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