With the release of “Ex Machina” in 2014, Alex Garland emerged as a filmmaker to watch. His use of high concept science-fiction mixed with weirdly constructed pop entertainment proved to connect with audiences. Garland’s follow-up to “Ex Machina” proved equally ambitious, with “Annihilation,” earning broad critical support. It’s become clear Garland is the voice to watch in sci-fi filmmaking, and FX jumped on his momentum. The resulting limited series, “Devs,” pieces together an eight-part series of hard sci-fi. Garland examines grief in an age where technology continues to sprint past control. Garland’s handle on the subject matter and hypnotic tone of “Devs” makes it a triumph.
A tech company, Amaya, continues its work on a secretive program named Devs. Considered one of the most innovative and dominant organizations within the industry, it attracts the most talented engineers in the world. Among the engineers are Lily (Sonya Mizuno) and her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman). When Sergei presents his work to Amaya bosses Forest (Nick Offerman) and Katie (Alison Pill), he gets promoted to the Devs program. However, less than 24 hours later, he commits suicide. Lily’s attempts to understand what happened to Sergei pushes her and ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) into a full-blown conspiracy.
Garland languishes on the details of “Devs,” and this forces the series to take its time. The plod towards the finale slowly builds tension, not only between scenes but entire episodes. Garland experiments with his camera as much as ever, and the writing allows him to draw every detail out of his characters. No episodes are too long, and few scenes feel unnecessary. Thematically, the choice reinforces its characters’ beliefs as well. The marriage of slow-burn mystery and high philosophy will make “Devs” a dorm room favorite. Yet the way Garland shoots his actors and his slavish devotion to the nitty-gritty gives “Devs” a hypnotic quality that will draw you back.
Once again, Mizuno and Garland’s collaboration yields terrific results. Mizuno brings a dynamic, yet internal performance to the series. She lives-in the grief, creating a layered turn of someone crushed by a loss. Mizuno gives a natural performance after the heightened and exaggerated characters in “Ex Machina” and “Maniac” made her a star. This should put her on the radar for casting directors looking for a lead because she has the talent and charisma to become a leading lady.
Offerman also delivers a turn that cashes in on his likable personality. Rather than utilizing his comedic talents, his inherent goodness shines through as the billionaire owner of a tech company. You can see his actions are legitimately heartbreaking to him, especially when they create violence. Placing the inherently likable Offerman in a role for someone who should be reviled creates a dichotomy for the viewer, one that keeps you interested in his actions. For Garland, finding an actor who could walk this path was essential to the success of the series.
The rest of the cast fills out nicely. Garland gets a surprisingly intimidating performance from Zach Grenier. His former intelligence agent turned security guard is filled with rage and distrust. His explosive xenophobic rants and violent outbursts sell the vitriol. Meanwhile, Pill delivers another subtle yet effective role in a sci-fi property. While moonlighting from her season regular role on “Picard,” Pill gets more exciting material to dive into here. The complexity of her morals makes her one of the more interesting characters that you’ll want to revisit.
The duo of Cailee Spaeny and Stephen Henderson delivers a believable mentor/mentoree relationship. Henderson brings extra heart to his performance, and this makes him an excellent X-factor throughout the season. Ha gets the worst material of the bunch, playing the longing puppy dog to perfection. However, the writing makes his ex-boyfriend character come off as extremely whiny, and by the third episode, you get sick of it. Whether intentional or not, it undeniably colors your perception of his relationship with Mizuno’s Lily.
Garland’s unique vision creates a unique soundscape and audible experience. The score sets the tone, and it reaches the complex ambitions of the series. At times, the sweet music creates a heavenly mood to the events. At other turns, the disorienting, mechanical, and feedback-inspired sounds percolate throughout the soundscape. The musical team made up of The Insects, Geoff Barrow, and Ben Salisbury achieves a digitized melancholy that weighs over the series. Where the score ens and the sound design begins can be unclear, but the blending of the two creates a unique sonic experience.
“Devs” certainly slows itself down to create full portraits of each character, leaving you with a vibrant ensemble. However, the stillness and Garland’s visual flair will recall a sci-fi, Terrence Malik. The commentary and hard sci-fi of his world make “Devs” a worthy endeavor for viewers. While this does not work as well as “Annihilation” or “Ex Machina,” Garland once again shows his devotion to his genre. There will be some who believe “Devs” is the most ambitious series of the year. For that reason alone, “Devs” should quickly climb up your watchlist.