After the mind-bending exploits of Ex Machina (sci-fi psychological thriller film) and Annihilation (sci-fi psychological horror film), writer-director Alex Garland brings to us yet another meditative examination of the questions surrounding ethics and morality that the new age applications of data science can pose in a post-Cambridge Analytica world. Titled Devs, the Hulu / FX show stars Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Zach Grenier, Alison Pill, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, and Jin Ha in pivotal roles.
The idea of multiverse is not new to the world of fiction. As a matter of fact, comic book enthusiasts have been fed on the idea of multiple universes for as long as one can remember. But Garland gives it a refreshing spin in Devs. The eight episode miniseries is inspired by the works of the British physicist David Deutsch, in particular his 1997 book titled The Fabric of Reality, which explores and examines the fundamental ideas of evolution theory, theoretical physics, and computer science. Devs follows a tech billionaire named Forest (Offerman) who has set up a futuristic computer lab ‘Devs’—a secretive division of his leading technological firm ‘Amaya’—aimed at accurately predicting the future and revisiting the past. Devs’ central theme is quantum computing and the possibilities it opens up when applied to the philosophy of determinism—the belief that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes, which is often contrasted with free will. Now, quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that is used to describe the properties of nature on an atomic scale. But can quantum mechanisms be used to reach a conclusion that all events in the universe are predetermined?
Well, quantum mechanics offers us different interpretations in this matter. While on one hand we have the von Neumann–Wigner interpretation which rejects the idea of determinism and embraces randomness, on the other we have the deterministic de Broglie–Bohm interpretation. But what complicates the matter is Hugh Everett‘s deterministic ‘many worlds’ hypothesis which provides a definitive conclusion to the de Broglie–Bohm interpretation. In other words, the deterministic view only works if we accept that the universe actually follows a number of unique paths with each being as real as every other. On some paths you might be a doctor, on others a carpenter and so on. Essentially, Forest’s singular quest to traverse the past and the future rests on the accurate assessment of these interpretations.
Garland sets Devs in a world that's not unlike ours. But he uses highly intelligent scientific ideas, eccentric characters, breathtaking visuals, and enchanting music to create a sense of transcendence for the viewer. In the hands of a lesser artist, Devs would have been a murder mystery cum psychological thriller but in the hands of Garland it proves to be a profound exploration of the endless possibilities of science. While someone like Stanley Kubrick may be tempted to look outwards towards the celestial infinity in order to address the possibilities of the unknown, for Garland the quest is more about looking inwards. And it's for that reason he is closer to Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris and Stalker) than Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) or Nolan Brothers (Interstellar and Westworld). Even his choice of music and visuals strongly point in the direction of Tarkovsky. But there is no denying that Garland is as original and bold as they come.
A show like Devs can alienate the viewers if the performances are not up to the mark. But Garland to his credit once again manages to elicit solid performances from the entire ensemble cast. While Mizuno is convincing as the vulnerable protagonist Lily Chan whose coder boyfriend Sergei disappears mysteriously on his very first day at Devs, Offerman brings an air of detached megalomania to his portrayal of Forest which makes the character eccentric yet believable. However, the show’s best performance comes from Zach Grenier who is absolutely menacing in the role of Kenton, the head of security at Amaya. Also, Alison Pill deserves a special mention for her portrayal of Katie, Forest’s partner and the chief designer of the Devs system. Garland pulls of an interesting experiment by casting a female (Cailee Spaeny) in the role of Lyndon, a male member of the Devs team and a child prodigy. Spaeny, to her credit, makes Lyndon quite believable.
Alex Garland is easily one of the finest minds working around as far as the realm of sci-fi in cinema is concerned. His journey which started as a novelist (The Beach, 1996) before he forayed into screenwriting (28 Days Later, 2002) and eventually into film directing (Ex Machina, 2014) has been nothing short of remarkable. What separates Alex Garland from someone like Kubrick or the Nolan Brothers is his ability work at very low budgets. He made Ex Machina for a moderate budget of USD 15 million and the independent film ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects while competing with mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and The Martian. The best thing about Garland is that he is always willing to push the envelope. He knows that he cannot afford get the science wrong and so he researches extensively before he starts exploring the philosophical aspects of science. With Devs, Garland has taken this exploration several notches further.
Viewers in India can watch Devs on Disney+ Hotstar.
(Murtaza Ali Khan is a Delhi-based film critic and journalist.)