I’m always up for some slow-paced science fiction tackling Big Questions. Though it’s not without a few serious flaws, I really enjoyed this dark, mesmerising and ambitious miniseries written and directed by Alex Garland.
My friend who recommended Devs praised it for half an hour before mentioning Alex Garland; I told him that his name should have been the first thing to mention if he wished to pique my interest. I loved Garland’s previous two sci-fi thrillers, Ex Machina and Annihilation, and Devs shares much of the same high-aiming preoccupation with technology, science, weighty philosophical issues, and current-day anxiety about the big tech and their accountability.
Devs upends the viewer’s expectations throughout, including the first episode which initially tricks you into thinking that you’re watching a familiar story along the lines of The Firm, about an everyman protagonist who gets a coveted position in a prestigious and ultra-secretive workplace. The man in question is Sergei, a young Russian immigrant working for a fictional tech giant Amaya, located in an idyllic woodland somewhere in the Silicon Valley. After impressing the company’s eccentric flannel-wearing CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman), Sergei is invited to join the Devs department, whose mysterious activity remains top secret even to the visiting government officials. But after his first day at the lab, he never makes it back home.
The real protagonist is actually Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), Sergei’s girlfriend and a fellow Amaya employee, who has trouble accepting the official cover story and is determined to find out what really happened to the man she loved. It’s also inevitable that Lily’s quest will eventually uncover and explore the true purpose of Devs, though a lot of it is about her catching up with what the viewers already know. We’re not restricted to Lily’s perspective and there’s a careful and steady drip-feed of information about the capabilities of the Devs technology, and the motives of those who created it. Without spoiling things too much, at the heart of the project is the idea that the universe is entirely deterministic, running along the “tram lines”, with free will and random happenings mere illusions.
The show moves at a measured pace some viewers might find hypnotic and others maddening; I personally fell into the former category without a reservation. This is a show that demands your full attention and absorption, away from any distractions. Devs has the kind of uncomfortable, tense atmosphere you’d expect from Garland, as well as eerily beautiful imagery that’s both striking and disturbing: moody and unusual shots of San Francisco, stunning gold interior of the Devs lab and the thin glass sculptures studding its entrance like re-imagined monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a giant and frankly nightmarish statue of a little girl, towering over the Amaya complex as physical manifestation of Forest’s personal grief and obsession.
The visuals and the sci-fi aspects of the series are easily its biggest strengths; everything else however is more of a mixed bag. The elements of international espionage and conspiracy ultimately feel like distractions designed to fill time before Lily’s eventual encounter with the Devs team, and though I don’t treat nitpicking as a hobby, I rolled my eyes during one particular scene of a daring escape through the window. Other instances of convenient writing involve a crucial decision made by a minor character during the climax of the story that comes pretty much out of a blue and feels completely unmotivated.
Garland works hard to blend quantum mechanics with emotion, and inject some genuine feeling into what could have been a rather cold cerebral thriller, with Lily’s loss and Forest’s tragic backstory as the anchors. Again, the show is half-successful. Though Nick Offerman’s performance is a tad too one-note at times, it’s also perhaps appropriate for an emotionally frozen, haunted character who’s never moved on from his trauma, and overall I found Forest an intriguingly murky character, hard to place into just one box.
Sonoya Mizuno is unfortunately a misfire as Lily; she is interesting to watch onscreen with her distinctive androgynous look, but it’s mostly a superficial pleasure. The problem is that while the script tells us repeatedly what an incredibly special person Lily is, I just didn’t feel it come through in Mizuno’s performance that never rises above adequate and doesn’t bring anything beyond the required minimum. I couldn’t help but wish that Lily was played by someone capable of conveying a real inner life, like Alison Pill who plays Forrest’s capable and scarily self-possessed second-in-command, easily the standout of the supporting cast.
Despite these complaints, by the time the miniseries’ operatic, mind-bending finale rolled out, I was so hooked I pretty much forgot everything about the show’s shortcomings. The question of whether the ending is ultimately satisfying is up for debate, but personally I’ve always been ok with the sci-fi endings that left some things ambiguous.