Wednesday, January 10, 2024

In Scavengers Reign, the rule is eat or be eaten

A raw, bloodstained, oozy, slimy circle of life

A backstory with a space colonial mission going awry and leaving only a handful of survivors stranded on a hostile planet seems at first to be no more than a practical device to introduce the setting of the new HBO Max series Scavengers Reign. However, as you go through each episode and learn more about the tortuous interweaving of knots that is the food chain on this planet, you may start to suspect that the aggressively hungry lifeforms that the protagonists meet serve as a pristine model of predation of which human culture is but a distorted echo. All the alien creatures shown in the series hunt or absorb or parasitize or harvest or invade or suction or infect or maim or stalk or crush or impale… yet none of them predates with the deliberate malice or the thoughtless waste with which the flashbacks reveal that these humans use each other. The ecosystem they've accidentally crashed in the middle of is by no means a fragile one, but what they've brought into it is a legitimate threat. Basic hunger, however brutal, stops far short of greed. The instinct for self-preservation pales before self-serving ambition.

Scavengers Reign revels in the myriad grisly ways life can devour life. Seeds pop; tendrils lash; spores corrode; filaments grasp and attach themselves; living crystals pierce through flesh; a naturally evolved cloning machine builds a mindless simulacrum that exists only to murder. All these convoluted strategies obey the same universal urge: to feed, to grow. At its simplest, eating means seizing something external and acquiring the energy stored in it, while converting its matter into you. In that small, everyday act lies hidden the blueprint of more destructive possibilities. Take that pattern and multiply it by the thousands of years of human development and you get, for example, the ravages of colonialism, which snatches whole populations and sucks all usable energy from them. What does it say about humankind that the way we describe the act of spreading our species beyond our home planet is also called colonization? Are we going to assimilate other biospheres and remake them in our image? That's the mission the humans of Scavengers Reign were attempting before a cascade of selfish choices brought disaster upon them. That's the function of the flashback scenes: to remind you of the all-consuming march of civilization so that your mind can infer the implied reversal of roles that occurs when Earth's apex predator is suddenly dropped in a place where everything wants to eat a piece of you.

Still, in the few days that these lost newcomers manage to keep themselves alive on an impossibly dangerous world, they demonstrate a tenacious ability to identify how nature can be used for their ends: which fruits to grow, which beasts to commandeer for transportation, which internal organs mixed in a mortar with which type of mud can disinfect wounds, which bodily secretions stimulate the appetite of the specific giant bird you need to hop onto to cross an otherwise impenetrable foliage. By repeated cutting, tearing off, rending open, squeezing, plucking, snapping, and good old smashing, the humans integrate themselves into the ecosystem, becoming another actor exactly as ruthless and violent as the local organisms, but no less subject to them than they are to humans. It's crucial to learn quickly the rules of the place, because it won't allow humans the option of behaving as the invasive species they've comfortably become on Earth. The wilderness feels much more chaotic and menacing when the playing field is leveled and we don't have the advantage anymore.

Curiously, the multifarious exuberance of this environment stands in contrast with the austere aesthetic with which it is portrayed on the screen: the web of relations between prey and predator can reach a mind-boggling complexity that nonetheless is represented by the animation artists with simple lines, plain textures, flat colors with barely any gradation, and whenever possible, omission of details beyond mere shape and size, as if preferring to let the subject matter bear alone the duty of overwhelming your senses. You don't need to see the full viscosity of a creature's innards when the story itself is already suggesting it. Maximalist in content while minimalist in style, Scavengers Reign provides a viewing experience that feels like filtering the film Annihilation through the video game Sable.

It would be too facile to read here the same ecological message we've received from every science fiction story about the encounter between humankind and a new environment. You already know how voracious we can be and how painfully nature can bite back. The series counts on your knowledge, so it doesn't spend any time in didactic monologues. Its characters are forced to start living in tune with the laws of nature, but this is not a story about the need for that harmony. There's a clear argument that the uniquely human way of predation can destabilize an entire biome, but this is not a story about the dangers of overexploiting resources. What this series offers to the viewer is not a critique, or a denunciation, or a plea for action. Its interests are more intimate. Many scenes are occupied with an intense exploration of human weaknesses, of the persistent way the things we believe we want can obscure the truth of the things we are responsible for. The incompatible priorities that ended up throwing the mission off course and possibly dooming its entire crew to a disturbingly complicated death were also a clash of desires, which in the terms of untamed jungle translates as a clash of hungers. That is a chase that goes on within the human spirit. The vivid ebullience of the alien landscape can only be matched by the surreal maelstrom that inhabits each of us.

This is art with an unmistakable point of view to express, but not by means of coherently formed concepts. Rather than deliver a message, Scavengers Reign was created to communicate a sensibility, a particular way of looking at the flow of life and death in all its visceral crudity while inviting the viewer to acknowledge how much of the havoc inside us mirrors the same savagery of the nonhuman world. This can be an uncomfortable exercise; if our way of interacting with everything is by consuming it, introspection becomes too risky to attempt. Scavengers Reign takes that jump anyway, more than happy to eat your brain and give you a spoon for you to scoop out your own taste of it.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.