‘Devs’ Review: Alex Garland’s FX Series Is a Gorgeous Existential Mind-Bender

     March 5, 2020

As a writer and filmmaker, Alex Garland has become known for pensive, mind-bending sci-fi movies rooted in just enough real-world science to leave you hanging on the ledge of a full-blown existential crisis. The 28 Days Later and Dredd screenwriter made his directorial debut with the stunning A.I. drama Ex Machina and his last film, 2018’s Annihilation, was his boldest swing yet; an ambitious, abstract and absolutely mind-melting biological nightmare.

With Devs, the upcoming series that will launch Disney’s new FX on Hulu model, Garland makes the leap into television with another challenging slice of WTFery. The 8-hour limited series (Garland has been clear that it’s a contained story with an ending) gives the writer/director a larger cinematic landscape than ever to meditate on his sci-fi and filmmaking fascinations, and in keeping, Devs feels like a creative cousin to both films. In terms of craftsmanship, Devs expands on a lot of the techniques in Annihilation, embracing experimental imagery and sound design to unnerve, disorient, and immerse the viewer, while conceptually it shares Ex Machina‘s fascination with our rapidly-advancing real-world technology. It’s far too close to reality to be considered tech-paranoia, which is what can make you feel so damn paranoid.

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Image via FX

Garland’s regular collaborator Sonoya Mizuno (the dancer-turned-actress who played the A.I. Kyoko in Ex Machina and embodied the otherworldly humanoid in Annihilation) stars as Lily Chan. Lily is a computer programmer working at a cutting edge Silicon Valley tech startup called Amaya with her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), until he gets promoted to the company’s mysterious “Devs” team and turns up dead in an apparent suicide the very next day. But Lily isn’t buying it, and after teaming with her ex-boyfriend (Jin Ha), her investigations lead her to suspect Amaya’s owner, Forest (Nick Offerman), and uncover the potentially world-altering research he’s doing in Devs.

Offerman plays the morally ambiguous tech titan with his signature, swaggering wit turned way down and his all-accessible humanity dialed up to eleven. Forest is obviously sheltering dark secrets on his verdant campus, where the stark glass and concrete buildings jut out of lush green woods like uninvited usurpers of the natural world. Portraits of a young girl with bright eyes and curly hair adorn the walls and windows of his institution, the standout being a deeply unsettling, giant monolithic statue of the young, girl, which juts above the treetops like an absolute nightmare.

(A personal side note: the series’ intricate, high-tech interiors were shot in London, but the exteriors were shot on the famously lush UCSC‌ campus in Santa Cruz, Ca – my alma mater and the frequent setting of my own nightmares, making the already phantasmagorical series an extra-surreal viewing experience at times.)

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Image via Miya Mizuno/FX

What exactly is Forest doing with his Devs program? Well, Devs is one of those shows that is particularly difficult to review because the meat of the ideas is hidden behind veils of mystery and secrecy, and the series takes its time doling out that particular mystery over the course of the season. But based on what Garland and his cast have already revealed, it feels safe to tell you that the series arose from Garland’s fascination with Determinism (in brief, the belief that free will is an illusion and all behavior is completely determined by pre-existing circumstances. Cause and effect, in existential totality.) Using his groundbreaking quantum computers, Forest and his team are working on a predictive algorithm based on deterministic principles to do… something. We don’t know. We do know that when Glusman’s A.I. programmer pours through the code for the first time, he sobs, spasms and throws up in a visceral response.

Suffice it to say, Devs is a heady piece of writing; digging into themes of determinism vs. free will, but also infused with religious allegory and a strong dose of genre flourish. By explaining just enough about the philosophical and scientific concepts of determinism and quantum computing, Devs is a series that leans heavier into the science than the fiction without becoming a physics lecture. Forget a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Devs is the kind of sci-fi that feels more like next week, in an office just around the corner. And that’s part of what gives it its power to terrify and stun. It’s deep shit, man.

Garland is a wise enough filmmaker to keep his existential hard sci-fi story spiced up with unpredictable twists and, sometimes, shocking jolts of violence. About once an episode, Devs feels like it might topple over into becoming a straight-up horror show, not just for the unyielding sense of dread, but because that slow-burn anxiety is so often punctuated by short, sharp sparks of horrific cruelty or brutality. Much of that is courtesy of Forest’s head of security and resident fixer, Kenton (Zach Grenier), a chillingly cool customer who never blanches at a deviant deed. Grenier is quietly terrifying; a slithering, deadly snake in the tall grass of Devs’ lofty existential ideas.

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Image via Miya Mizuno/FX

Alison Pill delivers another standout performance as Forest’s right-hand-genius Katie, a consummately brilliant and enigmatic power player who never fully shows her hand. Pill is always a treat to watch, but in Devs she is absolutely captivating; understated and unpredictable while giving the character a seemingly unshakable center-balance of power.

As the head engineer on Devs, she leads the oddball team that also includes Cailee Spaeny‘s ambitious and brilliant young coder Lyndon and Stephen McKinley Henderson‘s tech-world veteran Stewart, who’s not just brilliant but also wise. Stewart often serves as the voice of conscience and concern, never more so than when he’s speaking to the very real-world fear that the future of humanity is no longer in the hands of countries, but privatized corporations led by money-hungry honchos and over-ambitious inventors; neither of whom are knowledgable of or interested in history, art, literature or culture. (There’s a great Shakespeare joke in the final episodes that’s as nerdy and understated as it gets.) Stewart stands opposed to those who would lead us into a new world without appreciating or understanding what made the old world beautiful.

With eight hours to dig into such philosophical debates and the implications of our ever more rapidly-advancing technology, Devs can be inconsistent and occasionally threatens to teeter too far intellectualism over emotional storytelling. But Garland is a wry and clever writer, layering in emotional punches and slow-burn character reveals that keep the material gripping even at its most ponderous moments. It’s an elliptical story, that tells you everything you need to know from the get-go in broad strokes before cycling inward towards greater complexity and nuance with each episode until it arrives at its core truth. Your mileage may vary on whether the destination is worth the long journey, and there’s no doubt that Devs lacks the sheer force of impact that comes with Garland’s tightly wound feature scripts, but even if some final reveals feel somewhat underwhelming, each opens a new Pandora’s Box of existential quandaries.

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Image via Miya Mizuno/FX

And he’s a hell of a craftsman, conjuring a pervasive sense of anxiety and escalating sense of dread as Lily tries to maneuver her way out of this impossibly complex wasps nest, getting stung at every turn. Devs is also downright gorgeous to look at, alternately vibrant and stark, earthy and modernistic, and jam-packed with striking imagery that sears right into your brain. Likewise, the soundscape can be jarring and terrifying. The soundtrack is aces too, including an incredible deep-cut needle drop of Steve Reich’s pioneering tape-loop track “Come Out”.

All told, Devs is a rich and complex science fiction story that brings all of Garland’s best storytelling traits to the television landscape, giving him a bigger canvas than ever to explore his creative idiosyncrasies. In keeping, Devs is his most ambitious act of storytelling to date, novelistic and expansive, showcasing some extraordinary performances from the ensemble, and bolstered by creative freedom that allows him to fully embrace his avant-garde instincts. It’s fascinating, sometimes baffling, and like all good sci-fi, it can make you question your own reality.

Did I chose to write this review or was I merely riding the tramlines of my life to an inevitable destination? Will I chose what I do when I close this window, or has that already been decided for me? The fact that I’m even asking speaks to, not only the power of the ideas Devs explores, but the impact of the way it explores them. What I’m saying is, if you want to take a hell of a head-trip, Devs is just the ticket.

Rating: ★★★★

Devs debuts on FX on Hulu on March 5.

Television

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