If he was someone else, Alex Garland’s first three works as director – the features Ex Machina and Annihilation and now a series, Devs – would have established him as one of British cinema’s most exciting auteurs. He has a distinctive visual style, which sets his sci-fi in gorgeous, sparsely populated natural landscapes, with astonishing special effects and jarring sound design. His work is cinematic, and properly belongs on the big screen, so it’s ironic that he is being confined to TV sets. Annihilation was a Netflix project with a limited cinematic release. Devs was made by Fox and is being shown on Hulu and BBC2.
There are interesting parallels with Christopher Nolan. The two men were born months apart in 1970, and are both upper-middle class London boys with prominent creative fathers. Garland’s is the cartoonist Nick Garland, Nolan’s was the creative director of an advertising agency. For all their success, both directors tend to give the impression that they want to be taken seriously, consistently scratching at Big Ideas: AI, free will, fate, dreams, the nature of consciousness, time travel. In Nolan’s case, even when he was doing Batman. Especially when he was doing Batman.
If Garland hasn’t been given his due yet, it’s probably because of how he came up. He broke through with a novel, The Beach – published when he was just 26 – which sold a million copies, was turned into a hit film and spooked its author into semi-reclusion. A novella followed, The Tessarect, less accessible and worse selling. Then screenplays: 28 Days Later and Sunshine, both directed by Danny Boyle, before he got in the big chair himself. If you start out with a backpacker classic, it takes longer to be seen as an interesting filmmaker than if you begin with Memento.
Perhaps it is also harder to get projects funded. The question hanging over Devs, which is ambitious, thoughtful and often jarringly beautiful, is why it is an eight-part TV series rather than a feature film. Its rhythm is cinematic, a Heart of Darkness tale about a young woman, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) who works at Amaya, a tech company run by the mysterious bearded billionaire Forest (Nick Offerman), not a million miles from the mysterious bearded billionaire in Ex Machina, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Like the tech lab in Ex Machina, the Amaya campus is set in gorgeous alpine woods, this time just outside San Francisco. An enormous statue of Forest’s daughter, Amaya, who was killed in a car crash, looms uncannily over the buildings.
Lily’s boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), an AI engineer, is invited to join the secretive Devs division of the business, but dies in mysterious circumstances soon after. After finding something strange on his phone she enlists her ex, Jamie (Jin Ha), to help her investigate Sergei’s death. All roads lead back to the mysterious Devs lab, where Forest and a team of engineers, led by his girlfriend Katie (Alison Pill), are using a quantum supercomputer to explore the theory of determinism. If everything that happens in the universe is caused by something else, with enough data and a powerful enough computer, you could extrapolate backwards and forwards through history. Free will is an illusion: we are all on rails. The Devs team are using the system to watch historical events, rather than predict the future, but Forest has bigger plans.
Devs is wonderful to look at and listen to. The campus, and especially the lab itself, are beautifully constructed, the Devs building a shimmering gold box enclosing a computer that looks like the world’s most expensive concept chandelier. The score is unsettling, all piercing woodwind notes and ominous rumbling. Garland clearly lives for his set pieces, where his characters sit in stunning sets and debate the true nature of the universe, like a house party after you ought to have gone home. Sadly, eight hours of TV requires more in the way of plot and character development, and this is where Devs is shakier. Offerman just about throws off the shackles of Parks & Recreation’s Ron Swanson as the shabby-genius-maniac, but Mizuno is a lightweight lead. Her romantic subplots sometimes feel tacked on. Two other developers, Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny, playing a male role), are more promising but not given much time. Pill stands out as Katie, a brilliant but tightly wound quantum physicist. She and Henderson are the only actors who give the impression of an inner life. The price of Garland’s refreshing bravery about Big Questions is a humourlessness in his dialogue. Ironically, given the subject, his characters can feel as if they simply following a script.
Devs is a classic of the hard-to-review big-stakes TV series. Its ambition, design and cinematography are beyond almost anything else attempted for the small screen. Garland’s sense of scale, and willingness to engage seriously with the issues being thrown up by big tech, make it interesting viewing. But on its own terms, it’s not wholly successful. Like the messianic tech figures it takes aim at, its reach too often exceeds its grasp.