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All the mirrors are black

‘Devs’, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a mesmerising sci-fi mystery, which weaves a textured fable about technology and determinism

Nick Offerman in ‘Devs’.
Nick Offerman in ‘Devs’.

Instagram makes people feel like shit about their lives," a politician tells a tech visionary in the exquisitely cool new series Devs. “Twitter makes them feel reviled. Facebook destroyed democracy. They use you, they need you," she concedes, as if speaking to all of Silicon Valley at once, before moving in for the kill. “But they don’t like you any more."

This feels true. The late Steve Jobs, he of the turtlenecks and temper, may have been the last technology hero, for now the public looks to those in charge—from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos to Mark Zuckerberg—with a mixture of fear and ridicule. Our tech comes from a Mogambo here and a Lex Luthor there, perceived supervillains with alarming power at their disposal.

Which is why alchemy would be right up their alley. Turning weird ideas to gold is par for the course for Alex Garland—who wrote the novel The Beach, the movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and directed the haunting Ex Machina—who has written and directed every episode of the remarkable Devs, streaming in India on Hotstar Premium. It is a mesmerizing sci-fi mystery, one that draws the viewer in with immediate intrigue and then proceeds to masterfully withhold information, turning everything on screen into a clue while weaving a textured fable about technology and determinism (and, for all we know, about Google).

Nick Offerman plays Forest, CEO of a tech behemoth called Amaya, named after his late daughter. A giant statue of the little girl looms over the campus, eternally enchanted—and, thanks to its scale, supremely sinister. Offerman, best known for playing the taciturn Ron Swanson on Parks And Recreation (Amazon Prime), plays Forest as a shaggy perfectionist, Steve Jobs if he had been ordained at the Church of Lebowski. The campus is sterile, as one might expect, but somewhere in the middle of the Redwood trees, we see gold bars planted into the ground—gigantic golden Kit Kats, structures instantly evoking the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Weirdness is afoot.

Few know what “Devs", the most coveted and confidential quantum computing division inside Amaya, even does. Garland isn’t eager to spell it out. We are, instead, teased by the awe—the utter, absolute, screaming, speechless awe—felt by young recruit Sergei as he faces the project for the first time. “This changes everything," Sergei gasps, his brain struggling to catch up with the potential of what lies ahead. “If it’s true, it literally changes every single thing." “No," Forest corrects. “If it’s true, it changes absolutely nothing. In a way, that’s the point." This is a show about variances, sometimes between decisions characters make, sometimes between the hairs on a famous 2,000-year-old head, and sometimes between the literal and the figurative.

Sergei disappears after his first day at Devs, his girlfriend Lily—who also works at Amaya, as an encryption specialist—can’t wrap her brain around this, and it soon becomes apparent that there was more to Sergei than she knew. Lily begins asking questions but, like Forest, nobody at the company is eager to divulge details. There is some Heart Of Glass here and a fair bit of Soylent Green, while Kubrick looms over the incandescent and icy production design and the gorgeous cinematography, but Garland’s scientific curiosity is all his own.

A large part of this television show involves people looking into noise—into what appears to be a giant television screen bereft of signal, like someone staring into a 3D painting trying to pluck meaning from black and white dots, or like the little girl in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, communicating with those on the other side of static. What the audience witnesses is similarly, at first, obscured and then gradually, rewardingly, hypnotically made clearer. Surrender yourself to this stylish tour de force, but do so with your eyes wide open.

In the noise meant to be an accurate projection of the past, we see the hazy image of a man on a cross—but who’s to say if that’s the real Jesus Christ, or a shot of Graham Chapman from the filming of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian? Offerman’s Forest, who shovels salad forklessly into his mouth, may not be “a fan of the multiverse theory" and may be chasing too singular a dream, but his reach may well exceed his grasp—or vice versa. There is, after all, a difference between a god and a god-complex.

Dancer and actor Sonoya Mizuno plays Lily with a peculiarly skittish energy, curious and feline and exact in her eccentric movements: At one point,she seems to be yanking the skin off her knuckles as she nervously prepares to bare her soul, and at another, she is almost hit by a car and runs akimbo. It is the energy of a wind-up doll who has been wound up too much, and is beautiful to witness.

Alison Pill, on the other hand, plays the most straight-faced of characters, Katie, Forest’s second in command and a quantum physicist so stoic she may even be unreal—perhaps literally. With only four episodes (out of eight) so far, my hunch is that Katie might be a synthetic creation, a clone, a bit of cleverly simulated AI. In a world where people wonder aloud whether they really are magicians—while saying things like “exceptionally beautiful mathematics"—she may be a trick of the light, so to speak.

The idea of determinism is that cause precedes effect: that everything we do is because we are meant to do so. That the universe and all its inhabitants move on invisible “tramlines", far more compelling than free will can possibly be. It makes for a dangerously seductive argument and provides a bleak, artless way to look at the world, and Garland is prodding us sharply with arguments meant to make us dance up in rebellion.

The fearless Margaret Atwood, who herself fashioned many a dystopic tramline, once said, “A word after a word after a word is power." That power, remember, comes from a thrilling lack of awareness, from not knowing what the next word will be. We must resist the obvious. We must zag when zigging seems easiest. We must choose our stories, and our storytellers. For the thing to note about a binary future is this: The chosen ones could as easily be chosen zeroes.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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