piece arbitrary.
Though the overtly-dry, stone-washed and desolate opener may put a lot of people off, with them presuming that it’s exactly what they feared rather than hoped for and thus quickly jumping ship, Raised with Wolves is probably worth the investment of your time in (at least for its first few episodes – it could still easily devolve into chin-stroking disappointment) and could amount to a superior show as it develops. It has big aspirations and talent aboard… but only time will tell if its faith is well-placed or whether its reach simply exceeds its paws.
The first tree episodes of Raised by Wolves are currently available on HBO Max, with new episodes available weekly…
- Production Design / VFX9