Fine. Okay. You’d be forgiven for scoffing – not since Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a show so unapologetically set out its stall with a title specifically designed to dare you to write it off before viewing a single frame. The Warrior Nun moniker seems to have the carefree selection of randomly thrown-together fridge-magnet words and yet also a specifically-designed wordplay designed to titilate and entice. Perhaps, though, it was only a matter of time before nuns with guns stormed cable… after all, the wimpled ones have long since become as much a staple of the horror genre as they have religious texts.
Yet, like Buffy, it would be a mistake to presume too much in advance because while Warrior Nun is certainly not Shakespeare, it’s clearly been made to equally subvert and embrace the joint roles of female empowerment and geek guignol. The similarities between the two shows – and a whole lineage between – are undeniable and work both for and against it: a young woman selected, through no desire of her own, to be a ‘Chosen One’ and subsequently learning the rights and responsibilities of that supernatural predestination of fighting evil and being trained to do so by a team that includes a bookish, bespectacled overseer…while at the same time trying to navigate the trials and tribulations of finding your way in the world. It’s enough to both entice die-hard fans and yet still make them worry that there are less new things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in show-running philosophy…
The series is loosely based on the comic of the same name: originally created by Ben Dunn and published by Antarctic Press beginning in 1994. It went through several incarnations and there was talk of a movie version before Netflix acquired the rights to a series format. Acting more as a sequel/spin-off to the existing printed-page character, our new central protagonist is Ava (Alba Baptista). She is not, in fact, a nun – or, as we start, much of a warrior. As we begin to discover over the course of the opening episodes, Ava is in fact a young girl, cared for (to use the term generously) at an orphanage run by nuns in Italy since a tragic accident over a decade before that killed her parents and apparently left her a quadriplegic. And then she died – though the Mother Superior is initially reluctant to say how. But this being the opening salvo, that’s doesn’t stay the status quo for long. Before she can be buried a battle between warrior nuns and something not of this dimension crashes into the crypt and the dying combatant, Shannon (Melina Matthews), has a holy glowing relic transferred from her own back to that of the circulatory-challenged Ava. It’s an effort to hide this angelic ‘halo’ from their pursuers, but unfortunately the relic revives Ava and she escapes into the night, her limbs now fully-functioning but understandably confused as to what’s happening. Now the forces of good and evil both want the relic, but Ava would rather just live this second-hand she’s been given to the full and party with some new friends…
Portugese actor Alba Baptista, looking like a cross between an older version of Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobbie Brown and a young Ellen Page, seems genetically-designed for the insolent ingenue outlier role and if she comes across more as the ‘OMG!‘ self-aware, self-narrating presence of a network show, that’s possibly down to the marmite voice-over format rather than her performance. Ava adapts a little too quickly to her new freedom – often talking about aspects of the world she shouldn’t be as familiar with unless those aforementioned members of orphanage staff were regularly letting her scroll through pages of the internet… but Baptista occasionally manages to ground her in moments such as with Ava’s wordless joy at her first walk along the beach and the innate terror of going to sleep and perhaps finding her new freedoms were just a cruel dream.
While Buffy’s friends were recognisable versions of ourselves, Ava’s crew are pure wish-fulfilment, instagram-lifestyle party-hoppers, the kind of people who couldn’t possibly exist unless they could mainline daddy’s gold credit-card to rebel against the system. Though supposedly Ava’s link to the everyday world, there’s nothing everyday about them. They’re pretty, but they’re also pretty vacant, the best of the bunch being her potential boyfriend JC (Emilio Sakraya) who quickly becomes the well-intentioned damsel-in-distress. There’s better luck with the warrior nuns themselves, with the main emphasis being on Toya Turner as the outlier ‘Shotgun Mary’, Lorena Andrea as the petulant Sister Lilith and Kristina Tonteri-Young as the erstwhile Sister Beatrice. Tristán Ulloa (probably best known for the steamy film Sex and Lucia) plays Father Vincent, not quite pulling off the role as well as Anthony Head did for the vampire slayer.
Thekla Rueten (Red Sparrow, In Bruges, Highlander: The Source) is a scientist, Jillian Salvius, whose recovery of an ancient artefact helps her make a massive breakthrough in quantum-physics and the ever-reliable craggy-faced Joaquim de Almeida (The Hitman’s Bodyguard, 24, Clear and Present Danger) plays Cardinal Duretti – scared by the implications of the find… and neither of whom you’d trust if your soul depended on it. Both are handed huge amounts of exposition and theo/technobabble, especially Rueten who battles it well, but often succumbs to pointing at objects and explaining what they do and why the church wants them.
Ultimately, Warrior Nun is an obvious international co-production with an eye on wide distribution but which would have worked better cut down to a run of around eight episodes rather than this initial ten. It’s is the latest in a long line of attempts to create Euro-Buffy (2004’s Hex, best remembered for an early role for Michael Fassbender, anyone?) facing an apocalypse designed by Teen Vogue…neither the god-awful concept it could have been nor as culturally-important as Joss Whedon’s creation. It’s worth catching as a beautifully-shot, on-location guilty-pleasure (sometimes more in love with its travelogue credentials than its narrative) but one that offers more than you might think, but still knows that its packaging and canvas is what will catch the eye.
It’s best, predictably, when there’s nuns doing their warring and when Ava’s learning the benefits of a halo-transplant… and far less interesting when she’s is sitting poolside or party/villa-crashing with her new lip-service petty-criminal friends. There’s a lot of style in the show – the budget works in its favour when it provides those European vistas and narrow streets and you can see the list of such elements being checked-off. The CGI varies, impressively rendered but sometimes less kinetic than it should be (in the fifth episode, a murderous demon stands there waiting to be hit). There’s snark, surf, a cynical view of the church and a sprinkling of rather sterile look-at-me F-bombs, but it’s the epitome of youthful folly: a story of a rebel looking for something to rebel against and look good doing it…
- Production Design8