Scavengers Reign Is a Breathtaking Sci-Fi Thriller — And One of the Best Surprises of the Year
The stunning new animated series is a must-watch.
Fiery debris rains down from the sky, plummeting in a cloud of smoke and spores onto a strange alien planet filled with lush, fungi-like vegetation and all manner of phantasmagoria. It’s striking imagery — so striking that the new Max animated sci-fi series Scavengers Reign uses it as its opening credits every episode. It’s no wonder the show’s intriguing teaser trailer leans heavily on the show’s visuals, opting for no dialogue and a simple classical score to lure curious viewers into its beautiful, bizarre world. But just like the strange planet and its even stranger lifeforms, there’s more lurking beneath the surface of the breathtaking and bleak Scavengers Reign.
Scavengers Reign is a stunning new 12-episode animated series from Joe Bennett and Charles Huettner, who spun the series off from their acclaimed 2016 sci-fi short, Scavengers. The original eight-minute short started out as a challenge: what if they could bring the surreal sci-fi art of Moebius to life? $14,000 and a simple, comic book-style animatic later, Bennett and Huettner had done something more: an evocative and thoroughly transporting piece of art. Scavengers Reign manages to take the ambitions of the original short and transform it into a rich, darkly thrilling series that shows the immense capabilities of 2D animation — and proves original sci-fi storytelling is still alive and kicking.
Scavengers Reign follows the surviving crew of the Demeter, a deep space freighter that mysteriously vanished and is believed to be lost in space. Turns out the freighter took heavy damage, forcing crew members to evacuate and crash-land on a nearby alien planet. The disaster that kicks off the story is only shown in bits and pieces at first, and acts as the sort of central mystery to the series: What damaged the ship? Why were they so far off course? Where the hell even are they? It’s this mystery that helps keep the show so engaging as the handful of survivors — Captain Sam (voiced by Bob Stephenson), gentle biologist Ursula (Sunita Mani), tough-as-nails Azi (Wunmi Mosaku), her robot companion Levi (Alia Shawkat), and the pitiful Kamen (Ted Travelstead) — embark on a straightforward journey to reunite with the Demeter. Well, relatively straightforward, because naturally the way is paved with man-eating plants, parasitic monsters, and creatures too weird and fearsome to even try to describe.
These days, every original sci-fi project is judged based on the quality of its influences — creating a new sci-fi classic is seemingly impossible these days without citing Blade Runner or one of its many successors. And indeed, Scavengers Reign has many discernible influences outside of its Moebius-like backgrounds. There’s a dash of the Lovecraftian pulp of Annihilation, a heavy dose of the visceral scares of Ridley Scott’s Alien series, an undercurrent of the vibrant weirdness of René Laloux’s experimental classic Fantastic Planet, and even a sprinkle of Studio Ghibli’s naturalistic wonders — if those wonders were actively trying to kill you. But what sets Scavengers Reign apart from the rest of the original projects trying desperately to prove themselves based on their classic sci-fi credentials is the way the series effortlessly recycles these influences so they feel fresh. Like many a pulp adventure-inspired sci-fi, Scavengers Reign is a pastiche, yes, but it’s one that still feels wildly unpredictable and new.
The show’s gorgeous animation style can certainly be credited for Scavengers Reign’s novelty. The characters are designed very minimally — looking more similar to independent comic art by Charles Burns than the crude designs we see in animated comedies or the smoother styles of superhero and fantasy cartoons. The work of animation studio Titmouse (The Venture Bros., Star Trek: Lower Decks) is crisp and kinetic, with lively movements that look like they’ve been lifted straight from anime like Akira. The result is a fascinating amalgamation that pushes the potential of 2D animation to new heights. Even if 2D has been long abandoned by major animation studios, Scavengers Reign is proof there are still new things to discover within the medium.
The only mild criticism I’d have for Scavengers Reign is that it is dark. To call it bleak would be an understatement, as our intrepid heroes face one near-death escape after the other, and one terrible outcome begets an even worse one. Scavengers Reign goes down grim narrative avenues that test the limits for even the most hopeful audience member until you wonder if it’s even worth it for these characters to survive a universe so aggressively trying to kill them. It makes the show a distressing challenge to binge (this reviewer received all 12 episodes and struggled to get through more than two at a time), and perhaps one that’s best imbibed in small doses. Though its fragmented, flashback-heavy narrative is nothing new, it does aid the show from falling too deep into a depressive rut.
But even for all its deeply disturbing twists and overly grim tone, Scavengers Reign is a wonder. It’s a feat of animation, a feat of sci-fi storytelling, and by far one of the best surprises of the year. Its enthralling trailer snuck up on us and instantly captured our imaginations — this series will do the exact same.