In a way, Scavengers Reign could’ve almost worked better if it’s chosen to eschew the need for dialogue. While dealing with a textually dense narrative landscape, there’s plenty of expository storytelling being done visually in the latest animation series from Max. Following the seemingly doomed crew of a damaged deep space freighter, the series follows those survivors as they try to stay alive on a dangerous planet.
Despite clearly being educated on the way of this alien landscape, there’s no doubt that humans are facing odds beyond their imaginations. This is punctuated in the opening, as it’s mentioned that onlookers would find survivors more pitiful than those who perished in the crash. The planet that awaits them is truly treacherous, both in ways imaginable — poisonous environments, unstable ecosystems — to confounding, such as one crew member faces off with a parasitic being that seems to leech off of memories. Somehow, creating a cohesion of tone that marries the macabre with the whimsical Scavengers Reign is unlike anything currently on television.
Expanded on from the 2016 short film, the series is directed by Joe Bennett and Charles Huettner and written by Bennett, Huettner, and Jenny Deiker Restivo. Striking a meditative and, at times, meandering pace, the series doesn’t justify its 12-episode run, especially as stories are dragged out. The most interesting part of Scavengers Reign is its artwork and, more specifically, the landscapes and backdrops that breathe tangible, toxic life in the series. The score is similarly gorgeous, though it tends to drown out the actual dialogue in what appears to be a sound design issue.
The animation style is deceptive. Adopting a “plain” style that lacks any apparent grandiosity, the lines and character designs are simple, the dialogue even more so, almost monotonous in the actors’ delivery. Wunmi Mosaku voices Azi, who has been left on her own aside from the robot, Levi (Alia Shawkat), whose behavior at the star begins to concern Azi, who has never run into a robot quite like Levi. Sam (Bob Stephenson) and Ursula (Sunita Mani) are, at the very least, able to work together. However, their survival constantly runs into some of the more gruesome and forebody creatures on the planet. Their stories, along with Kamen’s (Ted Travelstead), hint at the psychological debris floating around them, mirroring the actual debris of the shipwreck orbiting the plane they currently inhabit.
Those inklings and mounting dread of what devastation this planet might wreck on its current guests is where the character work matches the level of the backgrounds and worldbuilding. There’s such an inventiveness to certain aspects and details of the world in the way that so many of its creatures can be used as tools, be it for heat or light, that clashes with the initial few episodes that can’t keep up with the visuals. Considering it’s medium, it’s okay that the animation takes the spotlight. However, it would gain more fans outside its niche demographic if the pace was quicker as it deals with the increasing, formidable threats against our protagonist.
It’s why this series might’ve worked just as well, if not better, sans spoken dialogue. Animation is a medium that still works tremendously without words. Look at what the animation studio Orange has done with verbal dialogue-free sequences in the tragic backstories of Wolfwood in Trigun Stampede or Louis in Beastars. Gints Zilbalodis’s Away (2019) is a startling feat of animation; every frame is crafted singularly, engaging with the audience the entire time despite no dialogue. Similarly, The Red Turtle (2016) is one of the finest animated films of the past decade and weaponizes that specific time of silence. It takes a tremendous level of confidence for filmmakers to choose that direction. With the visual curiosities and monstrosities on screen in Scavengers Reign, there’s a missed opportunity to push it even further. This is especially true considering the mesmerizing score.
That ability to push boundaries is part of why animation is so often such a tremendous feat of artistry, as they make the limits of what those watching could’ve imagined on their own. There’s a grizzly moment in the premiere where one of the characters suffers a hallucination where her organs simply melt away from her body. It’s beautifully animated, hideously grotesque, and haunting. While there are features in the series that harken to a film, such as Annihilation in how the planet seems to refract those who inhabit it, building an organism that moves and breathes in one terrifying, beautiful breath, the ideas are singular and innovative. Those science fiction elements that play within the expectations of the genre while determinedly pushing against what we’re expecting help alleviate some of the drudgery of the first episodes.
Scavengers Reign is a gorgeous piece of animated fiction that revels in the high stakes and improbable world it’s built for itself. While it suffers from too-patient pacing that drags the story forward, the visuals and artistry on display are undeniable, with a profound developing narrative that pushes the limits of what we’ve seen depicted. With soft palettes and striking, horrific imagery anchored by a score twinged in whimsy, the series is a confounding, beautiful watch that animation fans, in particular, will want to seek out.
Scavengers Reign Episodes 1–3 are available now on Max, with new episodes each Thursday.
Scavengers Reign is a gorgeous piece of animated fiction that revels in the high stakes and improbable world it’s built for itself. While it suffers from too-patient pacing that drags the story forward, the visuals and artistry on display are undeniable, with a profound developing narrative that pushes the limits of what we’ve seen depicted in Western animation.