Alex Garland established with movies such as Ex Machina and Annihilation a reputation for ‘brainy’ science fiction. The consequences of scientific advancement have real emotional impact, driving character development. With Devs – a series produced for Hulu – the director transfers his skills to the small screen with longform drama. The result is a show that two episodes in is just mesmerizing to watch.
With Devs Alex Garland unashamedly continues themes he started with his previous two movies. As with Ex Machina we have a reclusive and eccentric CEO of a tech company. In Devs this role is played by Nick Offerman as Forest, CEO of Amaya. Forest has secluded a team of specialists into a separate building on his company’s gigantic campus. For some time Amaya has been a leader in quantum computing, but the application that the Devs team is working is unknown. Alex Garland takes his time to set the scene, what characters think is more important than what they are like. Enter Sergei and Lily Chan, a couple working for Amaya. Sergei (Karl Glusman) receives the chance to work for the Devs team by Forest, under a strict confidentiality agreement.
The story of Devs
Director Alex Garland takes his time to build up the suspense. During the long walk to the Devs team Forest asks Sergei what he thinks Devs does. Forest discards every answer. Upon learning what Devs does we also see a different side to Sergei, the worries he has of the consequences of this secret do not prevent him from taking images surreptitiously with his watch – proving he is a Russian spy. The director again takes his time to show how Sergei dies through suffocation at the hands of Amaya head of security Kenton. All this affects the characters profoundly. Forest enters into a mild depression, but the effects on Lily is what drives the story. Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is in disbelief over the story that Sergei committed suicide by self-immolation on the Amaya campus.
Lily discovers Sergei’s mobile phone with a password protected Sudoku game. It could have been a worthless mystery. Yet, Lily wants to know why Sergei committed suicide even if she disbeliefs it. This leads her back to her ex-boyfriend Jamie – a cybersecurity specialist. In episode 2 Lily uses the Sudoku game to contact Sergei’s handlers. It is a plot point that reminds me of the movie Sneakers which is also set in San Francisco. The Russian agent takes his time to convince Lily about who Sergei really was and why she should take his place. Unbeknown to either of them Kenton overheards the conversation. And so the agent ends up dead by the end of the episode, but not without consequences for Kenton.
The extended cast
While all this is happening you the viewer is continuously reminded of the Devs team. Is what they do really worth killing for? Slowly we are introduced to its other members. Stewart is played by the fantastic Stephen McKinley Henderson. Prodigy programmer Lyndon by Cailee Spaeny. We see the fruits of their labor when they manage to create a ‘projection’ of the death of Jesus Christ. Their debate about its merits makes no mention of their colleague Sergei, who worked with them for one day.
Finally there is the mysterious Katie, a close confidant of Forest, and who is in on the murder of Sergei. Katie’s emotional stillness is contrasts with the obvious turmoil behind her eyes. It’s an effect only Alex Garland can only achieve with his depiction of understated conversations. Katie is played by Allison Pill. Pill also plays Doctor Agnes Jurati on Star Trek Picard.
Near the end of episode there is a slight reboot for the series. A belief the show would develop into a spy thriller is undone by the death of the Russian agent. And so Lily is without any shred of proof is behind Sergei’s murder, nor has she got a way to uncover the mystery of why he was murdered. It remains unclear in which direction the show will unfold. The sci-fi elements remain understated and the director feels undecided as to whether to turn the show into a corporate espionage thriller.
Devs also sports an amazing soundtrack by. The haunting church choir music lends the series an eerie vibe. This music is by Jan Garbarek & The Hilliard Ensemble and is a quasi theme for the show. The first shot of episode 2 is that of Sergei corpse on the Amaya campus. Set to the single Congregation by the band Low. It gives the scene an inadvertent humoristic touch.
As for the overarching mystery of the show – what is the Devs team doing? Several references made give clues. Forest responds to Sergei that he prefers the idea of a lack of processing power over the multi-verse theory. Later on when Sergei discovers the secret of Devs he replies to Katie that it changes everything. She in turn replies that nothing changes, or words to that effect. The topic of determinism comes up in a number of conversations. All told this leads me to believe that Devs discovered everything is strictly deterministic, ergo there is no true freewill. Or put it in another way, its all Gods decision. If so, Sergei’s death is also deterministic from the moment he flips on his spy watch.
The cinematography of Devs
We will have to see how Devs unfolds. But right now it is one of my favorite shows. Alex Garland has managed to outdo himself. The cinematography is also top notch. The sets remind me a lot of the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, and there is a general Stanley Kubrick feel. The imagery the director provokes is that of familiar tech company design mixed with more unsettling choices. A giant statue of Forest’s deceased daughter taunts the entire campus. However, the room in which the Devs team operate is nothing short of exquisite. At times all this does make me wonder if there truly is a deeper meaning to Devs. The unusual pacing, conversation and the excellent music and cinematography will hopefully lend the conclusion of the story legitimacy. I hope Alex Garland did not create mystery just for mystery’s sake.