Daring and unpredictable sci-fi

Kate Johnstone tunes in to DEVS on BBC Two.

The writer and director Alex Garland has developed his own brand of sci-fi: high concept, glossy and meta, with enough science to give his ideas heft. Ex Machina (2014) explored artificial intelligence and won Garland an Academy nomination for his screenplay. Annihilation (2018) considered what alien life might actually be like (spoiler: not bipeds who experience emotions). At one level, Garland’s new eight-part serial DEVS is about quantum mechanics. Fortunately, as with Ex Machina and Annihilation, Garland’s abiding interest is what makes us human.

DEVS starts with Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) travelling from their San Francisco apartment to an out-of-town complex not dissimilar to Googleplex. There are some differences – one is the creepy statue of a little girl which looms over the site. Another is (we hope) the reaction of corporate Amaya to an attempt at industrial espionage.  

The Amaya corporation is the brainchild of tech genius Forest (Nick Offerman), a laid-back looking sort of guy, flattened by grief for his young daughter, the titular Amaya. But when Sergei goes missing on campus after his first day on the DEVS project, Lily finds herself dealing with Forest and his head of security Kenton (Zack Grenier). Things quickly escalate.

Whilst this is the start of the DEVS plot, it would be a mistake to focus too much on who is doing what to whom. This is not the DEVS mystery. The mystery is, what is the technology that Forest is developing in his super-secret, hyper-secure, shimmering golden laboratory? Once we start to realise the answer, a more fundamental question arises: what do you choose to do with such a technology?

Without wanting to give away any spoilers, DEVS is about the implications of a man playing God. And if there is an all-seeing, all-powerful God, what does that mean for free will? If everything we do has already been determined by an external agent, how can we take responsibility for our own actions? This is hardly a unique theme in science fiction (Westworld is currently doing the same thing). But few have been brave enough to weave this theme around theoretical discussions of the Copenhagen and Everett interpretations.

DEVS is not for everyone. Some might become impatient at the uneven pace, or the style of acting, which seems to be deliberately underplayed (although I felt that for Mizuno, there was an actual lack of acting ability). But I loved its intellectual daring, and the unpredictability of its destination.

It is beautifully shot, and has a wonderful original score, supplemented by a carefully curated selection of music (medieval early music and Inuit throat-singing sit cheek-by-jowl to Patrick Cowley’s HI-NRG Menergy, Low’s Congregation and Steve Reich’s minimal composition ‘Come out’). A thought-provoking examination of power, grief and agency.

-  Reviewed by Kate Johnstone, Associate Editor for Culture

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