“Weird” hardly begins to describe the extraterrestrial life-forms the viewer encounters on the planet Vesta in “Scavengers Reign.” These include: lamprey-like blobs you can slap on your face to use as breathing masks; herds of equine beasts with throat pouches that inflate when they bellow; spiky fruit (I think?) whose ropy innards double as electrical cables; and a rhino-esque critter whose digestive tract harbors bioluminescent sacs that are useful as torches. (You retrieve them, er, the hard way.)
But these creatures are not the aliens. We are. The animated series, whose first three episodes of 12 arrive Thursday on Max, is a lush, magnificent, hypnotic story of human survival in a place that feels, in a way that sci-fi planets only occasionally manage, truly otherworldly.
The series builds on “Scavengers,” a short film by Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner. In the original (which aired on Adult Swim in 2016 and is available online), a pair of shipwrecked space-farers wordlessly use the local life-forms in a Rube Goldberg bioengineering scheme to survive their isolation.
The long-form version, created by Bennett and Huettner, adds dialogue, characters and back story, following several crash survivors scattered across the surface of this strange world. Azi (Wunmi Mosaku) cultivates a farm assisted by Levi (Alia Shawkat), a quirkily malfunctioning robot. The irritable Sam (Bob Stephenson) works on a rescue plan with Ursula (Sunita Mani), a more curious-minded colleague who sees a “profound” beauty in their hostile surroundings. Elsewhere, Kamen (Ted Travelstead), stranded alone, wrestles with guilt over his role in the calamity that landed the crew here.
If the survivors are living a nightmare — there is no lack of toxic, parasitic and stabby wildlife all around them — it is a gorgeous one. The luxurious backgrounds are reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films; the polymorphous biological forms make this feel like “Lost in Space” if it were rebooted by David Cronenberg.
But while “Scavengers Reign” looks epic, there is no sprawling lore or mythology as in recent sci-fi serials like “Foundation” and “Raised by Wolves.” It’s a man-and-woman-and-robot-vs.-nature struggle, full of ingenuity, ooze and blood. (Parents note: This is definitely an adult animated series, both in language and in the level of occasional gore.)
The series is more entrancing than horror-show scary, though. It is attuned to its characters’ loneliness, fear and remorse, and there is a strain of psychedelic spirituality in its rendering of the surreal ecosystem.
There is not a clear line, on this planet, between plant and animal life, if the categories apply at all. The world is frightening and violent but in its own way harmonious. Bennett and Huettner have dreamed up a baroquely balanced ecosystem. Some creatures poison you, others eat the poison. What may seem to the harried survivors like constant danger is, on Vesta, just the cycle of life.
After all, we may root for the humans, but they are the invasive species here. “Scavengers Reign” imagines a future in which humanity treats the universe, like it did Earth, as a grab bag of extractable resources. The castaways, we learn, were workers in a corporate flotilla who crashed on the planet as a result of a dangerous shortcut meant to make their trip more profitable. The characters who fare best in this strange new world are those who adapt to it, sync with it, or even — like Levi, whose circuitry has become entwined with native vegetation — become part of it.
There is such a thing as too much symbiosis, of course. A silent, poker-faced, frog- or newt-like creature that thrives by mesmerizing other animals into bringing it food (think the Hypnotoad from “Futurama,” but creepier) ends up enthralling Kamen into its service, gorging itself on the offerings he brings it until it becomes massive and insatiable. But even this fearsome beast is just doing what comes naturally; the injection of a human into its ecosystem is what turns it into a monster.
Expanded from short film to series, “Scavengers Reign” becomes less meditative and more of a gripping survival adventure; it also drags a bit in its last half. But the real attraction is less the plot than the immersive imagery and biological inventions, like the reed-like stalks that make musical noises when bobbled, then shoot spikes. “Scavengers Reign” is much like those plants. It plays a haunting tune, but it can also draw blood.