Alex Garland seems fascinated by the extremes of love and guilt. His intellectual science-fiction films, including Annihilation, Ex Machina, and 28 Days Later, have earned him a strong reputation for writing and directing uniquely disturbing stories. But while his films might wow audiences with dramatic visuals and horrific scenarios involving zombies and alien monsters, they always have a deeply human core. That dynamic continues into Garland’s new science fiction/thriller miniseries Devs, which premieres March 5 on Hulu as part of a new production deal with FX.
“It’s an amazing thing where love will take you. The road you’ll travel. The lengths to which you’ll go,” the haunted tech mogul Forest (Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation) says at one point in the series. Forest lost his daughter in a car accident he blames himself for, and he’s been driven nearly mad with guilt. He’s searching for salvation through Devs, a mysterious project that recruits the best and brightest programmers.
Forest isn’t the only one driven by lost love. The series largely follows Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno of Ex Machina and Maniac), an encryption expert who works for Forest’s Google-like company Amaya, alongside her AI programmer boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman). When Sergei goes missing shortly after joining Devs, Lily’s quest to discover what happened to him leads her down a dangerous path where she learns the nature of Devs and what Forest will do to protect the program. Looking for help, Lily recruits her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha), who never got over losing her, and hopes to prove he’s worthy of a second chance.
Anchoring the story in such heady emotions as love and guilt might feel like a recipe for melodrama, but the performances are largely subdued, which make the few bursts of genuine passion or fear striking by comparison. Mizuno conveys a wide range of feeling subtly, whether it’s fixing Forest’s partner Katie (Alison Pill of Star Trek: Picard) with a steely glare while demanding answers, or just expressing quiet exasperation and loneliness as she sits in her empty apartment and lies to her mom about how many friends she has.
Pill is particularly unsettling, almost inhumanly impassive in the face of both terrible violence and dramatic revelations. Offerman was a brilliant casting choice, building on the imposing paternal quality he demonstrated in Parks and Recreation. (He’s alternately a genius hippie, and a power-mad nihilist.) Likewise, Zach Grenier ratchets up the malice he showed as a recurring antagonist on The Good Wife to become genuinely terrifying as Amaya’s security chief, Kenton.
The offputting performances are matched by the show’s visuals, which juxtapose religious iconography with the collegial vibe of a San Francisco tech-company campus. The path to Devs features redwoods encircled by LED halos, and the project itself is housed in a structure perpetually bathed in golden light, where science experiments are performed a lab table that looks remarkably like a gilded altar.
In Sunshine and Annihilation, Garland previously explored the clash between science and religion, and how the human mind reels when confronted by forces beyond its understanding. In Devs, he delves further into that conflict. The less said about the actual plot, the better, since so much of the show revolves around the slow unfolding of its central mystery. The story owes a significant creative debt to The Matrix trilogy, sharing its use of religious symbolism and focus on the philosophical implications of immersive computer simulations. But Garland evades big action in favor of psychological tension and cool analysis that makes Devs more reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s alien-communication film Arrival. The series starts as a conspiracy thriller involving international spies and remarkably accurate depictions of hacking, but it evolves into a deeply philosophical story about the nature of the universe and free will.
The slow pace can be off-putting. At least one of the series’ eight episodes could have easily been trimmed if Garland devoted less time to mood-establishing shots of San Francisco traffic or the Amaya campus, images accompanied by either liturgical or distressingly atonal music. This is peak TV in all its decadence, methodically constructed like a medieval cathedral. Garland asks audiences to have faith that if they keep watching, the pieces will come together to produce something beautiful and awe-inspiring.
They eventually do, but viewers have to be willing to accept the meandering path to the payoff, which includes literal lectures on quantum physics, extended closeups on people reacting to a mysterious experiment involving a dead mouse, and a minor character reciting W. B. Yeats to let the audience know that things are about to fall apart. The plot and action are doled out sparingly, but the show’s limited format at least guarantees that all will be revealed in time, which puts it ahead of so many other dramas where the writers must keep their mysteries going as long as they can sustain ratings.
Devs’ plot occasionally drifts to touch on hot-button issues like cyber-espionage and the outsized power that tech companies have over American politics. These threads are dropped almost as quickly as they’re laid down, but they do help build on the complicated web of relationships that provides the series’ emotional core. They also help frame the issues Garland is really looking to explore in Devs, which are the same ones that have defined his cinematic career.
Forest at one point mentions that Homo sapiens spent 5,000 years living in caves and painting their walls with variations on the same pictures. Our species evolved slowly, and now it exists in a world where technology forces us to adapt to fundamental technological and societal changes over the course of months, or even weeks. We might like to think that our intellect lets us process these advances and handle any crisis, but we are still governed by primal emotions. Love and grief make us irrational, driving us to take actions we never would otherwise. When confronted with alien forces, apocalyptic plagues, or the fundamental laws of the universe, Garland posits that human nature will always compel us to push back. That might not be healthy, or even sane, but it’s who we are.
The first two episodes of Devs will be available on Hulu on March 5. New episodes will be available to stream on Thursdays.