HBO Max's Raised by Wolves combines Ridley Scott style with creepy robots
Parenting is tough in this oddball, adult sci-fi show from HBO.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Parenting is tough. You've got to keep your kids safe and warm and clean, teach them useful stuff, and make sure they don't get killed in an apocalyptic war between atheist technocrats and religious zealots. Oh, and you're an android.
That's the premise of Raised by Wolves, a slightly bonkers and luridly pulpy new sci-fi series given a sheen of prestige TV by the involvement of legendary Alien and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott. Raised by Wolves premieres on streaming service
Thursday, Sept. 3.
The show revolves around a group of human youngsters stuck on a distant planet where they're nurtured by a pair of sinister androids called Mother and Father. The parental units wear sleek rubber outfits and cock their heads while talking. Father does the heavy work and tells dad jokes. Mother spits out catty remarks and murders people by screaming at them. Parents, eh? So embarrassing.
These robots are more than unfeeling automatons, mainly thanks to enormously watchable performances from Amanda Collin and Abubakar Salim. They invest the oddball androids with strange but genuinely relatable emotions and personalities, making them vulnerable and volatile. Collin in particular seethes with terrifying unpredictability.
The first episode feels like a pulp sci-fi short story, but things expand slightly with the arrival of an ark full of surviving humans from the wrong side of the conflict that wiped out Earth. There's probably enough planet for everyone to share... but this isn't that type of show, and jaw-droppingly gory violence perpetuates itself on this new world. The mechanical mom on one side is mirrored by human parents on the other who have their own emotional issues and deadly secrets. Which is surely relatable to anybody with kids.
It's deliciously violent, weird and streaked with symbolism. But having seen the first few episodes, it's hard to know if Raised by Wolves has enough going on to sustain itself. The hostile alien planet is a pretty tired formula, and the premier episode teases a larger story only to boil things back down to a much more basic setup. The androids are watchably weird, but it's the actual humans who have to make a real emotional connection, and a lot of the weight rests on the burly shoulders of Warcraft and Vikings veteran Travis Fimmel. He brings a smoldering depth to his character, but he's only one man amid a number of less developed characters.
The main point of familiarity comes from Ridley Scott, the director behind films like Alien, Blade Runner and The Martian. He's had an outsize impact on science fiction over the past few decades, to the point that his visual and thematic preoccupations have become instantly recognizable. Although the show is created by Aaron Guzikowski, Scott directs the premiere episodes and packs them with assorted signature Scottisms: socially awkward robots, machines called "mother," milky nosebleeds, eye motifs, the monstrous feminine, hostile planets that look like Iceland. And gray. Metaphorical shades of gray, sure, but also literally everything is literally gray.
Scott also combines the look and feel of his sci-fi work with that of his muddy, bloody historical epics. The world of Raised by Wolves has been torn apart by a religious war between angry atheists and sun-worshipping zealots, and amid the gray landscapes the show is filled with old-school fire and brimstone religiosity. It's a postapocalyptic future, but the medieval tunics and pious haircuts make it feel like a new Dark Ages. As in many of his previous films, Scott claims not to believe in God while his creations exhibit godlike powers. And of course they're cruel gods, like all parents.
With Ridley Scott channeling himself so obviously, Raised by Wolves feels pretty familiar. An alien -- as in, the alien, from the Alien movies -- could jump out at any moment and it wouldn't be that much of a shock. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however. The gritty world-building means that if an alien -- the alien -- did pop up, it would automatically catapult Raised by Wolves into the upper (or at least mid) table of most interesting Alien stories. It'd certainly leapfrog Scott's dismally derivative Alien: Covenant, not to mention ponderous prequel Prometheus.
The pseudo-medieval aesthetic and angry androids also make it feel a bit like
Game of Thrones
previous sci-fi/fantasy smash hits. Every streaming service has been trying to make the new Game of Thrones for years, which is fine, but instead of something as startlingly fresh and groundbreaking as GoT was when it began, we get a generation of shows that just really look like Game of Thrones. See Netflix's The Witcher, Amazon's Carnival Row or
See. Westworld also spawned a range of admirers, like Peacock's Brave New World, and that DNA is in Raised by Wolves too. Still, if you can ignore the shadow of Thrones and Westworld, these shows all have their lurid charms -- it's actually a pretty good time for mad, nasty, adult sci-fi.
Raised by Wolves is certainly all those things, and if it's not game-changing, it's at least entertaining. Put the kids to bed and enjoy.
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