Ridley Scott has burrowed deep into his science-fiction rabbit hole yet again. The visionary director behind “Blade Runner” and “Alien” took a few decades away from a genre forever indebted to his alternatively piercing and thoughtful work, before diving back in with “Prometheus,” “The Martian,” “Alien: Covenant,” and now “Raised by Wolves,” an original series for HBO Max. Scott took a similarly lengthy break from television; his last serialized project to hit screens was the BBC drama “Mogul” in 1969 (though he helmed a failed pilot for Showtime titled “The Vatican” in 2013, which we still desperately want to see).
Though he only directed the first two episodes (and holds an executive producer credit through his production company, Scott Free), “Raised by Wolves” has all the markings of a career-culminating effort. Scott’s favorite toys are all here: androids, an alien planet, and monsters lurking in the dark. There’s even a female lead with incredible powers. Beyond these trademarks, the first six episodes explore his favorite questions, including the nature of humanity, the trappings of faith, and what shape our dystopian future might take. Buoyed by a budget able to provide rather lavish special effects, the new series could very well have given Scott the expansive canvas he craves to further his futuristic dreams of electric sheep.
Instead, it appears to be a passing diversion. “Raised by Wolves” recycles and repurposes many of Scott’s more intriguing ideas and takes advantage of his modern eye for beautiful blue-gray vistas covered in billowing steam and fog. But his pair of androids fail to live up to Michael Fassbender’s diabolical creation, David, (let alone any replicant) and their surrounding story has to be dressed up in outlandish eccentricities to keep audiences from realizing how little is really going on. “Raised by Wolves” is presented in a distinct, straightforward fashion that might hook viewers for the first two hours (both directed by Scott), but once you get the gist of how this new world operates, interest plummets faster than a xenomorph sucked out of an airlock.
Still, the show tries its darnedest to hold on. Welcome to Kepler-22b, an inhabitable planet left untouched by space travelers until an android’s ship lands perilously close to a gaping hole in the ground. On board are Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim), two semi-sentient robots clothed in shimmery, ’80s-era bodysuits who’ve come to Kepler-22b in order to birth six human children of their very own. No, the androids can’t procreate together, but they brought the necessary supplies in order to create six teeny babies. There are three boys and three girls, all of various ethnic backgrounds.
Coco Van Oppens Photography
Mother soon tells her children the family history: Their parents escaped a dying planet (Earth) where religious fanatics led a semi-successful crusade to rid civilization of all non-believers. In turn, they somehow destroyed Earth and had to board an ark called — I shit you not — “Heaven” in order to escape. Because “Heaven” is filled with living, breathing souls and not two androids and a few buckets of reproductive fluids, the ship took much longer to arrive at Kepler-22b. As adamant atheists, Mother and Father fear its arrival, though one of the parents starts to change his mind about things when the children start dying off.
Yes, it turns out taking care of young humans in a cold, harsh climate filled with nighttime monsters isn’t as easy as they thought, and soon the believers and non-believers are squaring off over who gets the right to raise the planet’s first native generation. Much of “Raised by Wolves” does indeed focus on typical parenting choices: Should we teach the kids to follow their faith or trust only in science? Should they be taught to fight and fend for themselves, or be protected fiercely until they’re fully grown? Should they be vegans or meat-eaters? (No kidding, there’s a fistfight over veganism.)
While watching know-it-all first-time parents get owned by their unpredictable offspring can be fun, there’s not much enjoyment to be had in “Raised by Wolves”; not unless you refuse to take it as seriously as it takes itself. Sure, there’s a sly sense of humor to Father constantly spouting dad jokes — “When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar.” Yes, just like in real-life, they’re not all winners — and the brainy, wimpy kid named Hunter, but most of the actual laughs are unintentional. In the pilot, Mother becomes so upset she actually howls (in case the title wasn’t on the nose enough as-is), and she’s often asked to “malfunction” when expressing emotion, which leads to weird, high-pitched shouts or other tonally jarring outbursts. Dedicated, admirable performances from Salim and especially Collin are also undercut by inconsistencies in their characters’ development; these androids often act without emotion, yet whenever an emotional moment is necessary, they’ll feel something.
Coco Van Oppens Photography
“Raised by Wolves” is built on such a familiar structure, it’s easy to get caught up in the bizarre details — like when Mother turns into a bronze statue and flies off into the sky, or when she starts… well, doing some pretty bloody stuff at the end of Episode 1. But the world-building never coalesces. The missing pieces that are slowly put into place don’t click together, and you’re left with too many nagging questions and too little relevant ones. Unlike Scott’s best work, these androids aren’t fixated on any challenging quandaries or devilishly curious about manufacturing death machines. (Please, WarnerMedia, give Ridley all the money he wants for one more movie about David.) Mother and Father mine very little compelling insights into humanity over six increasingly monotonous hours, and the children are only a challenge to keep alive, rather than intellectual equals who might help the androids — and the audience — learn something.
The series struggles to fill its time with meaningful development, and far too quickly abandons its frank nature for time-hopping twists and unfulfilling jargon. Worst of all, after the big, lavish spectacle seen in the first few episodes, “Raised by Wolves” ends up feeling small. Two androids are fighting against a few hastily built monsters and a few more similarly single-minded believers on a presumably deserted planet. The stakes, I guess, revolve around the future of humanity, but I’m really only concerned about the future of Ridley Scott. The sooner he puts this behind him, the sooner we can get back to grander adventures through distant planets. Scott’s science-fiction raised so many of us, and future generations deserve more challenging ideas than this.
“Raised by Wolves” premieres its first three episodes Thursday, September 3 on HBO Max. New episodes will be released in batches over subsequent weeks.