Alex Garland has covered a lot of ground in his career—from authoring novels to screenwriting and directing. You might have noticed that he leans toward sci-fi; his directing debut, Ex Machina, dealt with artificial intelligence, and its follow-up, Annihilation, focused on alien life. Devs, his new television miniseries, continues in this sci-fi-adjacent vein, and while it succeeds in asking lots of insightful questions about our world, it unfortunately falls flat in its follow-through.
Garland wrote and directed all eight episodes of Devs, which is a one-and-done story. It stars Sonoya Mizuno (who had roles in both of Garland’s previous films) as Lily Chan, a computer engineer, and comedian Nick Offerman in a very serious turn as Forest, CEO of Amaya, a Google-esque tech company with a giant campus in San Francisco. Forest focuses most of his efforts on his secret development division, known within Amaya simply as “Devs.” Lily’s boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) has just been recruited into the department...but then he promptly disappears. What follows is Lily’s journey to find out the truth about what happened to him and what’s really going on at Devs.
So, what is going on there? Well, that’s for them to know and Lily to find out. But the same goes for viewers. While teasers have been incredibly light on specifics, thankfully most of the show’s big ideas are telegraphed early on and it doesn’t take too long into the series to get the gist of what’s happening. Garland also spoke about many of Devs’ central concepts while promoting the mysterious series—determinism and quantum computing to name a few, but also artificial intelligence programs used to predict the movement of a simple organism. The real research happening at Devs isn’t treated as a plot twist or huge reveal; it’s the application of that work where the drama lies.
With those things in mind, is Devs science fiction? Yes and no. It concerns AI experts, quantum physicists, mathematicians, cybersecurity, software engineers, and, of course, the power of tech companies and even government oversight. These are all very real-world issues, but whether or not the work happening at Devs would ever come to fruition in our world is highly theoretical. At least I think so? One of the problems with Devs is its inability to explain...well, a lot. Sure, you can mostly roll with the story without having a doctorate in any of the above fields, but much of it will fly over your head. I suspect that those who do have more than a passing understanding of the concepts presented will find it more enjoyable. The show suffers from fact that the characters are meant to already understand the technical aspects of the research, so the dialogue doesn’t delve into much explanation, which results in the show failing to provide enough exposition to really get the audience up to speed.
That said, the technical side of things could be forgiven if Devs was a strong character piece, but it’s not that either. While Offerman’s performance was an interesting one to watch considering his past work, only Forest’s motivations are crystal clear. Star Trek: Picard’s Alison Pill—Forest’s second-in-command at Devs—plays Katie with a stoniness that’s fitting for her laser-focused characterization, but it mostly just comes off as one-dimensional. And Mizuno’s Lily doesn’t get nearly the amount of character development needed before her life turns upside down. She basically goes from 0-60 and, besides a few flashbacks, we never really get to see who the real Lily was.
Garland’s signature style is on full display here with the help of director of photography Rob Hardy, who also worked with the creator on Ex Machina and Annihilation. The series looks absolutely stunning and has a dream-like quality to it—or nightmare-like if you’ve seen the giant toddler statue in the teasers. Episodes are punctured by moments of shocking violence, as well as an incredible number of Kubrickian auditory cues that scream in your face when you’re least expecting it. Devs’ music was composed by Bob Locke and Tim Norfolk (aka the Insects) along with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, and it provides a curiously intrusive aspect to the otherwise solemn environments.
While, overall, Devs tells a compelling story, it will leave you wanting a lot more, from the story itself and the character development. Garland probably could have used help in navigating TV structure. Instead, he treated the miniseries like one long movie, which leads to awkward pacing for just about everything. A chunk of the series feels like wasted space that could have been better used to fill in some other holes left disappointingly blank. If you choose to enter Devs, you will no doubt find yourself being pulled into the mystery and on the edge of your seat watching the tech advances unfold. But in the end, you’ll wonder if it was all worth it.
Devs also stars Jin Ha as Jamie, a cybersecurity specialist and Lily’s wounded ex-boyfriend who she drags into the big mess; Zach Grenier as Kenton, the head of security at Amaya who must get paid a lot for all the work he puts in; Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim Uprising, Bad Times at the El Royale) as Lyndon; and Stephen McKinley Henderson (Dune, Lady Bird) as Stewart. It premieres on FX on Hulu March 5.
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