Scavengers Reign - fruit tree in middle of clearing
Scavengers Reign (2023) courtesy Max
Stories & Ideas

Mon 29 Jan 2024

ACMI icon - ACMI authors

Anaya Latter

Brand Manager, ACMI

Be immersed in a living, breathing alien world not unlike our own in this animated masterpiece.

The prospect of crash-landing on an alien planet and having to quickly come to terms with the landscape and its natural inhabitants is a well-trodden trope for filmmakers, writers and animators. There’s something different about the HBO Max animated series Scavengers Reign however, that takes this concept and weaves in so many other prescient concerns about terraforming a living landscape, the nature of predation, and the nuances of shared biological adaptation.

Joe Bennet and Charles Huettner created the series, and in an interview, Bennet cites Rube Goldberg machines as a source of inspiration, thinking about cause and effect, and symbiotic relationships. The many entangled threads in Scavengers Reign each unravel into increasingly complex systems of reliance and in some instances, devastation. We are reminded of the folly of human intervention upon natural landscapes with its critique of settler colonialism and the consequences that follow blind entitlement or survivalist assertions forced on an unknown place.

In one of the first scenes, a symbiotic relationship plays out: one of the stranded crew, Sam, crawls into a creature’s abdomen and pulls on some visceral intestine-like cords. Only after a smaller creature nibbles away at the gooey casing is Sam left with two orbs which, when knocked together, provide a handheld light source. These layered interactions suggest skill, knowledge and resilience acquired over time within this alien environment which has been utilised in new ways by these stranded humans.

Some crew do better than others in negotiating with the assembly of creatures and plant life on this planet; their fates correspond to the level of respect they afford to the biological and ecological intelligence of these ecosystems and microbial communities.

Ursula - Scavengers Reign

Ursula (voiced by Sunita Mani) is transfixed by an alien species in Scavengers Reign (2023) courtesy Max

A corpse - Scavengers Reign

A corpse is consumed by the planet's ecosystem in Scavengers Reign (2023) courtesy Max

It is reminiscent of the way in which Heather Davis writes about plastic and its proliferation across the land and waterways of the earth:

“Despite its lack of visibility, the proliferation of plastics in the oceans is fundamentally reshaping life and its relations. In one of the most striking examples, plastics are becoming new forms of habitat. Microplastics throughout the oceans have become “plastispheres,” rafts of biodiverse ecologies for bacteria and viruses. Over a thousand different species were found to be living on a single piece of microplastic. It is unknown whether these bacteria and viruses were eating the plastic or merely found it a perfect milieu. But, in time, it is quite likely that the vibrant, attached communities may develop complex bacterial societies, flourishing on their synthetic surfaces, eating each other and the vast sources of unlocked carbon energy, mutating and evolving. Here is the incredible vivacity of life, its persistence and ability to use what is at hand as a creative mechanism for proliferation and flourishing.” [1]

Plastic waste can be viewed as a metaphor for settler colonialism and the oblivious way in which these interlopers alter the planet and the course of its history:

"Plastic is transferred to peoples and places that do not consent to all the consequences of plastic and its waste... Here it is possible to see how plastic is imprinted with the colonial logics of dissociation, dislocation, denial, and universality, reproducing itself without regard for local cultures or ecologies.” [2]

Similarly, the group of survivors from the Demeter enmesh themselves in the planet, causing a series of chain reactions that have irreversible consequences. As the planet adapts and changes in response to this invasive species, symbiotic associations begin to evolve and transform – feeding, receiving and providing for each other. A malfunctioning robot droid (voiced by Alia Shawkat) unknowingly acquires a fungal yellow goo that spreads through its circuitry; there is beauty and complexity in the relationship that evolves between a robot that attains sentience and knowledge about the world, and this fluorescent neural network that bubbles through its mainframe.

Azi and Levi - Scavengers Reign

Azi (voiced by Wunmi Mosaku) and the droid Levi (voiced by Alía Shawkat) in Scavengers Reign (2023) courtesy Max

This relationship evokes what scientists are starting to learn is a long-held reciprocation between plants and fungi, which Merlin Sheldrake so clearly articulates. “...before lichens had led Albert Frank to coin the word symbiosis, there was no other way to describe relationships between different types of organism... plants and mycorrhizal fungi are no longer thought of as behaving either mutualistically or parasitically. Even in the relationship between a single mycorrhizal fungus and a single plant, give and take is fluid. Instead of a rigid dichotomy, researchers describe a mutualism-to-parasitism continuum. Shared mycorrhizal networks can facilitate cooperation and also competition.” [3]

The relationship that emerges between Kamen (who caused a chain-reaction that saw the Demeter forced to land on the alien planet in the first place) and a sort of demon baby (known as the ‘Hollow’) with a rapacious hunger reveals the parasitic side of the symbiotic relationship, and the fact that any one of these exchanges has the potential to leave the world utterly changed.

Kamen and Hollow - Scavengers Reign

Kamen (voiced by Ted Travelstead) meets the 'Hollow' in Scavengers Reign (2023) courtesy Max

One of the most satisfying things about Scavengers Reign is the way it invites us to trust and allow the narrative to unfurl and reveal itself. We aren’t guided by the hand but instead allowed to make our own assumptions about what is happening, or why. It is a rare thing to find in works of TV and film these days, and a glimpse as to why comes through in a video interview with Joe Bennet where he reveals he initially wanted the animation to be silent, stating [he is]“allergic to exposition through dialogue”

Scavengers Reign leaves you with an indelible impression of greater subtext and meaning underneath what is also a beautifully rendered, emotionally resonant, animation series. In an AMA with the show’s creators, there are hints at a possible second series. There is also a list of inspirations – the films of Satoshi Kon, Katsuhiro Otomo, Terrence Malick and the film Sorcerer by William Friedkin – to explore until then.

Anaya Latter

See streaming options for Scavengers Reign on JustWatch.

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[1] Heather Davis, Plastic Matter, Durham, Duke University Press 2022, p84

[2] Heather Davis, Plastic Matter, Durham, Duke University Press 2022, p5

[3] Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures 2020 Random House New York, p212