Alex Garland has earned my adoration over the years. I adore ambitious projects, but some of what he’s pulled off is downright staggering. Most will know him from his directorial efforts Ex Machina and Annihilation, contemplative sci-fi that pushes the audience to a state of existential dread about our very existence and it’s meaninglessness. I found him way back in 2007 when I first rented The Beach from a Blockbuster and thoroughly enjoyed it. Director Danny Boyle went on to Oscar fame and a hit career, many of his films written by Garland. The writer was adapting his own novel when he helped Boyle with The Beach and I devoured all three of his books over a couple of years. His writing credits also included the wild and incredible films 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and Dredd (which he apparently ghost-directed). He didn’t sit in the director’s chair until he had an idea of what he was doing and where he wanted to go, seemingly discovering his true obsessions while writing Sunshine and learning a lot about physics and the way the universe is put together.
All of this has led us to DEVS, released on Hulu as part of their partnership with FX. This is not an easy show, contained within one season and without room to continue by its breathtaking finale, and it asks a lot of questions about determinism and how reality truly does or does not allow for free will.
Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) work at Amaya, a tech company founded by genius Forest (Nick Offerman). When Sergei impresses Forest with a predictive algorithm he is recruited into DEVS, a secret development project kept away from the rest of the company campus. Everyone knows about DEVS, about its existence, but they have no clue what’s going on there. When a murder is covered up to look like a suicide, Lily is forced partner with her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to confront the truth of DEVS as its other technicians Katie (Allison Pill), Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) work towards their ultimate goal.
Right off the bat we’re made to feat Amaya, a quantum computing company branching into several different fields. The buildings are cold and grey, menacing in appearance, even as the campus is filled in between with lush forests and grassy areas. They also have the absolute coolest evening lights in the woods between the DEVS project and the rest of the campus, but everything feels just out of step with what could be an otherwise positive working environment. Forest lost his daughter long before founding Amaya, and he’s not only named his campus after her but built a giant, looming memorial in the form of a statue in the center of the area that towers over the trees. Every inch of the place is a monument to what he considers to be his failure, the loss of a daughter he cannot bring back.
Lily, Jamie, and Sergei get caught up in his plans and things go awry. The real issue, though, is determinism. I don’t know how much any of you know about this philosophical construct, but to me it’s just been a certainty for most of my life. Determinism is about cause and effect, about physical action and reaction and how we can use these things to predict outcomes with astounding regularity. DEVS asks us to accept this philosophy and ekes out bits of information that help us to understand it throughout. They explain things in terms that a high-level coder or a physicist would understand and does not hold the audience’s hand. I greatly appreciated this stance and hope to hell that Garland gets to keep making this stuff.
It won’t be for everyone, but I did find it to be a near-perfect manifestation of what I see as truth within the physical universe. It’s helped along by absolutely incredible performances and a bizarre aesthetic that feels right for the story being told. The music is upsetting, the imagery beautiful and horrifying, and the performances calculated and specific. It truly is a great work to behold and Garland seems happily at home in longform storytelling. What’s next on his plate? I have no clue, but I’m absolutely there for it.