In the 1997 film Gattaca, writer-director Andrew Niccol explored the idea that future humans will use genetics to determine the best possible outcomes for their children. In the new FX series Devs, writer-director Alex Garland (Annihilation) basically argues, “Don’t even bother.” Eugenics might some day turn us into a planet of Olympic-caliber athletes with perfect teeth, but our behavior is entirely predictable and quantum intelligence will suss out everything we do before we actually do it.
Naturally, a secretive tech company will figure this out before anyone else does. And why not have that tech company run by a shaggy genius played by Nick Offerman? Take that irresistible premise, and tuck it inside a well-constructed conspiracy hunt, and you have Devs, a chilling thriller that brings our worst fears about Big Tech to life.
Like seemingly every other major television event this year, Devs is a very ambitious movie idea that’s been right-sized into a miniseries for a streaming channel. (Devs is joining the lineup of Disney's new FX on Hulu, so technically this is a cable show with a streaming sidecar. But cable is so 20th-century FX.)
Unlike other miniseries — Amazon’s Hunters comes to mind — Devs doesn’t overreach. Eight hours doesn’t seem like a huge ask to spend immersed in Garland’s nightmare world, where the future is literally being perfected to the point that there really is no future, just a timeline we’re fated to tread without deviation, free will, or moral compass.
Predictive behavior models, obviously, are not new to science fiction. The best-known precursor to Devs is Philip K. Dick’s story “Minority Report,” written during the Eisenhower era and adapted for the big screen almost 20 years ago. But Minority Report was set in the mid-21st century, which was a nod to how much computational moss-gathering Hollywood felt that predictive model needed way back in the first Bush administration.
By contrast, Devs feels like it could be happening right now. To underscore the point, Garland rolls us into his nightmarish dream with an opening sequence set in the here and now, with ordinary San Franciscans doing yoga, playing in the park, yelling at the clouds. Folks just doing their thing, unaware that the free will they think they’re exercising is a chimera.
The first act plays out conventionally enough — two millennials living in San Francisco who take a charter bus to their jobs in leafy Silicon Valley — right up to the moment when the bus approaches Amaya headquarters. There, poking out of the trees like some weird TV-commercial special effect, is a hundred-foot-high lifelike statue of a little girl. And that’s your signal that Devs may be less about the future than an oddly distorted version of the present.
The nerdy lovers are Sergei (Karl Glusman) and Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), and they work in different divisions of Amaya. Like most sci-fi drama that matters, Devs doesn’t scrimp on the things that make movies movies, or in this case miniseries. Garland invests us enough in their relationship and their personalities so that, by the time Sergei vanishes, it matters.
It all happens shortly after Forest, Amaya’s earthy CEO played by Offerman, hands Sergei his Willy Wonka ticket. He’s earned a place inside the company’s inner sanctum, a Brutalist bunker in the woods known by all Amaya employees as simply the “devs.” With disarming humor and informality, Forest ushers Sergei into the hermetically sealed coding facility and ...
From there, the action shifts to Lily and her attempts to figure out what happened inside that inner sanctum that her boyfriend was last seen heading to. One way we know Devs is set in the future, or an alternate present, is that there are plenty of powerful women at this tech firm who are treated respectfully. And it soon becomes clear that Forest’s right hand and fixer Katie (Alison Pill) plays as crucial a role in protecting the secret project inside Devs and covering up Sergei’s disappearance as he does.
When Lily recruits her ex-boyfriend Jamie, played by Jin Ha, to help find Sergei, he brings just the right amount of standoffishness and devotion that you’d expect from a former lover with a wicked-fast brain.
Stephen McKinley Henderson, that wonderfully grizzled and versatile character actor, plays a senior coder inside Devs. He’s here to represent my generation, the Gen-Xers who know all too well the hubris that comes with thinking you can know it all with technology’s help. He’s also here to toss off lines like, “Is it morning already? This place is like Vegas — I never know what time it is.”
But again, what really sets Devs apart is its audacity. I realize the point of science fiction is to reimagine the world, but there’s something especially nervy, and unnerving, about reimagining our world. Locking each human being into a predetermined timeline is something only certain strains of Christian belief used to attempt. Now imagine it’s done by an app.
Suddenly, worrying about the future becomes pointless. Individualism? You wish, mister billionaire libertarian. God? Not dead, because God never actually existed. Moral qualms? Like punch cards, we needed them to help us process data in less complex times, but humanity will soon learn that fretting about right and wrong is obsolete.
And yet ... after Sergei goes bye-bye, Forest feels sad. Katie sits with him in the woods outside the concrete bunker. (There’s something about having this dystopian tool developed by a CEO played by a comic actor who munches leafy greens — the Valley’s answer to Henry David Thoreau — that adds to the show’s quirky/creepy appeal.)
As Forest shares his feelings, Katie reminds him how hard it is to “unravel a lifetime of moral experience.” And as we munch on that unsettling thought, Katie continues, “Human beings are hard-wired magical thinkers. If their kids get hurt, they start praying.”
Forest looks soulfully at her. “You’re not just smarter than me,” he says, “you’re wiser, too.”
Whether or not that’s actually true, it’s an unexpectedly sweet moment that makes the unsavory moments in Devs go down easier. This page-turner of a miniseries may not be predicting our future, but it sure leaves you wondering if somewhere inside a Big Tech compound there's a roomful of coders working on it.
The first two episodes of Devs are now available for streaming on Hulu. New episodes will be released weekly on Thursdays through mid-April.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.