Devs, the new series by Alex Garland, almost feels like it was made for me. For those who are not aware of Alex Garland, he’s the brilliant mind behind 28 Days Later (the zombie movie that is not actually about zombies), as well as Dredd, the games Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC, as well as the movies Ex Machina and Annihilation. I unironically love all of these things – so when I saw that Garland was creating a new series that would touch on some of the same themes as his more recent works, I jumped at the prospect to watch it.
After two episodes in, I’m not exactly hooked on Devs – but it does have a lot of interesting things going for it. For one, it’s the most un-TV-like show ever made, and spends time to establish shots and set the mood in a way that only Stanley Kubrick was known for. But on the other hands, unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, which it seems to be greatly inspired by in the way that Mr. Robot is inspired by Fight Club and David Fincher, Devs creates its own spin on the concept of fate and free will – and plays with it in various ways.
Before going into the themes of the show a bit further, I do want to emphasize that the premise itself is fantastic. Nick Offerman, cast against type, plays a grieving tech entrepreneur, whose main focus seems to be to create human life from nothing in a deterministic way in order to resurrect his deceased daughter, who seems to have died in a car accident. He even has a giant statue of her on his company’s ‘campus,’ and has named the Google-esque company after her. While Offerman is treading the road traveled by Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina, there’s something vulnerable and even warm about his persona that adds so much to the role – and makes it all the more menacing.
Getting back to the themes themselves, the show is not exactly subtle, and is not exactly constructed like a TV show either. In fact, it often feels like Garland wanted to make a 3-hour movie, but went with a miniseries because the format is currently more friendly to creators who want to follow their vision more completely.
There’s one particular scene where Lily, a computer engineer who is trying to solve the mystery of her boyfriend’s death, talks with a homeless man outside her apartment, as does Jamie, her ex-boyfriend who she turns to for help that shows this very well. The dialogue here is a bit stilted, and it does little to characterize anyone in the show. As such, Devs is full with this type of filler and fodder that may pay off later (and I’m sure it does!) but its pacing feels like its plodding along, burning time slowly to get ready for the meat later on
And it seems to me, at least two episodes in, that there’s plenty of meat on the bones of this world. The story itself is simplistic, and characters seem to spell out their motivations all the same, but that adds far more room for the visual acumen of Garland, who loves to play with sound, color, philosophy, and religious imagery to create a cacophony of discordant symbols and imagery – all of which will add up to, well, something. We just inherently can’t know what it is yet.
Still, I am a big Garland fan, and I can see the show working overtime behind the scenes to deliver something great. That’s not to say that some of the fat can’t be trimmed, but establishing shots of San Francisco, the tech ‘campus’ and other areas do a lot to set the mood of the piece, and like Annihliation, it feels like a symphony in its opening act, just waiting to crescendo.