The chilly, cerebral sci-fi of writer-director Alex Garland’s feature films Ex Machina and Annihilation expands to eight episodes with his Hulu miniseries, Devs. The series draws on a lot of Garland’s strengths but also suffers a bit from prestige-TV bloat. There’s not really a compelling reason for this story to be stretched into a multi-part series. The runtime of a single feature film feels like it would be adequate. Yet, along the way Garland (who wrote and directed every episode) delivers moments of striking beauty, meditative ideas and memorably odd characters. Patient fans who enjoyed Garland’s film work (both as a director and as a screenwriter on smart, challenging films like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go) will find a lot to like about Devs, even if their attention may wane at times.
The initial set-up strongly echoes Ex Machina. For two-thirds of the first episode, it appears that the main character is Sergei (Karl Glusman), an engineer at monolithic tech company, Amaya, which is run by the enigmatic but avuncular Forest (Nick Offerman). After Sergei gives a particularly strong presentation on a new project, Forest invites him to join “Devs,” the super-secret division of the company developing mysterious applications of Amaya’s quantum-computing technology. Sergei shares the news with his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno, who had memorable roles in both Ex Machina and Annihilation), a fellow Amaya employee, who understands the need for secrecy.
And then, Sergei disappears and the show shifts perspective. The actual protagonist is Lily, who spends the rest of the series at odds with the powerful leaders of Amaya as she tries to find out what happened to Sergei and just what is going on inside Devs. The prolonged fake-out is just one example of the show’s meticulous but unnecessarily slow pacing. It gives a sense of the challenges that Lily faces but also spends whole scenes on events that could be covered in a single line of dialogue. Lily enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to discover Sergei’s secrets, and he becomes her main ally as she tries to infiltrate Devs.
Although the first episode features a lot of cryptic dialogue about what the engineers at Devs are actually working on and ominous hints at its implications (Sergei runs to the bathroom and vomits after reading the code for Devs’ main algorithm), Garland doesn’t drag out the secret for too long. By the second episode, it becomes pretty clear what Devs’ technology does, and its applications are key to the character development of Forest, a tyrant in flannel shirts and a bushy beard whose own deep emotional trauma fuels his single-minded devotion to the technology. Forest’s motivations are a bit simplistic but they add a human dimension to the sometimes chilly sci-fi story, and the theme of grief (Amaya is named after Forest’s late daughter) runs through the series, for both Lily and Forest.
Other characters are more plot devices than people, and the show is driven by ideas more than by character development, which isn’t a surprise with Garland. It helps that the ideas are provocative and interesting, starting with the very topical question of how much power and influence tech companies should have over everyday life and expanding into classic queries about free will and destiny that have been pondered by sci-fi creators for decades. Garland allows his characters to engage in philosophical debates while also creating urgent, life-or-death stakes, especially for Lily as she gets deeper into her fight against Amaya.
Even when the plot is moving slowly, Garland and his collaborators create gorgeous visuals to go along with it. The Amaya campus is a typically sparse, modernistic complex in Silicon Valley, but the separate Devs facility is like something out of a Stanley Kubrick fever dream, a building whose interior is lined with “gold mesh” and suspended in a vacuum via electromagnetic fields. These are techno-babble excuses for stuff that looks really cool, including what appears to be a levitating transport platform that conveys workers in and out of the facility.
In the forest surrounding Amaya, a giant statue of a little girl looms over the employees. It’s meant to memorialize Forest’s daughter but looks more like it’s about to come to life and start eating people. Each episode also opens with a series of impressionistic flashes — sometimes previewing events to come, sometimes reflecting the characters’ mental states — and the abstract surrealism is more effective at creating a sense of dread than all the jargon-laden exposition about Amaya’s technology. The score by a team of musicians including electronic-music duo The Insects is often jarring and intrusive, adding to the sense of unsettling danger that pervades everything that happens at Amaya, even seemingly mundane meetings.
Mizuno makes for a strong audience-surrogate protagonist, although Lily is sometimes frustratingly reckless in her pursuit of justice. Offerman uses his gentlemanly comedy persona to give Forest a surface friendliness that belies the calculating fury underneath and Alison Pill as Forest’s second-in-command, Katie, provides a counterpoint in the familiar sci-fi villain role of the aloof, detached technocrat. It’s a bit frustrating to watch as the show doles out the plot in fits and starts, keeping its characters from confronting each other and the consequences of their work. But Garland has proved in his previous work that audience patience is rewarded, and while Devs takes a bit too long to offer that, it’s still pretty gripping along the way.
Starring Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Cailee Spaeny, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Alison Pill, the first two episodes of Devs premiere March 5 on Hulu, with subsequent episodes premiering each Thursday.
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