Saturday 13 January 2024

Scavengers Reign

The last few years have provided us with a wealth of fictional and reality television survival narratives. Most recently, it felt like the more cooped up with their devices audiences may have been due to the pandemic, the more they felt drawn to shows like Alone, in which contestants are stranded in the wild with limited supplies and have to outlast their competition. Maybe that is a weird comparison to have in the back of my head after watching the beautiful twelve episodes of the animates series Scavengers Reign, which feels visually inspired by artists Moebius and the events unfolding in Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X novels. It is also a strange coincidence that I was also catching up with the Monsterverse at the same time as slowly working my way through Scavengers Reign, cherishing every episode rather than binging it. It surprised me because films like Kong: Skull Island are at their best when they portray King Kong, by himself, in his environment, grieving the loss of his family and fiercely protecting his realm from destruction, in contrast to the invading humans with their differing approaches to encountering something that does not fit into their preconception of what nature is. Skull Island, and the Monsterverse in general denies human dominance over nature by placing the titans above them on the food chain, and it punishes those who approach this change in dynamics by resorting through violence rather than scientific curiosity and the willingness to concede that humanity, as a whole, is not separate from its environment but both part of it and dependent on it. When the soldiers reassigned from the last days of the Vietnam war arrive on Skull Island, their first action is to drop bombs on the pristine environment, and punishment for that act of destruction follows immediately, is meted out by Kong whose function appears to be keeping things in balance (in that regard, he is not unlike the Tuunbaq in The Terror, a half-polar bear half-spirit that reacts to the imbalance of the 120-some Englishmen of the failed Franklin expedition attempting to survive off a land that cannot support their hunger).

In Scavengers Reign, a cargo ship destined for a far-away colony runs into trouble in the orbit of an undiscovered planet and while most of its passengers sleep in their cryopods, the crew of the ship escapes in life pods to the surface. Only a few of them survive the landing, and they are spread out over the surface of the vast planet. It’s important that they haven’t arrived here to colonise – this is an accidental location, an unmapped one, and while each of the surviving groups has different backgrounds that determine how they approach the situation, the goal is to somehow return to the ship and be rescued rather than to stay and make a life on Vesta Minor. Scavengers Reign is exceptional because it puts as much effort into portraying the flora and fauna of the planet as it does into presenting the characters attempting to survive in it. Vesta Minor feels like a perfectly balanced ecosystem in which each element depends upon others, a symbiosis (and frequently, a host-parasite relationship) that the series presents throughout the episodes. The life cycle of plants sustain animals which prey upon each other to in turn nourish the plants, and as alienating and foreign as that ecosystem is (and frequently horrifying, especially when it comes to the parasites), it feels, in the absence of a human equivalent to childishly tilt it, perfectly balanced. All the plants and animals are designed with great detail, always on the edge of familiarity but just different enough to evoke the sense of wonder and alienation that the stranded humans must feel when they first encounter it.

Biologist Ursula (voiced by Sunita Mani) seems best adapted to thrive in this new environment. She is stranded alongside the Demeter’s captain Sam (Bob Stephenson), and when we meet them the first time, they have existed on the planet long enough to have learned how to get along. They harness the peculiarities of the environment, using plants and animals as tools in their attempts to set off a rescue beacon and to move through the landscape. Ursula remains deeply fascinated by what she finds throughout the series, even when things turn dangerous and horrible – at one point, she witnesses the entire lifecycle of a plant and emerges from the experience deeply humbled and amazed, a kind of secular awe. It’s interesting that Ursula and Sam are the only characters who encounter the remains of a previously stranded mission, an experience that makes it clear to them that the only way to live on this planet is to be profoundly changed, to become part of the inter-dependent system, to leave humanity behind. The transformation comes with a solid dose of body-horror (as do so many other aspects of the environment, including hallucination-inducing spores), a concession to the cost that individuals have to pay as the planet makes it clear that it will not tolerate the exceptional position of humans.
Azi (Wunmi Mosaku) arrives on the planet with more supplies that the others, but without a human companion. The former cargo manager has the support of a Levi (Alia Shawkat), a robot that undergoes a transformation towards sentience when its circuits encounter the planet’s flora. Levi embraces that transformation with wonder, as it provides an autonomy that it was previously denied. All of a sudden, Levi acts in ways that Azi does not quite understand – creatively, compelled and inspired, and no longer bound to human command. Eventually, Levi’s connection to Vesta Minor becomes so profound that it is literally rebirthed and perfectly integrated, with no further interest in the original mission, finally at home. Azi’s own reaction to being on the planet is more akin to a traditional stranded outcast. He uses the tools she has to keep the encroaching environment at bay, hesitant to confront it. She does not have the same resources that Ursula has to study it and make it useful to her, and so it remains vaguely threatening rather than beautiful or fascinating. Azi is eager to return to the ship and wake up the remaining passengers in their cryopods because that’s where she has left a woman she loves (voiced by Sepideh Moafi), but her path to achieve that goals is difficult and complicated when a group of three scavengers arrives and prioritises extracting the ship’s cargo for their own colony (and it is interesting how different approaches to the environment are once again mirrored in these three strangers).
The most horrifying journey is undergone by Kamen (Ted Travestead), who arrives on the surface with all the selfishness and guilt of a man who caused the disaster that killed the woman he loves. He is isolated and trapped to start off with, driven to insanity, and then rescued by a creature capable of telepathy and telekinesis. While sustaining his hallucinations, it enters a parasite-host relationship with Kamen (an interesting one, because it is unclear which is which), and induces a viscerally horrible bloodlust that provides the creature with food so it can grow. There is no beauty here, just destruction – Kamen’s mental dissolution perfectly mirrored in the havoc they wreak together, as if humanity’s tendency to destroy whichever environment it is in finds an expression in their symbiosis. One of the most stunning moments of the entire series is the end to this story – when Levi, made new and part of the balance of the planet, arrives to break the destructive bond, and enables a rebirth for both, the creature returned to its juvenile state, skittering off to hopefully return to its regular cycle of life, and Kamen slowly reintegrating into the newly emerged society by tending to the same environment he was previously devastating.

Scavengers Reign is a beautiful, self-contained story that earns its version of a positive ending, in which the surviving humans hopefully find a way to exist on the planet by becoming part of its eco-system rather than destroying it.

2023, created by Joe Bennett, Charles Huettner, with the voices of Sunita Mani, Wunmi Mosaku, Bob Stephenson, Alia Shawkat, Pollyanna McIntosh, Ted Travelstead, Dash Williams, Sepideh Moafi, Freddy Rodriguez.

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