“Scavenger’s Reign” can only really be summed up as the most devastatingly beautiful, hypnotic and horrifying nature science-fiction documentary-esque hand-animated show streaming at the moment. It’s a glorious amalgamation of aliens, oddities and daydreams with an intimate attention to detail.
Based on a 2016 animated short film, five characters must survive on the dangerous and alluring planet Vesta Minor after their spaceship Demeter malfunctions. A familiar setup in the science fiction genre, it’s not the plot of “Scavenger’s Reign,” which has made the show a sleeper hit, but its vivid attention to world-building sucks in its audience.
A man and a woman peer over a cliff at the gaping chasm that leers before them in search of a battery below. Instead of throwing a grappling hook or launching with futuristic technology, they pull a small, bug-eyed creature out of their packs. Snapping it open, they each stick it on their lips, and the animal transforms into a makeshift gas mask as they venture forth.
The series is packed with these Rube-Goldberg-esque sequences, alien organisms converted into human tools. The beauty of these alien mechanisms is that the characters rarely jump into explanation or overload the audience with details of how these work but instead silently go about their manipulations. World-building takes place not through condescending exposition but almost entirely by simply illustrating the circular environments of Vesta Minor.
In one particularly detailed sequence, Ursula (Sunita Mani), a scavenger filled with wonder about the world she’s stranded in, witnesses the entire life cycle of a small alien in a strange flower, organic parts moving in tune to spring one sequence into the next before it closes quietly in on itself.
“Scavenger’s Reign” weaves a delicate balance between serene landscapes and excruciating body horror, not hesitating to dive into what occurs when the human body meets the alien. Organisms grow out of chests, bodies are incubated in strange egg sacs, a curious plant quickly envelopes a scavenger in a crushing embrace — danger lurks behind every wonderful moment.
While the planet itself is dangerous, many of the perils the scavengers face are human-inflicted chemical reactions. Greed, guilt and rage fuel much of the sickening, organic creations that haunt the harrowing planetary surface. The storyline of Kamen (Ted Travelstead), a scavenger who develops a twisted bio-psychic relationship with a strange creature, is especially enthralling as he spirals further into the unknown.
Though the show’s art style and jaw-dropping ecosystems set this science fiction spectacle apart, the show certainly doesn’t neglect its characters either. The show’s cast is packed with memorable “scavengers” that bring the world of Vesta Minor to life. Loner mechanic Azi (Wunmi Mosako) and her curious robot aide, Levi (Alia Shawkat), prove to be especially entertaining as a loveable and unlikely pair of opposites.
Where “Scavenger’s Reign” does begin to fall short is in dragging out the storyline. Half of the show’s charm is in its willingness to linger, letting the audience take in a small insect darting out of frame or a subtle change in the wind. Unfortunately, the narrative sometimes feels just as aimless as its subjects, wandering rather than building up momentum. Combined with the show’s ruminating style, the 12-episode season just barely tips into bloated territory by the end of its finale.
Ultimately, the show is a masterclass on world-building and pushes the animation medium and science fiction genre into new territories. It’s a tender love letter to the genre and the horrors of the natural world, imagined and otherwise. What is the best way to devour “Scavengers Reign?” Strap in for visceral horror, awe-pumped science-fiction environments and endearing characters — sit back and enjoy the ride through the mysterious world of Vesta Minor.