Check out what our Drew thought of Alex Garland’s ambitious sci-fi series – Devs!
I think Alex Garland has been Shyamalised. I’m referring to the tragic effect when, much like M. Night Shyamalan, a writer-director releases a movie that’s a career-making hit (Sixth Sense; Ex Machina), and the world heaps standing ovations on them. They then follow it up with a second that some people think is better than the first, some think it’s worse (Unbreakable; Annihilation), but everyone whole-heartedly agrees that they want more, please.
And then comes Signs, and it’s all downhill from there. Devs is writer-director Alex Garland’s Signs, and I hope it’s not a prophecy of things to come. All the hallmarks are there – the punishingly slow pace; the monotone speech; the weighty philosophising; the bonkers twists. It’s what seems to happen when you put someone on a pedestal and give them complete freedom. Not every idea a genius has is a genius idea – just look at Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding. Ironically this is a problem covered in great detail by Devs, but I’ll get to that later.
Centred around a shadowy Silicon Valley tech company and their futurist-quantum-tech team Devs, it follows the team’s pursuit of a system that can simulate the past and future, and a techie trying to uncover the skeletons in their closet. It delves deep (really, really deep) into the concept of free will and determinism, and the modern landscape of mistrust in tech companies.
After the two runaway hit films Ex Machina and Annihilation, this is Garland’s first foray into TV, and I’ve got to say it felt like he started with a movie script draft and stretched it from 2 to 8 hours of content. Like I said earlier, it is painfully slow, despite its short runtime. This was especially difficult at the beginning where none of the more gripping twists have occurred, and I honestly almost gave up on the show after two episodes. The pace doesn’t pick up throughout, and right up until the end I was frequently yelling at the screen “SPEAK. FASTER.”
It might seem odd to be complaining about a slow burner sci-fi show when I just spent a long while kissing the feet of Tales From The Loop earlier in the week, but that show carried its steady pace with a kind of quiet honesty you had to respect. Devs instead drags out everything, regardless of whether it’s a normal conversation between two ordinary people, or the most critical turning point of the show. It feels arrogant, verging on tedious, which is a real shame, because if they’d kept this a neat, tight affair it might have come close to being on-par with Annihilation, another slow burner that still had you facing the scariest bear since Leonardo DiCaprio’s disastrous camping trip by the halfway mark.
As it is, Devs falls far behind Annihilation and especially Ex Machina in all regards. The acting is stilted and emotionless, which I don’t think is fair to lay at the performer’s feet – I think this is Garland’s direction. Much like how George Lucas somehow managed to leech all talent and charisma out of Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson et al., there’s only so far you can blame them when they’re working with bad material and bad direction.
The visuals are surprisingly bland. There’re a few key cool images that stick in the brain but for the most part it’s got a dull, desaturated palette, with the only standout colour being a glowing, jaundice yellow that honestly gave me a bit of a headache. Cameras and characters are usually static in the frame, and there’s instead a kind of ADHD on display where it keeps jumping from one new angle to another within a scene like it’s worried you’ll lose attention.
The one thing I have zero problem with is the soundtrack. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow return once again after scoring Garland’s two films, and it’s another winner. Blending a haunting, sometimes terrifying original score with a curious mix of licensed songs ranging from Billie Eilish to Catholic hymns, they seemed completely unafraid to think outside the box when trying to find the mood and it’s refreshing amid the slog.
I will say this – when Devs does it right, it does it right. There are a few key sequences where they lean hard into the trippy concepts of quantum entanglement, the observer effect, and the many worlds interpretation. Combine extended monologues spoken in Nick Offerman’s kindly-lumberjack voice describing quantum physics in action with a transcendent score and some seriously out-there visual montages, and I have to admit I was just a bit gobsmacked more than once.
Garland touches lightly on some interesting commentary of our relationship with modern tech companies. It’s ground he’s tread before in Ex Machina, with Oscar Isaac’s brilliant portrayal of Nathan – an unhinged, richer-than-God coding wizard who’s become dissociated from normal human behaviour by way of his discoveries. Nick Offerman is the same character with a dose of tragic backstory, but a fraction of the energy and charisma (no impromptu dance sequences in this show I’m afraid). I wish I’d seen a bit more of this side of things, even if it would have lent itself a bit too close to the technophobic paranoia of Black Mirror.
But the main internal conflict in the show is whether we have free will, or there is a determined order to events as a result of predictable behaviour in nature. They present this as a struggle, with characters seeing their own future in a simulation and finding themselves compelled to fulfil its prophecy, yet this never smacked as believable to me. There seemed to be a simple solution – just do something, anything, different to what you were shown. Sometimes, the plot drives the characters to make decisions that seemed ludicrous beforehand (Minority Report, anyone?) which makes sense. But other times, they seem almost hypnotised into following the future’s orders.
The show itself comes to the conclusion that makes sense – the many worlds interpretation. There are parallel universes in which you did reject the future it told you and we just happen to be witnessing the one where reality coincided with the prediction presented. But the show takes so long to get there that all the fretting and stressing beforehand felt a bit silly. When the obstacle to be overcome isn’t really an obstacle at all, the stakes feel incredibly low.It’s a real shame, but I can’t recommend you check out Devs. It’s grappling with some genuinely interesting ideas that are fun to wrap your head around, but they’re delivered in such a bland way that it unfortunately lets the whole thing down. I just hope that this is one pothole in the road for Garland, rather than a downhill slope.
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