‘Devs’ is Peak Heady Science-Fiction Television – Review
Are humans obsessed with choice? Is free will a construct or a reality? Is determinism merely a nihilistic belief or is it the foundation of human existence?
These questions are just a few of the many thought-provoking examinations that FX’s new series Devs leaves its audience wondering. The complexity of Devs is complemented by the sterile, ambient style of writer/director Alex Garland. Garland is famous for his unique brand of science fiction, with films like Ex Machina and Annihilation exploring opposite ends of the realism spectrum. 2015’s Ex Machina adapts a neo-realist approach to tell the story of a tech genius obsessed with conquering the Turing Test and giving life to artificial intelligence. Annihilation encompasses more surrealist storytelling techniques to construct a narrative that deals with self-destruction and transformation within the confines of colorful mutant aliens.
Despite the elevated thematic content presented in his movies, I have always had a hard time garnering the same level of love for Garland’s work that most critics and audiences have. The 28 Days Later screenwriter’s high-brow science fiction films are somewhat derivative of previous ventures within the genre. With Ex Machina’s concluding theme of an uprising led by “evil” technology, I was left with a familiar feeling having watched Michael Crichton’s Westworld, James Cameron’s Terminator, and Duncan Jones’ Moon. In addition, the experimental Annihilation wears many of its cinematic influences on its sleeve; drawing heavily from flicks like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and Ridley Scott’s Alien – just to name a few. What most distinguishes Garland’s filmography is his eye for sleek production design, intensely vibrant cinematography, minimal usage of dialogue, and maximum usage of eerie musical orchestration. Moreover, he is a master at pulling quiet, nuanced performances from superstars like Alicia Vikander and Natalie Portman. Therefore, despite my criticisms of Garland’s derivativeness, there is no denying that he is a top-notch director whose expertise in crafting tone and atmosphere makes him one of the stand-out storytellers of the 21st century.
As such, my excitement surrounding the announcement of a show like Devs came largely from the fact that this eight-part series allows Garland to engage in a narratively lengthier medium like television. And with all eight episodes being solely written and directed by its creator, the presumed mini-series is completely reflective of his authorship – unlike the aforementioned Annihilation that dealt with studio interference from Paramount Pictures. But with the reputation of the Emmy winning network FX, coupled with the streaming power of the network’s new partner Hulu, Devs represented a clean slate that seemingly gives Garland unrestricted creative freedom. The show’s cast – Nick Offerman (Community, The Founder), Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina, Crazy Rich Asians), and Alison Pill (The Newsroom, Snowpiercer) – along with the gorgeous set design emphasized in the previews promised an epic, introspected sci-fi journey. Did Devs live up to that promise? I’m very pleased to say that Devs exceeded even the highest of my expectations.
The show follows Lily Chan (Mizuno) – a young employee of tech company Amaya – as she investigates the mysterious death of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) after his first day working in the secretive “Devs” (development) division. The development hidden inside of this isolated fortress is a visualization simulator designed to display hyper cinematic recreations of any period in time. Amaya’s founder Forest (Offerman) builds this elaborate feat of technology to relive memories with his deceased daughter who he named his company after. Trapped in a dangerously nostalgic mind state, Forest demands the utmost perfection and secrecy from his employees; resulting in death, destruction, and mayhem. He justifies his overly protective managerial style through his shrewd belief in determinism – an ideology that asserts that all actions are reactions, every cause has an effect, and nothing is truly a choice. This ultimately leads to numerous philosophical discussions about free will, multiverse theory, and other interpretative dissertations.
As we search for answers to the universe’s fundamental questions, order is the only way humans can comprehend the natural way. In order to reason with nature, we come to accept conformities like religion, science, and organized government. Having these establishments of mundane life can help us understand the anomalies that occur in the universe. But are the laws of society there only to describe, or are they to predict? The show begins pontificating this question about half-way through the season, as Forest and Katie (Alison Pill) begin using this technology to look into the future, which reinforces the central conundrum of choice and individual agency. Weighing the morality of possessing a tool this powerful evolves into grander discussions of messiahs and prophets; that giant tech company founders often liken themselves to. Crafting an omniscient view of the world through his highly advanced computer simulation enables Forest to adopt an overt god-complex that inspires brilliantly sadistic monologues. Offerman acts the hell out of these moments; giving a tour de force performance that gives life to an otherwise robotic character.
Offerman isn’t the only actor showcasing their masterful skills throughout this show. Mizuno excels as a grieving lover looking for answers. Her character journey naturally progresses from complacent to manic as more is revealed to her. With the help of her ex Jamie (Jin Ha), she embarks on the mysterious quest to uncover the truth. Devs encapsulates a neo-noir style in the vast sci-fi concepts and aesthetics; complete with murder, thrilling hand-to-hand combat, car crashes, and more. Amidst the grand religious and philosophical metaphors, the underlying detective narrative incorporates a high degree of foreign espionage that provides both relevant political commentary, and classic Hitchcockian thrills. Fearful of foreign espionage and conspiracy, Keaton (Zach Grenier) – an ex-CIA agent who is the head of security at Amaya – begins as a semi-rational muscle man that slowly devolves into a sociopathic rage machine. With the heroes and villains established early on in the series, questions of morality are reserved for the thematic concepts, not the characters. Garland’s techno-thriller series divulges its importance of the greater metaphysical elucidation rather than varied characterization. The livelihood of all of these characters fundamentally centers around either developing, protecting, or exposing technology – the causality that affects all of their lives, and ours.
Plot and characters aside, the show is actually stunning from a visual perspective. The cinematography orchestrated by Rob Hardy gives the series a warmer, naturalistic vibe to contrast the cold, artificial technology background. The production design is probably the biggest standpoint of the show, as the interiors of the elaborate “Devs” building are immaculate. The shiny, gold-plated office building hidden in the wilderness is absolutely breathtaking; complete with the impressive practical effect of a levitating entrance corridor. Outside of this extraordinary set, production designer Mark Digby and his team of artists created a number of intricate background details that both highlight characters and atmosphere. Lastly, Garland’s expert blend of the spectacle and theoretical comes into full display. Most notably, his presentation of multiverse theory is unlike anything I’ve ever seen communicated on-screen, as it shows several different variations of individual moments within the same shot.
Ultimately, Devs successfully allocates all of its storytelling devices to communicate the deeper questions of humanity and its place in the universe. Despite some minor shortcomings in characterization, this show represents peak heady science-fiction television. And if complex sci-fi isn’t for you, at least support the show by streaming it exclusively on Hulu to encourage more ambitious, creator-oriented filmmaking.