For a seemingly cautionary tale about not seeing the forest for the trees, Devs wields a powerful hallucinatory effect. Methodically paced and meticulously built, Alex Garland’s latest deep stare into the tech world’s black moral abyss can feel like you’re caught in a loop, overhearing engineers repeat the same ominous jargon and catching a glimpse of the same giant doll-like statue hovering over the thick Silicon Valley redwoods. The setting, the subject, the show — it’s all a bit cultish, both in the intensely eerie religious parallels the story evokes and in the cult fandom most likely to appreciate another of Garland’s mind-bending projects. The writer-director pulled double duty on every episode of Devs, and he remains in the same esoteric territory that has brought praise and division in his previous works, and that’s not a bad thing, at all. In fact, all of the above are very good things and are the very good elements that make up a very good show. Just like the halos that surround the redwoods that engulf our setting, the first FX on Hulu series can really glow — and when it does, you won’t be able to look away.
Devs is Garland’s first full foray into television and third turn behind the camera, following two feature films: his 2015 debut Ex Machina and his 2018 follow-up Annihilation. Garland has previously developed a substantial body of work as a novelist and screenwriter (writing films such as The Beach, 28 Days Later…, and Never Let Me Go), but it’s still remarkable how quickly he’s established a recognizable palette. Devs is Garland’s furthest ever-shifting road, and it starts with Sergei (Karl Glusman), an artificial intelligence coder for a large tech company called “Amaya,” who’s predictive algorithm has earned him a big meeting with the boss. As Amaya’s monk-like, eccentric CEO Forest (Nick Offerman) shovels handfuls of green leaves into his mouth, Sergei shows him how his team’s latest breakthrough can predict a single-celled organism’s next five seconds of movement. And though Sergei and his team look a bit embarrassed that they can’t forecast any further ahead, Forest is sold. He offers Sergei a coveted role in the company’s advanced development division, simply referred to as “Devs.” Everyone at Amaya wants to know what the devs team is working on and no one does. As Sergei (and thus the audience) get glued into what’s going on in the isolated building on the edge of campus, secrets of all sorts start to spill out — government oversight is threatened, characters’ motivations are slyly hidden and revealed, and someone has disappeared (or been murdered).
It’s from there, where Devs continually keeps you on your toes and starts to shift through protagonists. But its Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software developer at Amaya and Sergei’s girlfriend, who takes on a bigger role, as do some of Sergei’s new co-workers; Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is an aging genius, excited to be working on the cutting edge and suspicious of those too young to respect how deep it can cut; Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) is exactly the young, brilliant developer Stewart’s worried about, and Katie (Alison Pill) who has to keep them both in line, along with the rest of the devs’ team, in order to fulfill Forest’s vision. And there’s even more, including the head of Amaya’s security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), and Lily’s ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) who as well gets slowly tangled up in the mysteries.
Each member of the ensemble has their time to shine; Spaeny is a true find, Mizuno finds depth in her stillness, and Pill finds unexpected warmth in her icy, menacing right-hand woman. Yet it’s Offerman who’s the standout. Grounded by deep-rooted pain and guided by an identifiable human urge, Offerman still makes Forest into a believable messiah; maybe it’s just the long hair, the soulfulness, the mysterious intentions, and casual assertion of power, but Forest feels like the rare, well-rounded tech millionaire who isn’t a one-dimensional monster hiding behind forward-facing good intentions. But he’s also capable of very bad things, which Offerman conducts with equally unnerving nonchalance.
If that all sounds a bit opaque, it’s because Devs itself is opaque with purpose. Devs is both a mystery worth unraveling and inherently enigmatic. Garland’s story requires the audience to make certain leaps to keep up; the atmosphere feeds on the narrative and vice versa (which are both bridged by the utterly haunting and incredible score from The Insects, Ben Salisbury, and Geoff Barrow). At times, what’s happening is as clear as the vivid, almost surrealistic production design by Mark Digby. Other scenes are as obscured as the slick haziness and engulfing vastness of Rob Hardy’s cinematography. Garland’s high-tech sci-fi ultimately isn’t cold or sterile; it’s verdant, even mystical, practically outright Kubrickian. And like all great mysteries, you’ll know what you need to know to remain invested in what happens next.
If any of that makes Devs sound like a lot, well, it is — a lot of theorizing, a lot of abstract conversations, a lot of time-shifting — but it’s also one of Garland’s more emotionally vulnerable and accessible parables. Full of so many things; from quantum mechanics to quoting a Philip Larkin poem to even slowly becoming a secret companion piece of sorts to Ex Machina — if Ex Machina was about a man who was trying to act as if he’s God through technology and science, then Devs is about people not trying to act as if they’re God, but trying to create God. Yes, the eight hourlong episodes are slow moving, but lulling viewers into submission is just one part of Garland’s plan. While it occasionally overplays and pads out some of its narrative, the series also brings jarring twists and turns that break up and enhance the eerie tone, deftly incorporating chase scenes, murder investigations, and love stories into its explorative tech-heavy story. Garland uses his time wisely, and his beautiful vision of what some have mislabeled as “the future” (its wholeheartedly in the now), is undeniably insightful. Some of its ideas undoubtedly are unnerving and aren’t always comforting, but Devs sticks with you, whether you want it to or not. Wholly engrossing, hypnotic, and beautifully envisioned, Devs is a series of singularity; a haunting, cerebral meditation on the heaping, weighty battle between free will and determinism.
Devs is available to stream on Hulu