Spoilers for Devs and Ex Machina!
Alex Garland has been part of a good handful of excellent movies. His work is niche, but it has connected with audiences and critics alike. It’s deep, heady, and thought-provoking fare. While I think Ex Machina is Garland’s best overall work to date, Devs, his recent venture into television miniseries, is his most philosophically engaging piece.
I was introduced to Garland’s work a couple years late when I watched Ex Machina on DVD. The 2014 film’s acclaim put it on my radar. I then watched his only other directorial feature, Annihilation, and a couple of films he wrote, Never Let Me Go, and 28 Days Later.
After seeing 28 Days Later, I was hooked on Garland as a creator. Everything he makes is smart and measured, and you understand why it was made. It is obvious how he puts his everything into each one of his projects. So naturally, I was down for a miniseries written and directed by him, starring Ron Swanson.
Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) works at a giant tech company called Amaya. After the death of her boyfriend and co-worker Sergei (Karl Glusman), she finds herself investigating his mysterious demise. She believes Forest (Nick Offerman), the head of the titular Devs division, has something to do with it.
Out of all of Garland’s work, Devs pulled me in the quickest. Its perfect first episode sets itself up as a mystery/thriller, but it quickly becomes obvious that the show is more interested in exploring its characters and themes than telling an intriguing murder mystery. This is an ingenious setup because by the time I realized the show didn’t care about the mystery of the story as much as how the characters react to that mystery, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it was trying to say.
The middle episodes of the 8-part series falter a bit compared to the beginning and end because Garland tries to to walk the line between an interesting story and his big ideas. But he’s able to wrap everything up neatly and on a higher note than where he started.
We find out the function of Devs, in the simplest terms, is to create a computer program able to simulate the past and future using determinism. And I say, “in the simplest terms” because nothing in this show is simple at face value. It explores determinism, the multiverse (and not in the fun Spider-Verse sense), religion, and morals. There are long chunks of dialogue that are too scientific and theoretical for me to understand, but Garland weaves them in such a way to make it accessible for a viewer who is interested in paying attention and thinking.
The most compelling idea brought up in Devs is that of determinism, the idea that all actions performed in the world are predetermined, therefore removing a person’s ability to choose. To paraphrase Lost, whatever happens, happens.
In Devs, Forest is responsible for the death of his wife and young daughter, as he was talking to his wife on the phone while she was driving which led to the fatal crash. But by strongly embracing determinism, he is taking moral responsibility away from himself. If all of life is pre-determined anyway, then he was always going to be on the phone at that particular moment, absolving him of guilt. This is why he is so determined to perfect his program in Devs. If he can prove determinism works and always has been and always will be, any blame is simply taken off his shoulders.
Not surprisingly, this brings religious ideas to the foreground of the show at some points. Throughout the show, everyone speaks in a monotone manner to take the focus away from the acting and place it on the dialogue. All the while, liturgical music plays in the background. You feel as if you are witnessing some sort of perverse sermon.
The whole idea comes to a fascinating head in the final episode. Lily goes to the Devs office for the first time and meets Forest who, based on his program’s simulation, is sure he is going to die that evening. He’s free of guilt and worry, and sees himself as a messiah because of what he has achieved. His program has seen as far back as Christ on the cross, but no further than that evening. Everything in the world would be perfect and pre-determined up to that point.
But here, Lily takes the form of two separate biblical figures at once. Having seen how that evening is supposedly going to play out, she chooses to stray from that path by doing something different than what she saw happen. This at once has her commit the original sin of the world wherein the future is no longer able to be foreseen, and give the rest of the world the legitimate ability to make their own choices. Interestingly, Lily’s ability to make a choice proves the option has always been available to everyone.
Garland set out to make a show about the relationship between what we know and what we do. If you know the events in your life are supposed to play out in a certain way, how would you go about your life? As the avatar for the audience, Lily shows how we all have the ability to choose as she did. Forest is so full of guilt masquerading as hubris that he doesn’t acknowledge this ability in himself. Instead of encountering something higher than himself, he wants to play God. He flew too close to the sun and his wings burned.
None of this happened, though, before Forest revealed to Lily that the “V” in “Devs” is known in the office as a “U”, meaning Devs is actually “Deus.” Of course, “Deus” is latin for “God.” Forest literally believes he has created a new god with his machine (the ending title card of the final episode even reads, Deus).
It is no coincidence, then, to find Garland’s previous work being titled Ex Machina. “Deus Ex Machina,” or, “A God From A Machine,” is a common phrase in storytelling. In the storytelling sense it’s metaphorical, but in Devs and Ex Machina, Garland is going for a literal interpretation of the phrase.
Ex Machina is all about the creation of a humanoid artificial intelligence which becomes more powerful than planned and overtakes its creator. Devs is about the inception of the sort of technology which would make it all possible. I like to think the latter is a spiritual prequel to the former.
While Alex Garland crafts stories about the apocalyptic-sounding, Terminatoresque “rise of the machines,” they are, at their core, about what it means to be human.
Devs reminds us of our inherent agency. There may be a computer able to predict everything that will happen in the future, but it is actually flawed because we are all able to choose our own paths. Even though Lily’s choice directly leads to her demise, her consciousness is uploaded into the Devs program: the story’s stand-in for heaven. Our choices are leading us somewhere. We can make the most of what we choose to do.
Ex Machina, meanwhile, reminds us that in our race to advance technology, we can forget what it means to be human. Ava, the story’s humanoid AI, puts on skin and body parts for the first time and gains the wonder and amazement at the miracle of the human body. Even as a robot, she perhaps understands what it means to be human more than the film’s two main human characters.
Media like this is important. I’m glad Garland is making thoughtful, high-minded sci-fi fare. He doesn’t care about sounding pretentious because he has something he feels convicted to say. His variety in projects shows he is taking advantage of his desires and choosing to do what is grabbing him at the moment. In a world that can be full of hypocrisy, it’s refreshing to see someone practice what they preach.