Scavengers Reign still has so much more to say

Scavengers Reign still has so much more to say

In the media landscape of 2024, Scavengers Reign feels like nothing short of a wonder. Initially conceived as a 20-minute short film by co-creators Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner, the series was greenlit for a 12-episode season for Max (then called HBO Max) and slowly gestated in production for several years before premiering in fall of last year. With its emphasis on visual storytelling, phantasmagorical imagery, and heady themes of survival and symbiosis, the most obvious question is simple: How did the creators of Scavengers Reign go about nailing the approach to its peculiar sci-fi universe?

“The main principle [of the original short] was that we were following these characters [as they] do a process through nature, and you’re kind of seeing this Rube Goldberg-style process of cause and effect, trial and error throughout,” Bennett tells Polygon. “It had no dialogue, so it was all visual narrative. […] Gradually, we started leaning into planet Vesta’s nature and what that could be.”

What grew from that fledgling seed of an idea was a densely imagined world of exotic fauna, inscrutable native life forms, and a vast, interconnected ecology of creatures existing in concert with one another. “[The idea was] if every character is utilizing these organisms as some sort of functionality, have that be a thing throughout the show that’s consistent,” Bennett said. “It’s never just that the characters are the central focus. […] These characters are struggling through so much inner turmoil and psychological stress, and seeing that against the backdrop of this planet that in a lot of ways is unforgiving — that dichotomy was always important to keep in mind.”

Pulling from influences as far afield as the comics of Jean “Mœbius” Giraud and the animation of René Laloux to the Primitive Technology YouTube Channel, Scavengers Reign was unique by design and from the jump. “One of the things I always heard from Joe and Charles was that you wanted this thing to breathe,” Titmouse founder Chris Prynoski says. “If you look at an episode of Lower Decks, we’re trying to cram as much story in one of those episodes as possible. […] [On Scavengers], even the shot count, it’s like, We can have a lower shot count but spend more time on making those special.

Sam and Ursula ducking beneath an alien tree with dragonfly-like alien creatures fluttering around them in Scavengers Reign. Image: Max

But that balance was important; cliche though it may be, Planet Vesta is a character unto itself in Scavengers Reign, neither benevolent nor explicitly malicious; a truly alien frontier in which the survivors of Demeter 227 are brought to bear not only the limits of their physical bodies but the full weight of their personal histories. The point of focus is never just on the human characters themselves. The series spends as much time, if not more, scrutinizing the micro- and macroscopic creatures of this beautiful and frequently hostile world as it does the hapless humans struggling to navigate and survive it.

The audience sees this not just on screen, but in the way the series is edited, with close-ups of the Demeter survivors regularly interjected with wide shots situating them as tiny iotas dwarfed by the immense scale of the strange and unfamiliar landscape that surrounds them. It makes sense that Scavengers Reign would put so much emphasis on Vesta’s vistas and biomes, given how much time and attention the production team invested into nailing the look and feel of the planet.

“We had a nice runway for concept design and building out the ecosystems and all that stuff,” Bennett told Polygon. From character and creature designs to the environments and sound design, every element of the show’s creation fed into one another. “I’m a big believer when creating any kind of show in just that threading [of the creative process] where the composer is making music, and you’d send that to the animators, and that would inspire them in a certain way. Then you would take some of the drawings that the concept designers are making and you send those to the writers, and it’s inspiring to them.”

A woman standing in an oasis surrounded by strange alien plants and creatures in Scavengers Reign. Image: Max

Luminescent pods grow from the ground while a man seems to grow inside of one in the animated series Scavengers Reign. Image: Max

A woman and a man kneeling beneath a tree branch decorated with strange leech-like creatures in Scavengers Reign. Image: Max

And you can really see that creative cycle and symbiosis echoed throughout the entirety of Scavengers Reign, like in the first episode, when Ursula and Sam repurpose a blowfish-like creature as an air filtration mask and later escape device, or when Azi employs the pheromones of a jellyfish-like creature to ward off the advances of a herd of presumably hostile aliens. “That was the really fun part. You’re like, These creatures pair really well with these organisms and this foliage, which goes well with this whole scenery,Bennett says. “It was just this idea of like, as different as they are, it all still feels like part of one planet, and also that there’s some kind of significance to these things. Whether it’s a utility for the characters, or even just what their functionality is on the planet.”

The result, even in a show with less dialogue, speaks volumes. The first season of Scavengers Reign settles into a deliberately paced and thoughtful sci-fi tale about more than just a group of survivors marooned on a strange planet, but a story about what a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship between humans and their environment should ideally strive for. “We were trying to tell a sincere story,” Bennett said. “The pacing was really important, and giving some brevity to these kinds of things. […] It was such an organic process all the way up to the end. And so things were just changing, constantly being kind of re-tweaked.”

So much change in such a complicated process could cause anxiety, sure. But it felt important to the tone of the show. “You get so much of a better result when people feel like they’re trusted to inject themselves into it,” Prynoski says. “A lot of these primetime comedy-type shows […] it’s very much about dialing in jokes, which, we’re so fortunate that that was not the tone of this show.”

A golden skeleton in a cloak holding an uprooted tree in one hand and a incense lantern in the other in Scavengers Reign. Image: Max

As of this writing, it’s been over a month since news first broke that Scavengers Reign had been canceled by Max following its premiere last October. Fans and newcomers of the show have been waiting with bated breath for news of a possible renewal of the series through Netflix, which added the series to its streaming library on May 31. When asked what his plans for a potential season 2 would look like, Bennett emphasized that it would focus in part on the mysterious group of gold-masked figures who encounter one of Lev’s techno-organic progeny aboard a marooned scavengers ship. “I think there’s definitely kind of a roadmap,” Bennett said. “It starts to get vague maybe, like, five or six episodes in. But there’s definitely a roadmap an idea for those guys.

“If we’re lucky enough and we can do a season 2, you’ll see a lot more context and it’ll make more sense. But I also really love the idea of not knowing and just going with the flow, and things just change.”

Season 1 of Scavengers Reign is now streaming on Netflix and Max.