Raised by Wolves Review (Spoiler-Free)

Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi series is visually stunning, but its message doesn’t quite get through.

Raised by Wolves HBO Max
Photo: HBO Max

This review covers the first six episodes (of eight) of Raised by Wolves and contains no spoilers. 

HBO Max’s new science fiction series Raised by Wolves does itself something of a disservice with the misnomer of a title. If you watch the trailers, in which the android Mother (Amanda Collin) tells her pack of human children the story of The Three Little Pigs, the punchline is that she herself is the Big Bad Wolf: both nurturing the future of the human race on a distant planet, yet willing to kill anyone who would threaten their makeshift family—including, potentially, any runts of the litter.

Yet the crux of Aaron Guzikowski’s (Prisoners, The Red Road) and Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian) series is not futuristic fairy tale retellings, but the much loftier notion of belief—as the foundation of a people, but also the impetus for so many of humanity’s conflicts. To wit, the reason that androids Mother and Father (Abubakar Salim) wind up on Kepler-22b with a dozen frozen embryos is to escape a war between the Mithraic zealots (space Crusaders who worship their god Sol) and the atheist resistance, which will irreparably destroy 2145-era Earth. Though androids are deemed soulless, they are nonetheless among the ranks of the religious… unless they are reprogrammed for a new purpose, in the case of Mother and Father. The Mithraic contingent is sending an Ark—named, of course, Heaven—with carefully-selected colonists to the same habitable planet. But the atheists get there ten years ahead of them, plenty of time to rear a passel of kiddos, in whom they have seeded the greatest weapon of all: allegiance to no god.

“Belief in the unreal can comfort the human mind, but it also weakens it,” Mother explains in her many moments of quasi-home-schooling. “The civilization we’re seeding here will be built on humanity’s belief in itself, not an imagined deity.” A fascinating thesis, even as the arrival of the Ark’s children challenges Kepler-born Campion’s (Winta McGrath) brutal self-reliance and tempts him toward their faith (when usually these narratives involve being tempted away), and when two Mithraic parents seek to rescue their son from the jaws of Mother’s strict and often deadly parentage.

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Unfortunately, any incisive debate over the usefulness of belief is overshadowed by attempts to be clever and reskin old myths and legends. The series is more concerned with looking stunning than in actually stunning its viewers with new takes on what is by now admittedly a pretty archetypal premise.

With that said, there is plenty for the eye to take in. The opening credits, with a haunting song written and performed by Mariam Wallentin and Ben Frost, feature concept art so beautiful that it’s no wonder that Scott was compelled to sign on as producer and director. The series’ vision of Kepler-22b, while oxygen-rich, is nonetheless a bleak landscape that brings to mind the Elephant Graveyard in The Lion King, studded with the intact skeletons of long-dead alien beasts. The atheists’ new home may be uncolonized, but something clearly lived there before androids and humans landed. Survival is harsh, the world unforgiving to its new residents, especially tiny, defenseless children who are about as vulnerable as young’uns in a Grimm’s fairy tale. But Raised by Wolves riffs on the nature-versus-nurture debate by constantly questioning whether Mother poses an equal threat to her young, or if their fates were always out of her hands.

Because before she was Mother, she was a necromancer—a special breed of android that sheds its skin for a bronze chassis and flies through war zones in a crucifix pose, screaming sonic blasts that explode humans into pulpy smears. Her own creator, a human and Campion’s namesake, overwrote her murderous programming to make her a nurturer instead… but he didn’t take away that killer instinct, and it would seem that some wires are getting crossed.

Flashbacks to Earth’s war and the Ark’s digital simulation for the minds of its colonists while they’re cryogenically frozen—it’s Heaven, get it?—will surely engage sci-fi fans. (A warning for any viewers with epilepsy: Multiple episodes feature strobing sequences.) But for all that the show has style, the substance is not up to par.

While the series repeatedly plays up the tension of whether Mother will succumb to her necromantic programming and destroy her children, the character is so shrill and manic that she rarely comes across as sympathetic. Collin is acting the hell out of this unlikeable maternal figure, but the late-stage addition of a “humanizing” backstory does little to retcon the character’s brutality. Mother’s ideals of parenthood and civilization are so rigidly ingrained that she is unwilling to compromise on them, nor take seriously Father’s contributions. Would that there had been more of this dynamic, as he is a standard service android, low-ranking on the food chain and therefore dismissed by Mother as not able to protect their children. Salim winningly plays Father’s frustration with not being taken seriously by his quasi-partner nor by his children, ineffectually making the robot equivalent of dad jokes while slowly challenging his own programming limitations.

Despite the fact that Mother and Father’s flight from Earth toward a better future drives the series’ premise, it’s difficult to ever fully sympathize with them—and this reviewer never thought she’d have a tough time rooting for the atheists and the androids! But while the Mithraic faith is clearly corrupt, built on violence and coercion, its members are sympathetically flawed and questioning of their system. In particular, soldier Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and doctor Sue (Niamh Algar), partners first and later parents, come to challenge their sect’s insistence toward burning up in Sol’s light rather “selfishly” loving their son Paul (Felix Jamieson), which goes against the Mithraic faith’s abhorrence of attachments. Their mission to rescue him provides the real beating heart of the series.

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Again, viewers must wade through a lot of noise to get to these poignant moments of character growth. A lot of that noise is retreading of gender-specific and therefore predictable plotlines that, frankly, feel outdated for a supposedly futuristic series.

Raised by Wolves is a thought experiment in big ideas and unprecedented leaps of faith, yet it lands in the same spots as its predecessors. The female-presenting android is reprogrammed to be maternal, yet despite the fact that she must be remade on a cellular level, there is never a consideration to do so with her male counterpart instead. (Part of that relates to Mother’s identity as a necromancer and the oh-so-clever tension between her killer instincts and her new motherly persona, which is an exhausting binary that the series never transcends.)

It’s the same among the children, even despite their differences in being raised by “wolves” versus the Ark: Campion is perceived as the Mithraic prophet, fulfilling a vague Pentagonal Prophecy about how “an orphan boy in a strange land will lead us to a city of peace” despite the layers of chance that contributed to his survival. By contrast, Mithraic teen Tempest (Jordan Loughran) gets impregnated, not by any immaculate conception, but because she’s raped by a high-ranking officer on the Ark while in cryogenic sleep. The boy gets leadership and destiny foisted upon him, while the girl struggles with a violent and violating pregnancy, in a world that doesn’t even have the ability to debate pro-choice versus pro-life.

It’s frustrating to see the same binary gender roles directing both parties’ forays on what is repeatedly referred to as a virgin planet—literally, it’s a blank slate where anything could happen, and they revert to old, problematic, limiting ways. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a commentary on humanity’s inability to change in the future, but instead an unconscious reflection of our contemporary biases.

And that’s a shame, because this reductive storytelling bogs down the series’ most powerful point—that trying to control humans’ beliefs, no matter from a religious or atheist side, will only lead to tragedy. Perhaps the final two episodes resolve that better, but (as with bad parenting) by then the damage is done. Raised by Wolves would have been better served by retelling parables than fairy tales.

Raised by Wolves premieres its first three episodes September 3 on HBO Max.

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2.5 out of 5