With just two films, Alex Garland has already established himself as an auteur with a distinct vision in the modern sci-fi realm. Although the writer-director had previously penned the novel that inspired the 2000 thriller The Beach, along with the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd, it was his writing and directing work on Ex Machina and Annihilation that truly established his electric visual storytelling style. Those pics present two different versions of dystopia, and yet they both ooze — in Annihilation's case, literally speaking — with a shared fear of technology, a jarring juxtaposition of nature and human architecture, and notes of absurdism that are somehow comforting.
Fans of those films will easily recognize the landscapes and tenor of FX's Devs as Garland's creation without his name even scrolling across the screen. The show exists in the same state of elegant modernity as his movies, and the mystery-building is just as intense, if unhurried. Those cinephiles who savored every frame of Garland's previous two outings are in for a familiar — albeit far less concise — ride when this limited series premieres on Thursday, March 5 on FX on Hulu.
The premise of Devs is standard enough. Sonoya Mizuno (who appeared in memorable roles in both of Garland's previous pics) stars as Lily Chan, a woman who works as a software engineer for a well-funded but secretive quantum computing company called Amaya. Karl Glusman stars as her boyfriend and colleague Sergei, who, after programming a mostly accurate prediction of an earthworm's movements, is called up by Nick Offerman's Forest to work for Devs, a top-secret division whose purpose is not precisely made clear to the character (or, for a while, to us in the audience). It's not a spoiler to note that Garland was originally inspired by his interest in the philosophical principle of determinism and the thought that with enough information, a super computer could accurately predict human behaviors. It takes a bit of time in Devs, but once we start delving into the meat of this material, the story becomes increasingly complex and even a bit unwieldy.
It's hard to speak much further about the existential framework of the series without giving too much away, but suffice to say that the execs of the eponymous company are financially and personally invested in its core belief that human beings are mathematically and immutably predictable, and they'll stop at nothing to prove it. Determinism is not the most difficult philosophical discipline to understand — it's most often Philosophy 101 material — but the show's exploration of the practical effects of that principle still becomes paradoxical and, frankly, pretty enough to keep us on our toes.
As with Garland's previous offerings, there's an obvious relationship of trust with his viewers that they won't need to be spoon-fed every answer to enjoy what's unfolding before them. The striking headquarters of Devs echoes the sensation of stillness and awe that is the audience experience in taking in the show. Watched linearly, the series doesn't deliver the same self-contained episode structure of other prestige dramas but is instead a rare example of a small screen series that could accurately be described as an eight-hour movie. That's not to say this transition to TV isn't valuable; with the extra time allotment of this medium, Devs is able to explore some deep emotional truths, and by the end, almost no one is left undefined, particularly the stoic Lily and the intractable Forest.
The supporting characters for Devs are richly developed alongside the leads as well. There's Jin Ha as Jamie, Lily's kind ex-boyfriend whom she turns to for help investigating what's happened to Sergei; Alison Pill stars as Katie, a brilliant but rather unfeeling physicist who runs Devs' day-to-day operations; Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson appear as Lyndon and Stewart, two coding geniuses who work for Devs and have unique perspectives on the mission at hand; and Zach Grenier as Kenton, a relentless enforcer for Amaya. Throughout the series, they are given ample room to grow and surprise us with their decisions — or lack thereof.
Admittedly, Devs will not be for everyone. There's a tediousness to the narrative that can make the series hard to latch onto if you're not already intrigued by seeing what Alex Garland will do with his move to television. Week to week, there won't be immediate satisfaction of the lofty questions raised by Devs -- rather, the inquiries will pile up to the very end. There's an expectation of patience and faith that all of these pieces in motion — er, in this case, levitating — will coalesce to reveal the story's purpose and posit by the final credits, and even then, there's a bit of a question mark. For those who are tuning in to see what's next from the maker of Ex Machina and Annihilation, well, you have no choice (pun intended) but to see it through — and with its breathtaking visuals and the quietly devastating revelations sprinkled throughout, you'll want to anyway.
Devs is an eight-episode limited series. The first two episodes are now available on FX on Hulu, and new episodes will follow on Thursdays.
TV Guide rating: 4/5