On Alex Garland’s Heady and Frustrating DEVS

After not updating this blog in nearly two months, I felt compelled to write again after spending months watching, taking breaks from, and then returning to writer-director Alex Garland’s eight episode mini-series Devs from Hulu and FX. While I try to make my essays about the texts I critique and not my personal experience in consuming them, I can’t think of another short series where all the episodes were available for streaming at once and I decided to watch them spaced out over the course of a few months. You know, as if each new episode was being released in weekly intervals.

The reason I took my time with Devs is that it doesn’t start off particularly strong. In the first episode, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman) are a young couple living together in San Francisco. They are both computer engineers for a large tech company in Silicon Valley known called Amaya. Neither Lily nor Sergei are particularly interesting, brave, or sympathetic characters. They are introduced impatiently and uncaringly stepping over a homeless man living on their apartment building steps before they take a company bus from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, and the series’ writer-director-auteur Alex Garland remains uninterested in commenting on the tech industry’s disturbing and unprecedented real-world gentrification of San Francisco. It is in the first episode that Sergei is promoted by Amaya’s founder and CEO Forest (Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation going far against type) to the company’s experimental development division known as Devs. Hopefully it’s not a major spoiler to reveal that Sergei discovers something awful about Devs as soon as he begins there and mysteriously disappears, putting Lily firmly in the position of ‘protagonist in a paranoid conspiracy thriller genre’ that has now gotten rather old in film and especially television- especially when conspiratorial misinformation is spread so easily and significantly online.

Like so many conspiracy thriller protagonists who have lost a friend or loved one under mysterious circumstances (See Warren Beatty in The Parallex View or Fox Mulder in The X-Files), Lily is determined to find out what happened to Sergei. What’s less apparent and never becomes apparent in the show is why Lily feels so compelled to find answers to Sergei’s disappearance, especially when even in flashbacks Sergei isn’t revealed to be particularly bright, caring, honest, funny, or sensitive. In this regard, Lily makes for a rather bland heroine and Sergei an even less interesting victim even if Garland deserves credit for writing Lily as a female protagonist in a genre that is usually male-oriented and casting an Asian performer.

Mizuno is also very good and believable in the series even though Garland gives her character little depth, and the said can be said for most of the cast and their respective characters. Forest has named his company after a daughter he lost in a car accident, and, like in Garland’s previous films Ex Machina and Annihilation, Devs is a sci-fi thriller in which Forest is trying to develop a software that can replay the past and predict the future. So like Lily in seeking to avenge Sergei, Forest has very clear motivation for developing and protecting this software (he wants to be reunited with his daughter), but what led him to be so ruthless in doing so and even how he became a tech messiah is less clear. For every character in this series, which interestingly only has a handful of major characters, there is one large motivation they are holding onto and little other character depth. The same can be said for Lily’s puppy-dog ex Jamie (Jin Ha) who follows her around tragically to try and get her back and Forest’s number two Katie (Allison Pill) who is also his girlfriend and has benefitted from his largesse.

In a television era where characters have complicated backstories and often refuse to remain static, Devs suffers tremendously from superficial character development. In Garland’s last two films, characters played by the likes of Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman felt like complicated, imperfect people living in sci-fi worlds; their strengths and flaws leading them to make choices that would shape their film’s plots. In Devs, Garland seems to have given his characters only the most rudimentary motivations so he can explore his larger philosophical question: do we have free will or are our fates pre-determined? Ex Machina touched upon this already in its exploration of data-mining and artificial intelligence as well as its title (derived from deus ex machina), but whereas Ex Machina is a lean movie with only three major characters, Devs is nearly seven hours long (without commercials), several thin characters, and enough conspiracy thriller cliches to compile a running list of seen-before tropes. In a world where Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter, and Google are knowingly harming democracy for the sake of profit, Forest’s quest to resurrect his daughter seems rather benign. In this regard, American life today and the way it is being harmed by social media and search engines is stranger than Garland’s fiction.

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