TV

Review: Devs

Nick Offerman and Alison Pill in Alex Garland’s wild sci-fi mystery.

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Being an eight-part series with a total runtime of six and a half hours, Devs might not be an instant sci-fi classic—it's packed with too much mind-trippy exotica to take in on one viewing. Nevertheless, a sci-fi classic it will surely one day be. (Episode 1 is viewable right now on a new Disney streaming operation called FX on Hulu.)

Alex Garland, who wrote and directed every installment of the series, has deep roots in the sci-fantasy world, having written two memorable Danny Boyle films (including the great Sunshine), the mega-dystopian Never Let Me Go, the comic-book adaptation Dread, and two films that he also directed, both unforgettable: Ex Machina and Annihilation.

With Devs, Garland takes on one of the oldest philosophical disputes—the one between determinism and randomness. You remember:

Determinism: "Every action in this world is predetermined, why worry?"

Randomness: "No, free will exists—let me demonstrate with this punch in your face."

Determinism: "I knew you were going to do that."

Variations on this conundrum have launched many a sci-fi story, but probably never at such painstaking length as in Devs. This could be a problem for some viewers, who might find the movie's measured, trance-like pace to be simply too slow (and indeed, there are an awful lot of lingering aerial shots of freeways and forests, and some scenes that may have been opened up little too much—they feel as if they were shot underwater). But still, the rich, hypnotic spell that Garland casts is hard to deny.

The story is set in Silicon Valley, an increasingly ominous place these days. Two young A.I. specialists, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) and a Russian immigrant named Sergei (Karl Glusman), are both employed by a quantum-computing company called Amaya, which is owned by a hyper-chill tech genius (aren't they all?) named Forest (Nick Offerman). Forest is the kind of guy who, when asked how many quantum bits his core computer is able to run, says, "A number that seems pointless to express as a number." He is a militant determinist, convinced that we live in a universe that is "godless, neutral, defined only by physical laws." But there's a chink in his dogma: his daughter Amaya, the company's namesake, who was killed in an auto accident. In Forest's belief system, Amaya would have to be definitively dead. But he has created a secretive annex to his company called Devs, where his belief is being tested…and, lately, being called into question. "Everything we do is predicated on the idea that we live in a physical universe, not a magical universe," he says. "I am scared we might be magicians."

One day Sergei demonstrates an impressive computational achievement, and Forest decides to move him over to the Devs side of the company, a fantastical golden building located out in the woods, where it's watched over by a towering statue of a little girl—the deeply mourned Amaya—gazing out over the treetops. Sergei's new job goes well at first, but then goes badly, and Forest feels compelled to call in his head of security, a chillingly avuncular character named Kenton (Zach Grenier), who is willing to carry out Forest's orders by any means necessary. (Forest is relieved by determinism of the need to take responsibility for any unpleasant action he sets in motion— "It's not that I want these things to happen," he says.)

Before very long Lucy finds herself in the market for a new boyfriend—well, that would be the deterministic reading of her situation—so she reunites with her ex, another tech wizard named Jamie (Jin Ha). Meanwhile, back at the Devs lab, Forest's brainiac girlfriend, Katie (a supremely eerie Alison Pill), is overseeing the experimental efforts of two differently gifted employees: sweet-natured Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and a snotty prodigy named Lyndon. (Nothing is made of the fact that Lyndon, who appears to be a teenage boy, is played by Cailee Spaeny, a female actor. Nor is there any acknowledgment of the singular appearance of a university lecturer played by Liz Carr, who lives with a disfiguring affliction, arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, but has blazed a trail for handicapped comic actors in her native Britain.)

The mission statement at Devs is to perfect a means of peering back into the past, and the researchers are getting better and better at it—working their way from watching old-Hollywood movie stars having sex to traveling thousands of years into prehistory. Looking into the future, however, is prohibited—"too problematic," Katie says.

There's a lot going on in this film, and not a lot of it is predictable. Who would expect a Bond-style spy operation to crop up here, or a couple of long, dialogue-heavy scenes that are entirely riveting? There's also a senator (Janet Mock) who would like to see the NSA take control of Forest's company, mostly because she believes that artificial intelligence will eventually create an unemployment catastrophe, but also because, after all, what have he and his tech-head brethren contributed to the world? ("Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make people feel like shit about their lives," she says. "Twitter makes them feel reviled.") People such as Forest and his ilk, Lily says, "reduce everything to nothing – nothing but code…They have too much power. It drives them crazy, thinking they're messiahs."

Among the series' several wonders—the gorgeous set design and lighting, the carefully weighted performance by Nick Offerman as Forest, playing it totally straight—Devs also has a spectacular, sonically innovative soundtrack. The score, by Garland veterans Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, working with a pair of studio specialists called The Insects, has some glorious electronic environments and electrifying, wordless vocal improvisations. There are even glints of humor amid the generally somber proceedings. Preparing to embark with Forest on a fateful philosophical experiment, Katie makes it clear that she's been cheating on that Amaya mission statement. "Do you want me to pretend I don't know what happens next?" she asks him.

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  1. (It’s viewable right now on a new Disney streaming operation called FX on Hulu.

    Who the hell subscribes to all these services?

    1. A lot of people seem to sign up long enough to binge watch the show or two they want to see, then cancel their subscription until the next season rolls around. I wonder how long until companies get wise to this tactic and start imposing contracts with early cancellation fees. It’s rumored the the be AT&T streaming service will require a two-year contract.

      1. “It’s rumored that the new AT&T,” goddammit.

    2. I keep waiting for a la carte to become the de facto industry standard. I know I would spend a hell of a lot more money on media that way. But they keep going back to these attempts to pull you into an expensive and broad contracted service, so it must work better for them.

    3. A lot of them, like Hulu, are pretty cheap. You can buy a basketful of them for the price of basic cable. If you’re taste in TV matches their offerings, they can be a good deal.

  2. “Garland takes on one of the oldest philosophical disputes—the one between determinism and randomness. You remember:”

    It’s interesting that there is no room for free will in either of those world views.

    1. The older I get, the more skeptical I get that there’s such a thing as “free will”.

      1. So you choose not to decide?

        1. No. Either you decide or you don’t, depending on your nature.

          1. “If you choose not to decide
            You still have made a choice”
            ~ Neil Peart (Rush – ‘Freewill’)
            😉

        2. OK, no bullshit, as I’m reading this thread.. “Freewill” spins up on my Youtube Prog mix.

          Creeeeepy.

  3. Disney can fuck off this should be on the fx I’m already paying for

    1. But then where would you be able to see that Sunny In Philadelphia episode that you’ve watched 500 times before?

      If I could livestream the sports events I wanted to watch, I’d be done with cable. Most everything else I can get online.

  4. Forest is relieved by determinism of the need to take responsibility for any unpleasant action he sets in motion— “It’s not that I want these things to happen,” he says.

    He’s just following the orders of the universe.

  5. So, a Disney streaming service FX on Hulu?

    So… what does one have to subscribe to to get that? Hulu? Is it an add-on to Hulu? If you have Disney Plus, this isn’t available?

    This libertarian is beginning to pine for the three-network TV on a 13″ black-and-white set while your made your little brother adjust the rabbit ears every 20 minutes.

    1. It comes with the regular Hulu subscription.

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  7. It was one of the wonderful sci-fi video and Now watch more popular shows free on Unlock My TV for free try it.

  8. “…between determinism and randomness.” = everything is predetermined and knowledge is impossible. Both are oxymorons, dead ends, hence the intro of time travel where all things are possible, all the writer has to do is go back and rewrite, a writer’s wet dream.

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