Review: Ridley Scott keeps predicting the end of the world. This time, it hits different
“Raised by Wolves,” premiering Thursday on HBO Max, returns executive producer Ridley Scott, who also directed the first two episodes, to the thematic ground of “Blade Runner,” namely the self-consciousness of artificial intelligence and what it means, for better or worse, to be human. With a lot of other stuff thrown in.
Once again in the expanding universe of speculative fiction, humans, having made a toilet of Earth, have set out to colonize outer space. Their target: Kepler 22-b, an actual identified planet a convenient 600 light-years from here. Exclusively inhabiting the “ark” built to take them there are members of a sun-worshiping religion, Mithraism, which is based on a real, if little-understood, Roman mystery cult that coexisted with early Christianity. Mithraism has in this telling become the dominant Western religion, an alternative timeline that spares screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“The Red Road”) from the potential nightmare of making the explorers Judeo-Christian — they are not exactly sympathetic — though the resemblance is close enough. There may be some Romulus and Remus analogy ahead, as well — founded Rome, raised by wolves — but from the six episodes I’ve seen, out of 10, it is too soon to say, and perhaps I am overthinking this.
Anyway! On Earth, 100 years and change from now, these fundamentalists are at war with Atheists — it seems worth capitalizing, contextually — who still dream of a world based on fact and reason, and are seemingly doomed to die with that dream and the battle-scarred planet. When this premise was made explicit, I must admit I laughed out loud, so baldly was it stated. It felt like something a precocious middle schooler might cook up for a creative writing assignment. That is not to say it is without real-world relevance.
However! Though the Mithraic find it sinful to put children in the care of artificial life forms, which they regard as soulless, one canny Atheist manages to reprogram a pair of androids as Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) and pack them off in an interstellar hot rod with human embryos to populate Kepler-22 in advance of the ark’s arrival. (It’s very Jor-El in the last days of Krypton.)
Father, as Mother settles in on their new planet for her several-at-once surrogate pregnancy: “Umbilicals in place.”
They are as smooth and physically sexless as Barbie and Ken, with comparably excellent posture. He has been programmed to produce dad jokes (“What did the male magnet say to the female magnet? When I saw your backside I was repelled, however seeing you from the front I now find you very attractive.”). She is every inch a mother, once the kids come along, fiercely, even fatally protective, and also a little Victorian: “We will engage in polite conversation,” she says at dinner. “No jokes! Polite conversation.”
And she stays impeccably on mission: “Belief in the unreal can comfort the human mind, but it also weakens it,” she instructs her charges. “The civilization you’re seeding here will be built on humanity’s belief in itself, not an imagined deity. … We are atheists, peaceful, technocratic. It is the only path to progress.”
The flatness of their delivery seems too obvious a choice, at first, but it gives them room to move, so that when they heat up, or “act human,” it registers; and Collin especially is good. More than anything, this is Mother’s story; she’s the one you most root and feel for, even when she’s wreaking havoc. To be sure, artificial life forms are almost always sympathetic when you get to know them, perhaps because, ultimately, none of it is their fault. (To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, they’re not bad, they’re just programmed that way.) And dramatically speaking, all robots and artificial life forms are sentient, whether they look like a little trash can or a movie star.
Times TV critic Robert Lloyd on the HBO Max original content available at launch, including Elmo, ‘Legendary,’ ‘Love Life,’ ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Craftopia.’
Conversely, the Mithraic, who are human, are either unlikable or anonymous, and when one bites the dust — there are action scenes, of a video-game sort — the viewer feels a shiver of satisfaction or nothing much at all. The exceptions are Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and wife Sue (Niamh Algar), who are stowaways, passing for Mithraic; they occupy the series’ other main thread. Sue, the show’s second or third most sympathetic character, is an echo of Mother. Both have motherhood thrust upon them, and take it seriously.
Like much science fiction it helps not to think too much about the science part, though to be sure the genre has turned out at times to be predictive, or to create the inspiration for its own fulfillment. “Raised by Wolves” is “technological” — there are spaceships and androids and gadgets and gizmos — but its science is basically magic, and the story does have a fairy-tale quality. (Mother is a “necromancer” model android and does have some special powers.) There is a seeming supernatural element — a ghost figure peeks in — but there may be some sort of “scientific” explanation yet to come, an electromagnetic resonance created by the planet itself, or telepathic mind projection. You could make up a million reasons for it.
And as with many tales of extraterrestrial homesteading — “We were the first, the pioneers,” remembers very special child Campion, played by Winta McGrath, briefly narrating — it’s also a sort of western, or a colonial drama, Mother and Father and the kids peacefully living off the land before the settlers arrive, with their big ship, their religion and their guns. And where the Mithraic believe only humans have souls, Campion is prepared to believe everything does: androids, animals, the trees (“the big ones anyway”). Of course the metaphors aren’t exact or consistent, and I am holding back some spoilers, but the analogies seem entirely intentional.
It’s also a portrait of an arranged marriage, with domestic discord and cooperation and different approaches to child-rearing. “Limited as it may be,” Father says to Mother, “you know full well that I devote every ounce of my processing power to the well-being of this family, and and to trying to make you happy.” It’s a line out of the sci-fi novel John Updike never wrote: “Robot, Run.”
Whether that line is supposed to be funny, a little bit funny or not funny at all is hard to say, and there are times when the show’s seriousness shades into dopiness, when its intentions are laid out like bullet points. (Notwithstanding Father’s jokes, there is little outright humor.) But Scott’s initial direction sets an elegant tone, and he conjures up some memorable visuals, especially in scenes involving Mother in a weaponized mode. (She takes a Christlike pose when she flies — she can fly — and like much else in “Raised by Wolves,” the resemblance feels very much a reference.)
Apart from whatever satisfaction you might derive from chewing on questions of reality and consciousness, religion and freedom from religion, “Raised by Wolves” is a pretty good watch, just on a these-guys-versus-those-guys basis — if you can manage not to let what’s depressing on Kepler 22-b get you too down about the state of things on Earth 2020. As a story of humans acting all too human, carrying their arguments into the cosmos, rewriting their wrongs onto a fresh canvas, it can feel a little bleak at a moment in history when we need to be better than we are, lest we wind up like ... these people. Perhaps there’s a message there too.
‘Raised by Wolves’
Where: HBO Max
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)
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