Alex Garland may not be a household name, but there's a good chance if you're a fan of the more horror-flavored side of the sci-fi genre, you're familiar with his work. He wrote the scripts for cult-classics like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, and went on to write and direct Ex Machina and Annihilation, both of which garnered plenty of critical acclaim despite their limited theatrical releases. Now, he's teamed up with FX to bring his talents to the small screen for the first time with Devs, an eight-episode miniseries that will be streaming exclusively on Hulu. While the medium may be different, Devs has everything fans will have come to expect from Garland's particular sensibilities.
Devs is the story of a Silicon Valley tech company called Amaya, founded by an eccentric genius named Forest (Nick Offerman). As a thinly-veiled Google-style analog, Amaya works on everything from predictive algorithms to cloud-based hosting, but it sets itself apart from the rest with its mysterious Devs division, a top-secret, completely isolated project Forest recruits the best-of-the-best for. Devs' project is so secret that even the regular employees at Amaya don't know exactly what happens there. This becomes a problem when Sergei (Karl Glusman) is invited into the fold by Forest and then promptly disappears, leaving his girlfriend, fellow Amaya employee Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), to attempt to pick up the pieces. Naturally, investigating Sergei's disappearance only lands Lily in the heart of a complicated web of secrets, lies, and horrific revelations about the real purpose of the Devs team and the truth of Forest's ambitions.
Within the Devs team itself is an eclectic group of programmers, led by Forest's right-hand-woman, Katie (Alison Pill), who functions as the straight-man for Forest's more pie-in-the-sky ideals. Under Katie are Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage protege, and Stewart (Stephen McKinnley Henderson), an old man who refused to be left behind by the changing times. The only person at Amaya outside of Devs who is fully clued into the project is Kenton (Zach Grenier), the head of security and the only character in the show who isn't a programmer. Meanwhile, Sergei's disappearance forces Lily to go to her ex-boyfriend Jaime (Jin Ha) for help--though she quickly realizes that may not have been the best idea.
Both Offerman and Mizuno shine in their respective roles with Mizuno, in particular, going above and beyond to embody the messy, complicated, emotional center of a woman caught between her own grief and the cold, hard logic of the things she knows to be true. It's a theme that runs through every episode of Devs--these are characters who are staggeringly intelligent, the best in their fields, who rely on inalienable facts to make sense of the world; butting up against things that don't make sense--or, worse, can't make sense with science alone. Mizuno effortlessly hops back and forth between teary-eyed outbursts and stony-faced resolve, providing a perfect counterpoint to Offerman's soft-spoken (but ultimately shockingly threatening) placidity. Meanwhile, Pill's Katie rapidly evolves into Lily's direct foil--a woman who has figured out exactly how to shut down the illogical parts of herself and remove emotion from the equation entirely. Their scenes together are some of the strongest and most anxiety-inducing of the show.
It'd be impossible to reveal too much of what the Devs team is actually trying to accomplish without dipping into spoiler territory, but the broader idea has to do with a real-world philosophical theory called determinism. Garland, during a panel at last year's New York Comic-Con, described it as the theory of cause and effect--that everything that happens in the world happens because something caused it, reaching back in an endless chain to the beginning of time. In the deterministic worldview, there is no such thing as free will. Everything that can happen and will happen has already been determined and is now following in lockstep with a preordained set of causes, resulting in a predictable and equally preordained set of effects.
Such a high concept premise isn't exactly unexpected for someone like Garland, but those coming to Devs without having seen Ex Machina, in particular, might find themselves scratching their heads more than once per episode, especially as things really get rolling. Even Grenier's Kenton, who frequently serves as the audience surrogate in many of the more inside-baseball tech conversations, can still feel like he's speaking another language from time to time. Ultimately, however, the show never falls into a trap of inaccessibility or insurmountably steep learning curves--the exposition may come a little bit more slowly and slightly more densely packed compared to Garland's films that play in the same arena, but it does come. And there are incentives to stick around, even when you're feeling baffled.
That said, Devs is probably not the best introduction to Garland's oeuvre, and, if you already consider yourself a skeptic of his particular brand of philosophical sci-fi, it's very unlikely to convince you to reconsider. As the mystery at the heart of the show begins to unravel and things become less and less tethered to reality, it can all start to feel a bit navel-gazey and there are a handful of last-minute reveals that do feel a bit too cute or easy--things that would have likely wound up on the cutting room floor had Devs been constrained by the runtime of a feature film rather than a mini-series.
However, for anyone coming to the show already buying what Garland is selling, it feels like luxurious comfort food. It's obvious that FX spared no expense in allowing Devs to exist exactly how Garland envisioned it, complete with staggering practical sets, spine-tingling horror-flavored scoring, and visual effects that ooze style at every turn. Those key factors, in addition to the strong cast and crisp writing, make Devs feel like an art piece that will be worth revisiting and analyzing time and time again.
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