Creating a post-apocalyptic story that feels genuinely new has become a near-impossible task. Even if the real world didn’t feel like it was blurring the line between fact and fiction every day, the “what happens to the world when the world’s already ended?” scenario has been done to death and back. At some point, the easiest way forward in telling such a story is to go back to what’s worked before. But as HBO Max’s sci-fi drama “Raised by Wolves” proves, drawing from a once successful well isn’t necessarily a winning formula, either — not even when you get a master of the genre like Ridley Scott to steer it at the outset.
From its very first minutes, watching “Raised By Wolves” feels like watching writer Aaron Guzikowski play a game of hard sci-fi bingo. The opening minutes follow the trajectory of a pod ship landing in a barren desert on the extrasolar planet Keplar-22b, where a pair of androids in ill-fitting silver bodysuits emerge and quickly get to work establishing their own colony. They call each other Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) because their human masters programmed them to nurture a sextet of children into a thriving civilization. Soon enough, Mother is lying on the ground in their new home as Father methodically inserts a series of needles into her waiting abdomen so that she can nourish the fetuses into life — and lo, they are now Keplar-22b’s very own Adam and Eve. Despite their ostensible inability to emote, Mother and Father care deeply for their new children, and try to raise them with the atheist principles their creator instilled in them. (“Raised by Wolves” takes place in a universe in which a sect of religious humans have almost nearly wiped out all non-believers; again “Raised by Wolves” isn’t reinventing any wheels, here.) But the planet is punishingly inhospitable, and their lives are bleak; 12 years later, only one child, Campion (Winta McGrath), has survived.
Between the sparse production design, throwback costumes and Guzikowski’s fidelity to the tropes that have defined science fiction for decades, “Raised by Wolves” very deliberately evokes the works that inspired it. And in directing the first two episodes, Scott establishes a specific visual language that will be familiar to any fan of seminal work like “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” though the grim colors and drab setting of this series gives him little to work with in terms of variation. But “Raised by Wolves” is both too loyal to its predecessors and too unwilling to push itself to be anything particularly interesting on its own. It’d be tempting to say that it throws everything sci-fi has already done at the wall to see what sticks, but apparently everything stuck, because that’s the show.
The few stabs at more layered world-building Guzikowski does make are when fleshing out the conflict between the atheists and the religious “Mithraics,” which the latter won in a gruesome battle back on Earth. At one point, someone mentions a prophecy about a messianic orphan boy, as is required by the tenants of sci-fi bingo. But in the first several episodes, at least, shreds of mythological insight remain few and far between, keeping the world of “Raised by Wolves” perpetually out of reach.
Perhaps most damning is the how basic the characters themselves are. Without any particularly magnetic figures to hold onto, it’s hard to get invested in a series that either can’t find a new way into age-old stories or has no interest in doing so. Only Mother and Father make notable impressions, thanks to deft portrayals from Collin and Salim. But outside of them, the characters feel more like sketches than flesh and blood (or in the androids’ case, wires and some unidentifiable white goo).
This holds especially true for the female characters, of which there are few of any real consequence, and the most substantial by a mile is Mother, an android built to breed who has a furious breakdown when the planet’s harsh condition make her unable to fulfill her purpose. The only other women who get real speaking parts belong to Sue (Niamh Algar), a medic who follows her atheist husband Marcus (Travis Fimmel) across enemy lines in order to survive, and Tempest (Jordan Loughran), a pregnant teen rape survivor. As with most aspects of “Raised by Wolves,” these characters are too derivative to compel, and extraordinarily frustrating from a show that purports itself a true novelty. A show that can’t find more uses for women than “wife” and “mother” isn’t one that’s thinking even halfway outside the box, let alone lightyears beyond our earthly orbit.
“Raised by Wolves” premieres September 3 on HBO Max.