Ridley Scott is no stranger to science fiction tales. Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) are early standouts from the start of his career, and the last decade saw him return to the stars with Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017). The four films vary when it comes to action, tone, and narrative, but a common theme running throughout involves the very nature of what it means to be human. It’s heady stuff, and Scott tends to explore the concept through violence, questions of faith, and his well-documented mistrust of androids. It’s 2020, and he’s back at it again as executive producer and director (of the first three episodes) of HBO Max’s new sci-fi series, Raised By Wolves.
[Note: This review covers the first five episodes of Raised By Wolves‘ ten-episode season. Don’t worry if you’re not caught up yet, though, as it’s fairly light on spoilers.]
Surprising exactly no one, humanity has turned the Earth into a graveyard. An epic war between religious believers and atheists has leveled the planet and sent the survivors off-world in search of a new home. Mithraism is Christianity adjacent and sees its faithful kowtowing to the sun god Sol, and their crusade to bring their religion to everyone by force has led to war. One of the most powerful tools in their arsenal are the combat androids, but as the war reaches its final bloody days an atheist engineer reprograms one along with a traditional work model as Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), respectively — and launches them towards the unpopulated Kepler-22.
Packed away in their carry-on luggage? Six human embryos and all the necessary ingredients and tools to restart humanity without the pesky annoyance of religious belief. The last of the Mithraic aren’t far behind, though, but while most of the people on their spaceship Heaven perish, a handful of survivors crash land on Kepler-22. The war they all thought they left behind has crashed with them, and the fate of humanity has never been more fragile.
Raised By Wolves teases an intergalactic war of ideologies with its setup and a handful of flashbacks, but the focus of creator Aaron Guzikowski’s series — or at least of these first five episodes — is a far more intimate conversation. The atheist androids struggle to raise their human children, but illness, local wildlife, and those pesky fundamentalists keep getting in the way. It also makes little sense raising them atheistic by telling them not to believe in god… a concept they had no knowledge of beforehand. That aspect leads to trouble with one of the kids, Campion (Winta McGrath), who comes to believe that everything has a soul despite the fierce disagreement by Mother. What starts as a grand religious crusade instead morphs into the violent and frustrating ups and downs of parenting. That’s not a knock, but the result is a show that’s much smaller than previously imagined.
There are a lot of characters at play here between the androids, the human adults, and the children, but the series divides its time mainly between two couples. Mother and Father are meant to be emotionless androids dutifully doing the bidding of their atheist programmer, but while Father cracks corny “dad jokes” Mother has occasional outbursts — remember, she’s a combat droid — that splatter biological life forms into so much messy particulate. Her sensibilities grow increasingly at odds with the more sedate Father, too, and it’s these sequences of carnage and conflict that raise the show’s heartbeat.
While that storyline justifies Raised By Wolves‘ budget and delivers more eye-candy in the form of Mother taking the form of a flying death-dealer, the far more engaging drama is unfolding on the purely human side. Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar) are highly ranked soldiers in the Mithraic forces, but they’re actually members of the atheist resistance — they killed the real couple and had facial surgery to take on their appearance and identities. Their new role comes with a son (Felix Jamieson), but after bonding with him they’re heartbroken when he, along with the rest of the surviving children, are taken by Mother.
Marcus and Sue’s journey is both intriguing and affecting while the android couple’s is a balance of spectacle and the mundane annoyances of children. Fimmel’s and Algar’s performances go a long way in making their half of the story more interesting, and it’s due in large part to their humanity — in both its pros and cons. Power struggles and rising madness threaten the human survivors, and Marcus may even be experiencing an unexpected increase in faith. Sue, meanwhile, sees her husband transforming but remains laser focused on recovering their son, and the dynamic between her and Mother raises some of the series’ more interesting conflicts.
Neither is the biological parent of these children and they’ve yet to come face to face, but both are prepared to kill to protect the children against threats real and perceived. They’re at odds, but neither is the show’s villain, at least not yet, and that leaves something of an odd void in the show’s narrative. The conflict that kicks off the whole series, fundamentalist versus atheist, is pushed to the edges of the frame. The “bad” guys, the other Mithraic survivors, lack individuality meaning they’re mostly unmemorable, and the minimal nature of their contact with the androids so far leaves that big ideological conflict wanting.
Raised By Wolves sees all of this unfold on a planet with giant holes in its surface and even bigger snake-like skeletons — here’s hoping we see some giant sand worms before Dune hits theaters — so the understood implication is that there are more reveals to come. The surviving fundamentalists feel far from a true threat, through, and it will lack bite if it resurfaces in the form of a new convert. This leaves the show’s back half, the remaining five episodes, to play out a conflict built less on ideology and more on the belief that only “we” can raise these children the right way. As with all of human history that came before it, the issue is less about a difference of opinion as to which god if any is looking down upon us… and more about which side can enforce that opinion the most viciously and effectively.