Our contemporary understanding of sci-fi feels like it is almost single-handedly shaped by Alex Garland. I’m just talking cinema here, but look at the evidence: He wrote the novel Danny Boyle adapted into The Beach, he collaborated further with Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine, he adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, he went pulpy with Dredd, and then he delivered the one-two punch of Ex Machina and Annihilation, the latter of which I adore. Garland is, of course, building on decades of sci-fi thought here, on ideas put forth by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler, and yet he also, in Devs, is toying at an idea that seems perhaps more religious than analytical: that of free will.
Devs is weighty, tangled, sometimes melodramatic and sometimes devastating, visually stupendous and narratively a little hokey, an ambitious project by Garland that I think could only work as a TV show because of the sprawl of it. It’s currently airing weekly on Hulu as part of their partnership with FX—four episodes already down, four to go—and although I’ve finished the series, I’ll only concentrate here on the first half of the season, episodes one through four (named, uh, “Episode 1” through “Episode 4”), and I’ll write another piece after the miniseries on April 16. Garland immediately inserts us into a world that is quite similar to our own, familiar in all the recognizable ways—big tech company, shady business practices, an egomaniacal CEO, young engineers with big dreams—but uses shifting perspectives and religious iconography to make things not quite right.
Think of the dreamlike quality of Oscar Isaac’s isolated mansion in Ex Machina, or of the strangeness of the Shimmer in Annihilation: locations that straddle the line between organic and engineered, between natural and man-made. The same vibe is at play at Amaya, the Silicon Valley tech company run by the mysterious Forest (Nick Offerman). The company is hidden, well, within a forest, tucked away inside verdant greenery, a collection of slick buildings all watched over by the gigantic statue of a young girl, her hands cupped together, tilted upward—as if in prayer, or as if she’s holding the weight of the entire world. Within that space works nearly an army of software engineers in a variety of fields, from artificial intelligence to encryption, but there is an element to their work that isn’t entirely quantifiable. That does, in fact, leave space open for other realities—for entire other worlds—for other versions of themselves. Forest, the kind of man who eats a box of undressed arugula with his hands, isn’t a fan of the “multiverse theory,” but his company promises to the world “your quantum future.” They’re producing the most cutting-edge tech available, and they’ll do it in secret if they have to.
Sometimes, those secrets even have to be kept from people working at the same company. So it goes for Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno, who has appeared in Garland’s directorial efforts, as well as Crazy Rich Asians) and her boyfriend Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman, of The Neon Demon). (If you couldn’t tell from “Forest” and “Pavlov,” Garland is having some cheeky fun with nomenclature here.) When Sergei is tapped by Forest to work for Amaya’s mysterious Devs division, he has to swear to Amaya head of security Kenton (Zach Grenier, of Deadwood and The Good Wife) that he’ll never tell anyone, not even Lily, what he’s working on within Devs. But after only one day inside Devs, he disappears, and then, according to Amaya, kills himself on the property, beneath that gigantic baby statue—sparking a mystery that Lily is determined to untangle, even as it puts her at odds with Kenton, with Forest, and with Forest’s right-hand woman, the curiously cold Katie (Alison Pill).
That’s the broad view of what has happened so far in Devs, and I appreciate the mystery angle here—Garland sets us alongside Lily in her quest for the truth, but what truth? Slowly and steadily, Garland reveals to us various components of what Amaya and Devs are doing with their “strange, private project,” as the Russian operative Anton (Brian d’Arcy James, of Spotlight) calls it: An algorithm that engineers Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) and Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson, of Lady Bird) are working on, one that lets them spy on the past, a breaking of the rules that sees Katie admonishing them with “We don’t look forward, we only look back.” To a wary senator, Forest explains it’s a means of prediction, but who predicts the past, not the future? In the March 9 episode, “Episode 4,” we learned why Forest rejects the multiverse theory, and why he fires Lyndon for tweaking the algorithm so that it brushes aside the hidden variables and the blizzard of variances: “If it’s not our Jesus, it’s not my Amaya,” he insists, speaking of his daughter, whom that oversized baby statue honors. So is Devs changing the past? Bringing the past back to life? How?
My greatest frustration with the show is that question, the how of this all, and perhaps that’s the element of faith that Devs requires and I am unwilling to give. The show’s obsession with the question of determinism vs. free will is a popular one within sci-fi, but I’m not entirely enthralled with how the show is handling it, or with how grand and omniscient certain elements of Amaya and its mission are built up to be. The show is convinced of the importance of this pairing, and although I’m not, I’ll hold off on saying more about that until the miniseries has wrapped.
Still, the elements surrounding that central question are often quite interesting, precisely because they’re more tangible than theoretical. As a genre, one of sci-fi’s prevailing questions is what makes us human, what makes us different from a collection of code, and we get that with every single character. As Lily, Mizuno is gripping and excellent, a woman working through her own trauma (seeing your boyfriend burn alive where you work is pretty fucked up), the lies she’s been told, and the realization that she is somehow, for some reason, more significant than she ever could have imagined. Sometimes the wonder with which Katie and Forest hold Lily veers a little toward the kind of specialness we see often in young adult literature and film—superficial, and overly mysterious—but Mizuno plays Lily as a woman used to tackling problems step by step, incremental bit by incremental bit, and that helps us move beside her on this journey. Watching her go from reactive to proactive, refusing to be a pawn in whatever Katie and Forest have planned out for her, gives me the same rush that Ex Machina did.
Mizuno is surrounded by an ensemble cast that is given varying degrees of depth. Offerman is fantastic as Forest, surprisingly menacing and quietly emotive (I loved his nonresponse at the senator’s aghast “Unless you think America’s trivial?”). I was surprised by the ruthless efficiency of Pill’s performance, and what a different wavelength she’s on compared with the engineers she oversees. Of those characters, Henderson’s Stewart is the standout, a man bringing the weight of a lifetime to their endeavor; watch his work throughout, and it will cut you deep. Other elements, though, feel like they belong in a different show. The simplistic racism of Kenton never felt particularly dangerous to me (“You Russian, her Chinese, me nervous” didn’t exactly work), and in fact the whole Russian angle seems unnecessary. Yes, Russian hacking has been a part of our lives for the better part of four years now, but maybe if the people playing Russian characters had more consistent accents or motivations that lasted longer than an episode and a half, I would be more convinced.
Nevertheless, so much of the rest of Devs is weighted with affect. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who also worked on Ex Machina and Annihilation, pair up with the jazz group The Insects for an extremely unsettling, consistently aggressive score. The horns feel like an attack, and the use of rhythmic chanting and synths throughout takes the score to a place that, like the rest of the show, flirts with religious ritual. The production design is sparse and spooky, the Devs building a mixture of Brutalist architecture and art deco—like a tomb on the outside and a glittering Gatsby mansion on the inside. The contrast, strange as it is, is evocative and entrancing—much like those glowing loops of light surrounding the tree trunks in the forest you have to walk through to reach it. Cinematographer Rob Hardy, another frequent Garland collaborator, does great work in those spaces, especially with recurring mirrored and duplicated images. Sometimes the visuals of Devs as a series are more evocative and thought-provoking than its spoken ideas, if only because there is a directness to them that its obfuscated script often lacks.
“Effect is always the result of prior cause,” Forest and Katie repeat, trying to comfort each other that all of their actions are good and right. As if everything they do has a purpose, is linked to something that came before; that nothing happens on its own. There’s a looping quality to that reassurance that Devs is trying to interrogate, and although I’m not sure the show reaches the depth it’s grasping for, there is a level of intrigue throughout that is disconcertingly addictive in the way so many of Garland’s creations are.
Devs premiered as part of FX on Hulu on March 5, 2020, and continues airing through April 16, 2020.
Image sources (in order of posting): FX, FX, FX, FX