HBO Max unleashes a Ridley Scott-powered space adventure with familiar vibes and shocking twists.

By Darren Franich
August 27, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Raised by Wolves is f---ed up.

The cosmic drama streams Sept. 3 on HBO Max, with three episodes available immediately. Earth is a battle-bled Hellscape, and that’s just the flashback. Androids incorporate a remote space colony, and it all goes so wrong. Viscera cascades. There is a monstrous fossil big enough to camp in, some battlefield plastic surgery, gigantic holes, a starship shaped like male overcompensation, and cute children. If you want a sincere conversation about the benefits of atheism, here’s the science-fiction saga for you.

And it’s real f---ed up.

I realize this is a family-friendly website. Writing “f---ed up” isn’t what I’m going for. It reads like “effed up,” which teens probably say on Nickelodeon. The “uck” is missing; the “uck” is what I’m going for. Here are my notes on the Raised by Wolves premiere, rendered within our website’s linguistic barriers:

Uck. Uck. Uck! UCK! Uuuuuuck. Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Ucking uck! Uckity whoa! Uck, uck, uck, UCK. Damn. Oh, uck!

Raised by Wolves begins with two androids landing on a distant planet, designated Kepler-22b. Their precise mission is unclear, though their names tell a tale. Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) model skintight gray jumpsuits and a cheerfully blank attitude. They build a settlement, growing crop circles around a high-tech yurt and a grungy cabin. Using cool-gross biotech, they grow human embryos into a multiethnic gaggle of kids. One of the youngsters, Campion (Winta McGrath), narrates the series premiere, and his voiceover prepares you for the worst. He loves his robo-parents, but warns: “All the bad stuff that happened wasn’t their fault.”

Coco Van Oppens/HBO Max

The “bad stuff” starts early. Very terrible things happen to very young people, and then more terrible things happen to other people. More humans appear in orbit, led by Marcus (Travis Fimmel). He’s a warrior-priest in service of the Mithraic, a puritanical neo-religion that worships the sun. Mother and Father are rocking Onesie Chic, but the Mithraic resemble swashbucklers who found Jesus and leftover stormtrooper costumes. They wear all white and have a couple of rayguns shaped like revolvers. Everyone’s fleeing an apocalyptic Earth. The mood is grim, but the timestamp is secretly optimistic: Good news, the world won’t self-immolate ‘til 2150!

I should explain more. But I went into the series knowing nothing, and I can’t shake the genuine surprise of the first couple episodes. You think you’re watching one kind of genre show — drab, gritty, New Age-y, faintly prestigious, a bit boring — and then people start exploding into blood dust. If you have a thing about eyes, you will get stressed by all the eye-things. Mother has secrets, and so does Marcus. The Mithraic are sort of demented Crusaders, reflecting hypocritical excesses of actual Catholicism, but their scriptures point to key plot points scattered around Kepler-22b.

Much of this is a little too familiar. There are ghosts that might not be ghosts, and paranormal whispers. The planet’s landscape sustains a snowy desert, a shadowy forest, and impressive mountain ranges all within walking distance — and then characters spend too much time in a flat-out awful version of virtual reality. There are bargain-bin insectile endo-skeletal reptile monsters, though how fun to discover those creatures taste like pork. And I generally have an allergy to prophetic nightmares, but there is a dreamy vision that, when described in spoiler-y detail, would require using the words “blood” and “vomit” and “sex” and “gigantic snake fossil skull” all in one sentence.

Raised by Wolves was created by Aaron Guzikowski, best known as the writer of 2013’s Prisoners, which was also not a fun story for children. The first two episodes are directed by Ridley Scott, and the series really does suggest 2017's Alien: Covenant with less alien and more covenant, all these white-blooded androids and frozen embryos and dreamy muses about existence.

I’ve seen six episodes, and worry that the momentum drags. This is the kind of show where two sides fight, and then spend half a season preparing to fight again. The eccentric performances are intriguing, though. Mother is a fearsome figure, and Collin plays her with tightrope terror: She's a new god, an anxious mom, or maybe just a broken appliance stumbling toward obsolescence. Salim’s more whimsical, turning Father into a genial robo-dad cracking knock-knock jokes to understand this thing we humans call humor.

Fimmel’s the most familiar face, and the Vikings star brings his knack for loopy mannerisms to the straightfaced material. Marcus smiles when things are going bad, and frowns when people cheer. He’s well-matched by Niamh Algar as Sue, Marcus’ wife, who shares his secrets but struggles with their lies. The kids are a little lame, frankly, though Ethan Hazzard has fun as a clerical princeling maintaining aristocratic dignity in a grungy mud colony.

I’m torn. Raised by Wolves can be slow and silly. The later episodes backpedal off the wowzer twists in the premiere. (In episode 6, one character says "Are you going to kill me again?" which sums up the current hysterical state of genre storytelling.) It all looks dangerously mulchy, overextending the grimy-brown spectacular realism that Scott helped to pioneer in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. That whole style just feels so meh now: The grooviest aesthetic for videogame trailers 10 years ago. People keep talking about going to Kepler-22b’s tropical region, and, like, just go there already! How is it possible that horrible Rogue One is the only recent space adventure with palm trees?

On the other hand, Raised by Wolves reflects an unusual instinct for decent-budget science-fiction: It’s impossible to root for anyone. By the end of episode 2, the "heroes" are all mass murder-adjacent. They're either motivated by lunatic belief systems, or they lie all the time about everything. The kids are innocent, of course, but the central tension is right there in the title: Which wolves will raise these children...and how long until they grow into wolves themselves? “I gotta admit, I’m starting to get a little confused,” says Marcus. Ucking A, man.

Grade: B-

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