Creepy kids often make for good visible horror tales. That precept was already a trope again within the 1950s, with the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” and it’s been a staple of horror cinema ever since, from the 1960 film Village of the Damned to 2019’s unsettling The Hole in The Ground. All it takes to make children deeply unnerving is an unchildlike solemnity or a grim, inhuman stare. But tales that lean on that very same type of easy, eerie, not-quite-right inhumanity in adults are comparatively uncommon. Adult characters, the pondering often goes, want much more complexity of motivation and conduct to make them intimidating, as a substitute of simply the slightest push into the uncanny valley.
HBO Max’s heady new science-fiction sequence Raised by Wolves, produced by Ridley Scott and created by Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, is obsessive about parenthood, and it returns many times to totally different points of parent-child relationships. But the artistic staff will get a variety of their subtlest and most memorable horror out of simply reversing the roles from the eerie-child playbook. Part of that reversal means discovering the humanity within the child characters, whether or not they’re traumatized and struggling, brash and bullying, or smart past their ages. The kids don’t have narrative area to be unnerving. Their mother and father have taken on that job for them.
The 10-episode sequence opens with two androids, Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) touchdown on an inhospitable planet and organising housekeeping. They’ve been programmed to gestate a sequence of human fetuses and lift them to start out a brand new colony, and as their early interactions present, they’ve additionally been programmed to respect and help one another, and to work collectively to supply the kids with a loving dwelling. At the identical time, like the numerous different androids in Ridley Scott’s filmography (from Alien to Prometheus), Mother and Father aren’t fairly human. They’re actually able to emotion — over the course of the six episodes supplied for preliminary important viewing, the androids expertise longing, hope, jealousy, rage, worry, and much more. But these feelings are blunted and noticeably synthetic. Collin and Salim play their roles with a compelling however uncomfortable take away, as if they’re feeling their harm and horror deeply, however nonetheless laboring to make their plasticine faces talk these feelings successfully to others.
Their inhumanity is a part of what makes Raised by Wolves really feel like an unexpectedly sophisticated and wealthy try at onerous science fiction. Spec-fic is usually obsessive about what “humanity” actually means, significantly as folks both attempt to create synthetic variations of it, or danger shedding it to know-how or different big adjustments. In Raised by Wolves, Guzikowski doesn’t waste time on having his androids talk about humanity and whether or not they’re able to it, however the way in which the administrators and actors painting Mother and Father as simply exterior it, and doing their finest to repeat it, raises all the fitting questions when coupled with parenthood. Can one thing inhuman educate an toddler to be human? Can a baby raised by machines exceed these machine’s capability for empathy? And when the machine’s programming takes it in deadly, terrifying instructions, are human feelings sufficient to behave as helpful counterprogramming?
Given the tempo of the story, these questions largely slither beneath the floor of all the pieces else that’s occurring. The androids are a part of an initiative to reseed humanity throughout the universe after the Earth was all however destroyed by a high-tech non secular battle. Seen in flashbacks, the planet seems to be like one thing out of a Terminator-movie flash-forward: battle-androids, moveable energy-packs, and modern hover-ships allow large-scale devastation because the factions collide. The atheists appear to be on the shedding facet: they’re the rough-and-tumble avenue fighters, whereas their zealous Mithraic foes have higher know-how, uniforms, and iconography. They even have a extra sterile and hierarchy-driven society, full of doctrine revolving across the solar god Sol. The doctrine they preach sounds sufficient like Christianity to make the metaphorical underpinnings of the non secular battle clear, however the symbols they put on are all stylized suns.
In the opening arc — the primary three episodes, now accessible on HBO Max, with subsequent episodes on Thursdays — Mother and Father start their younger colony, however face a risk from a Mithraic group that discovers them. The Mithraics think about android-raised kids an abomination. Everything that falls out from there’s higher found than described, given how a lot Raised by Wolves bases all its character growth and story reveals in motion, and given how quickly the storyline evolves. But alongside the way in which, it brings in two extra mother and father, Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar), who’re as invested in defending their son as Mother and Father are in defending their fees. And by the top of the fourth episode, there are two new potential mother and father within the combine as nicely, both of which might severely change the dynamic.
Raised by Wolves is a cold, unforgiving sequence in its design and its bitter worldbuilding. The colony planet, Kepler-22B, is a forbidding place that solely helps the hardiest life, and the desaturated palette doesn’t supply a lot however boring browns, greens, and grays, to the purpose the place the Mithraics’ pure white uniforms really feel like a visible reduction. As in so many different Ridley Scott-derived worlds, this one appears someplace between hostile to humanity, and totally detached. (Like so many different Scott worlds, it’s additionally stuffed with dramatic particulate matter. Scott directed the primary two episodes right here earlier than passing the baton to other people, beginning together with his son, Luke Scott. But even the episodes he didn’t direct are stuffed with drifting mud and falling snow, or billowing smoke and haze. Stuff within the air is a longtime Scott signature, and whereas it’s typically fairly and forbidding on the identical time in Raised by Wolves, it additionally looks like a operating in-joke.)
The sequence’ unrelieved grimness and greyness might drive some viewers away earlier than the story’s scope even turns into obvious. The scale of destruction within the opening episode is startling, nevertheless it comes earlier than viewers have actually had an opportunity to settle into what this world is like, or get any significant sense of who Mother and Father are. That opening actually raises way more questions than it solutions. But after the explosive opening, Raised by Wolves settles right into a extra cautious pacing, exploring all kinds of concepts round mother and father, kids, and the way they relate. One smug younger Mithraic retains attempting to outline his position in society by his father’s rank, even after his father is gone. Another teenager, raped by an elder within the church, has to contend each with feeling betrayed by the technology that was meant to guard her, and the prospect of getting an undesirable youngster herself.
Marcus and Sue face extra sophisticated parental roles, as they attempt to relate to a son whose expectations of them complicate their lives in fascinating methods. And Mother and Father need to navigate a wide range of small, testing makes an attempt at revolt from their son Campion (Winta McGrath), about all the pieces from faith, which he checks out like a toddler attempting to face up for the primary time, to killing for meals, which he refuses to do even for survival. Their programming, oddly, doesn’t appear to increase previous the earliest days of childhood, and whereas they’re coping with a wide range of exterior risks and their very own stunning growth, they’re additionally attempting to determine be mother and father when which means guiding kids in addition to guarding them.
None of which might be significantly fascinating if the sequence’ motion wasn’t compelling. The larger plot actions are alarming and even thrilling, however the pacing is erratic, with abrupt motion alternating with lengthy, quiet tensions. Raises by Wolves is usually extra imagistic than textual: Recurring photos like Mother hovering via the air, bare and sexless and bronze-skinned, along with her arms prolonged in crucifixion place, evoke non secular iconography with out truly doing a lot to justify the sequence’ non secular arc. The Kepler colony initially attracts on Edenic concepts, with a person and a lady elevating their kids in a backyard, surrounded by the echoes of previous snakes — large “serpent pits” within the floor, big serpentine skeletons buried across the androids’ camp. But all of it looks like shallow iconography, with little to justify the placing photos. The sequence does periodically really feel like a surface-level gloss over a sequence of formidable and artistic concepts.
But at the least it isn’t telling an outdated, acquainted story. More than midway via the preliminary run of episodes, Raises by Wolves nonetheless doesn’t really feel prefer it’s completely cohered into no matter it’s going to wind up being. It’s nonetheless about discovery and surprises, and about discovering infinite new variations on the parent-child “Who’s leading who to maturity here?” questions. The sequence will be opaque and baffling, or typically even arbitrary. But it additionally feels prefer it’s attempting to deal with a complete lot greater than the same old coming-of-age story, or the same old underdogs-vs.-autocrats story, or the same old escaping-parental-control story. Like its horror-movie androids, with their bizarre jumpsuits, stiff expressions, and not-quite-human behaviors, Raised by Wolves is intriguing as a result of it feels so far-off from the same old run of science-fiction TV. It’s uncanny, however at the least it isn’t predictable.
The first three episodes of Raised by Wolves are actually on HBO Max. Subsequent episodes debut on Thursdays.