The plot of Alex Garland’s TV debut Devs sounds reverse-engineered to appeal to a technology journalist: computer engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno from Ex Machina and Maniac) is investigating a secretive moonshot division at the Silicon Valley company where she works, called Amaya, after the disappearance of her boyfriend.
Early reviews are broadly positive for the mini-series, which debuted on Hulu in the US last night, but it’s clear that the show won’t be too much of a departure from the British-born auteur director’s previous works like Ex Machina or Annihilation, which skew dark and intellectual.
In terms of concepts, Garland has already talked about his interest in the idea of determinism while writing the show, telling IndieWire last year: “[Determinism] basically says everything that happens in the world is based on cause and effect… That has all kinds of implications for us: It takes away free will. And if you had a computer powerful enough, you could predict the future and understand the past.”
The shadowy Silicon Valley company at the heart of Devs is working on quantum computing, a technology that we won’t try to explain here but which promises computer power exponentially more powerful than even today’s supercomputers allow. You see where this is going…
“The sense that you were participating in life, was only ever an illusion,” Nick Offerman’s Amaya executive Forrest utters during the trailer.
These sort of big ideas simultaneously throw open scientific and philosophical cans of worms, which will take a superhuman effort for Garland to neatly wrap up. Spoilers: he won’t.
Why you should be excited
That all sounds like pretty heavy stuff, and the show is certain to test people’s patience, so what’s the appeal here for non Garland-heads?
Barring a pretty major early pivot the show will have plenty of mystery box elements for fans of that sort of thing, and there will be high-stakes thrills as Lily finds herself tumbling down the rabbit hole. Black Mirror or Matrix fans should also find plenty to enjoy in another show that looks to take the nefarious possibilities of technology to their logical, dramatic conclusion.
There will also be plenty of good old fashioned dystopia to chew on. For example, if you enjoyed Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Maniac, there could be a lot to love here, although how Mizuno and Offerman stack up against Emma Stone and Jonah Hill’s performances could be the litmus test for this being a good or even a great show. On the other side of the coin Devs offers a polished, intellectual version of Dave Eggers’ The Circle and the subsequent (awful) film adaptation.
Visually, in the trailer alone, there are plenty of Garland touchstones and flourishes, from ultra-modern, gold-tinted interiors to a giant toy doll, misty Bay Area vistas and on-the-nose symbolism, as Offerman is literally haloed by a light fixture in a popular promo image for the show.
Who is Alex Garland?
For the uninitiated, London-born Garland was best known for his 1996 novel The Beach, which led to a productive relationship with the British film director Danny Boyle when he adapted the novel, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Garland went on to write screenplays for Boyle’s movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, before directing his own films.
This is where Garland arguably came into his own as a creator, starting with the cult hit sci-fi Ex Machina in 2014, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac. The movie again involves a Silicon Valley angle, as Oscar Isaac plays the egotistical CEO of a very thinly veiled pastiche of Google, called Blue Book, who dabbles with artificial intelligence and robotics on the side. Expect from Devs a similar twisting of the possibilities of quantum computing as Ex Machina did with AI.
Then there was the Netflix-distributed Annihilation, starring a nearly all-female cast joined by Isaac again (for those that have seen it, Isaac’s appearance will be hard to forget). This time around Garland adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s sci-fi novel and the focus is less on technology in a Silicon Valley sense and more around how a supernatural phenomena drastically reshapes humanity’s relationship with nature. It is again the themes of dystopia and mankind’s destructive tendencies that are at the forefront of Garland’s mind, and which look set to play a central role in Devs.
How can I watch Devs?
Devs began airing in the US on the streaming service Hulu (not available in the UK) from March 5 as part of its new FX partnership, though the BBC will air the show later this year in the UK, as part of an ongoing deal with US broadcaster FX, with other shows like Donald Glover’s critically acclaimed Atlanta and Ryan Murphy’s hit The People vs OJ Simpson. Devs is the first show to be produced in the UK as part of that partnership however.
The BBC hasn’t set a UK air date for Devs but has said we can expect it to arrive in ‘mid-April’ – though if you can’t wait, we have a guide to watching it from the UK right now.