In a year where buzzy science-fiction franchises like Star Wars and Marvel have delivered underwhelming TV offerings, Max Original Scavengers Reign stands out not just as a breath of fresh air, but as a reminder of the power and potential of original sci-fi.
Here, there is no hurried scramble to link to existing properties, no frenzy of Easter eggs meant to appease viewers’ nostalgia. Instead, co-creators Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner (working from their 2016 short Scavengers) craft a tight story of survival and ecological turmoil — one that is as beautiful as it is brutal, and as likely to evoke existential dread as it is awe.
What is Scavengers Reign about?
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Scavengers Reign opens with foreboding news: The spacefaring freighter Demeter has gone missing on a shipping run, and the company that oversees it won’t sink its resources into rescuing any survivors. Wherever they are, they’re on their own.
That “wherever” turns out to be the planet Vesta, a world untouched by humans but certainly inhabited by countless fascinating creatures. Scavengers Reign follows the Demeter’s four human survivors as they attempt to navigate this world in vastly different ways. Loner Azi (voiced by Wunmi Mosaku) tries to build and maintain a homestead with the help of her robot companion, Levi (voiced by Alia Shawkat). Pilot Sam and botanist Ursula (voiced by Bob Stephenson and Sunita Mani) make use of Vesta’s many resources to try to find a way off-planet. Then, there’s the deeply troubled Kamen (voiced by Ted Travelstead), who finds himself in the thrall of a hypnotic, toad-like creature simply known as Hollow.
Scavengers Reign invites us to a planet both sublime and grotesque.
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As these three storylines unfold, Scavengers Reign relishes in its protagonists’ exploration of Vesta. With its alien forests, swamps, and deserts, the planet resembles a mishmash of various science fictional worlds. The Toxic Jungle of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind comes to mind, as does the work of artist Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, who created concept art for everything from Alien to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unfinished Dune adaptation.
Scavengers Reign doesn’t seek to explain every aspect of Vesta’s inner workings to the audience. Rather, it lets this foreign environment wash over us, bathing us in strange fungi and alien stampedes. Vesta’s food chain plays out like some extraterrestrial nature documentary (minus David Attenborough’s soothing narration), a testament to how Bennett and Huettner have built a new ecosystem from the ground up.
For all its beauty, Vesta also hides its fair share of frights. From parasites that embed themselves in your heart to vegetal pods with deadly cloning abilities, this planet is a haven for some classic sci-fi body horror. Scavengers Reign‘s animation delights in the gloopy, bloody mess of these horrifying moments just as much as it does in more peaceful sequences.
But the real horror here is how human intrusion disrupts Vesta’s fragile ecosystem. With characters like Sam, Ursula, and Azi, we see the beginnings of how a planet can be stripped of resources for human use. However, it’s Kamen’s partnership with Hollow that proves the most frightening here. Hollow’s species typically hypnotizes small herbivores who will pick fruit for them. In hypnotizing Kamen, Hollow has unknowingly invited human greed and aggression into the equation. As Kamen kills larger and larger prey for Hollow, he develops a greater appetite, one that will have major consequences. Yet as much as Hollow may seem like an alien antagonist, he’s not being willfully malicious — this is just an animal behaving as it always would, altered due to human interference.
Scavengers Reign is deeply melancholic, moving, and existential.
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Adding to the horror of Kamen and Hollow’s predicament is the fact that Hollow’s hypnosis forces Kamen to relive painful memories of his time on Earth and on the Demeter. We get glimpses of his catastrophic attempts to salvage a dying relationship, brought to life with scenes of quiet domestic disagreement. Every time Hollow pulls Kamen back under his thrall — accompanied by a haunting organ motif from composer Nicolas Snyder — I felt sick to my stomach, knowing these two are destroying each other in vastly different ways.
Scavengers Reign also offers up less dread-inducing (but no less deep) questions elsewhere. With Sam and Ursula, we see two very different approaches to planetary survival. Both are determined to leave Vesta, but where Sam is more utilitarian in how he uses the resources around him, Ursula is more in tune with Vesta’s ecology, and therefore more open to taking in its beauty. This openness leads to one of Scavengers Reign‘s most memorable scenes, a pollination sequence that feels almost holy thanks to its ritualistic, reverent depiction.
Meanwhile, Levi and Azi’s pairing offers up a spin on a classic sci-fi story: that of a robot gaining sentience. After exposure to some of Vesta’s organic matter, Levi begins to change, becoming more inquisitive and self-aware. But there’s no sign of robot turning against human here. Instead, Levi’s personal growth becomes a place for Scavengers Reign to explore what makes sentience, and what happens when human technology and alien life forms combine.
Between its moments of quiet reflection and its detailed worldbuilding, Scavengers Reign cements itself as a stunning work of science fiction, and as a stunning show, period. It’s as strange and complex as the alien ecosystems it depicts, and once you finish watching all 12 episodes, you’ll feel as if some part of Vesta remains buried beneath your skin.