Alex Garland’s Devs Is Heady, Philosophical Sci-Fi Destined for a Cult Following (Review)

Alex Garland’s latest explores free will, determinism, and the nature of reality against a Silicon Valley backdrop.

How best to describe Devs, the latest from writer/director Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina)? Is it a murder mystery? An espionage thriller? A critique of Silicon Valley “tech bro” culture? A philosophical exploration of determinism versus free will?

Well, in Devs’ case, the answer is all of the above — which is both its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. Apparently, Garland couldn’t think of an idea or concept that he was willing to cut from Devs’ script. Which means there are times when Devs — its slow, ominous pace and atmosphere notwithstanding — can give viewers a bit of whiplash as it changes from one concept to the next.

At the same time, this overabundance of ideas makes Devs the sort of heady TV series that fuels multiple viewing sessions, drives involved, long-winded discussions (of both the online and late night variety), and inspires cult followings. (See also The OA and Dark.)

Furthermore, it helps that Garland takes his ideas — even the ones that maybe, possibly could’ve been cut — very seriously, and approaches them all with an incredible eye for detail. (Which explains the series’ gorgeous and oftentimes haunting visuals, from aerial shots of a fog-enshrouded San Francisco to the mysterious, shrine-like facility where the series’ storylines ultimately converge.)

Note: The following may contain potential spoilers for Devs.

Lily Chan and her boyfriend Sergei both work for Amaya, a technology company that has outpaced all of its competitors — and come to the government’s attention — thanks to its advancements in quantum computing. When Amaya’s CEO, Forest, offers Sergei a position in the company’s top secret “Devs” division, it seems like a dream come true for both of them.

Lily’s life is turned upside down, however, when Sergei fails to come home and then apparently commits suicide on the Amaya campus. Unconvinced by Forest and Amaya’s claims concerning Sergei’s death, Lily begins her own private investigation. An investigation that not only uncovers that Sergei was leading a double life but also draws her inexorably to the secrets of the Devs division — secrets that may have consequences for existence as she knows it.

As I was watching Devs, I found myself keeping a tally of other titles that felt similar to what Devs seemed to be about, e.g., The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Charlie Jade, Avalon, and even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This may make Devs sound derivative, and I confess, I was inclined to think that way about four or five episodes in. I was enjoying the ride, but caring less and less about where the series was apparently going to end up.

But to Garland’s credit, Devs very much becomes its own thing thanks to some excellent twists in the final act and a willingness to tackle the ramifications of heady philosophical concepts like determinism and the multiverse head-on, with nary a pop culture reference or action scene in sight.

Put another way, Devs is the kind of series where protracted scenes featuring portentous dialog delivered by characters resigned to their fate in an apparently godless universe are often quite riveting. If that sounds like your cup of tea, well, then you know what you’re watching next.

As is perhaps necessary for a series like Devs, Garland leaves the ending ambiguous. After all of the ways Forest has abused his wealth and power, after all of the earth-shattering discoveries made by the Devs team (some of whom pay the price for doing so), and after all that Lily has lost — are their final fates just and fair? If there are an infinite number of worlds, does that excuse gross wrongdoing and injustice on one world simply everything worked out fine on countless others?

If the world is as deterministic as some characters claim, then do concepts like “right,” “wrong,” and “love” mean anything? Can they mean anything, or are they just comforting lies that we tell ourselves to keep from going mad even as we know we’re deceiving ourselves? If we really are living in a simulation, then what’s to prevent everything from eventually succumbing to solipsism?

If you’re going tackle such themes in a show, then you need a cast that can do so — which Devs does. It’s initially jarring to see Nick Offerman as Forest simply because it’s so difficult to not see him as Ron Swanson. But thanks to Offerman, Forest becomes surprisingly complex: on the one hand, a tech entrepreneur willing to philosophize away terrible deeds, and on the other, a grieving husband and father whose sadness and sense of failure drives his every move. Similarly, Alison Pill portrays Katie — Dev’s lead design and Forest’s second-in-command — as an initially cold, arrogant woman whose emotional depth is slowly revealed.

I was initially cool to Sonoya Mizuno’s performance as Lily Chan — but upon further reflection, her withdrawn and seemingly wooden performance makes sense for a woman whose entire sense of reality has been pulled out from under her. Finally, my favorite performance might be Jin Ha as Lily’s ex-boyfriend Jamie, who reluctantly helps her investigate Sergei’s death. Jamie could’ve been a thankless role, but he not only turns out to be a fundamentally decent character (always a nice, welcome surprise), he also serves as an audience stand-in who responds to the increased craziness surrounding him with wit and incredulity.

When Samantha Nelson describes Devs as “peak TV in all its decadence,” I find myself nodding in complete agreement. She writes:

[V]iewers have to be willing to accept the meandering path to the payoff, which includes literal lectures on quantum physics, extended closeups on people reacting to a mysterious experiment involving a dead mouse, and a minor character reciting W. B. Yeats to let the audience know that things are about to fall apart. The plot and action are doled out sparingly, but the show’s limited format at least guarantees that all will be revealed in time, which puts it ahead of so many other dramas where the writers must keep their mysteries going as long as they can sustain ratings.

Devs isn’t for everyone. Many will find its pacing interminable, its dialog pretentious. And I’m sure that some philosophers and theologians will scoff a bit at Garland’s treatment of such age-old conundrums as free will, determinism, predestination, and lapsarianism. But for those who do get Devs, and are willing to absorb its eight episodes, they’ll find that the series’ flaws are far outweighed by everything else.

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