FX / BBC TV REVIEW – DEVS (2020)
Created, written and directed by Alex Garland
Executive producers: Alex Garland, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Garrett Basch
Cast: Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Alison Pill, Stephen McKinlay Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Karl Glusman, Jefferson Hall, Liz Carr, Janet Mock, Aimee Mullins, Linnea Berthelsen etc.
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Composers: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, The Insects
Distribution / Screening Platform: FX / Hulu / BBC
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“I read more about science than anything else, and it started with two things. One was getting my head around this principle of determinism, which basically says that everything that happens in the world is based on cause and effect. . . One is that it takes away free will, but the other is that if you are at a computer powerful enough, you could use determinism to predict the future and understand the past.” Alex Garland – Creator of Devs
Alex Garland has an impressive literary, cinema and now televisual curriculum vitae. He gained acclaim as the writer of the novel, The Beach, before moving onto screenwriting duties with fine films such as: 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012). He made his directorial debut with Ex Machina (2014), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His second film, Annihilation (2018), garnered further acclaim, so much so, FX bypassed a pilot and went straight to series for his latest science fiction narrative, Devs (2020).
While I am a massive fan of Garland’s work, I wasn’t too enamoured of Annihilation (2018). I found it brilliantly made with some fantastic concepts and incredible moments, yet overall it was too slowly paced. With the eight superlative episodes of Devs (2020), Garland has kept the meditative pace of Annihilation (2018), but also delivered a story which really connected with me this time. With Devs (2020) he has successfully merged a compelling technological espionage plot to an intelligent exploration of philosophical thought and behaviour. Moreover, Garland presents a complex group of themes and characters relating to Silicon Valley tech firms and how their work could control individuals, companies, governments, society as a whole, and actual time itself.
Set now in San Francisco, the narrative opens with two employees of the Amaya Corporation, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman), attending work. Sergei has a big presentation to pitch to Amaya CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman) and chief designer, Katie (Alison Pill). It goes well and Sergei is invited to work on the mysterious DEVS project. At DEVS he finds wondrous halo-style lighting in the woods and an incredibly expensive set of buildings, capsules, platforms, workstations and screens. Dominating the landscape also is a gigantic model of a young girl (Forest’s daughter, Amaya) who looms over the company and the San Franciscan horizon. These spectacular props, sets and locations are complimented by impressive cinematography from Rob Hardy throughout the eight episodes.
Sergei’s tenure at DEVS does not last long though as he goes missing. Lily, who was in a loving relationship with Sergei, is distraught and, with the help of ex-CIA head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), attempts to locate him. When Sergei turns up dead from an apparent suicide, Lily is convinced there is a conspiracy occurring in the Amaya company so begins a dangerous investigation. Even more intriguing, however, is the work that is occurring at DEVS itself. Led by Forest’s desire to “resurrect” his deceased daughter, this complex computer programme can somehow view events from the past, recreated via particle-driven software and projected on huge screens. Using this application the developers and programmers are attempting to determine the future from what has occurred in the past. If they can determine the future they may be able to control it. Mind blown yet? Safe to say, Lily’s investigation into Sergei’s death and the DEVS system become inextricably linked as the drama unfolds. As such, the drama works well as a conspiracy thriller as well as thoughtful sci-fi as Garland punctuates the brooding pace with some crushing stunts and brutal murder set-pieces.
I’ll be honest, the technological side of Devs (2020) was outside my knowledge repertoire as I do not comprehend coding or programming jargon. Nonetheless, I did understand what was occurring in the narrative as it was presented in a clear and digestible fashion. Unlike say the most recent seasons of HBO’s Westworld, which tied itself in knots with looping and over-lapping timelines, Alex Garland’s deft script, excellent direction and fantastic cast make Devs‘ (2020) complex science and tech theories comprehensible throughout. While Garland is dealing with theories relating to free will and deterministic cause and effect, the elegant structure, both linear and with flashbacks, builds a gripping narrative which maintains emotional impact for the characters and the choices they must make. Indeed, Lily Chan is a very empathetic leading protagonist and Sonoya Mizuno gives a compellingly magnetic acting portrayal. It was also fascinating to see Nick Offerman outside of his Parks and Recreation ‘Ron Swanson’ persona playing a highly driven and grieving father. Thus, to conclude, if you enjoy clever, meditative and Kubrickian style television in the science-fiction genre, then you should definitely use your free will and be determined to watch Devs (2020).