Character as an Embodiment of Themes in Alex Garland's 'Devs'
Devs is a miniseries created, directed and written by Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, Annihilation, 28 Days Later) that tells the story of a quantum computing company named Amaya run by an elusive CEO named Forest (Nick Offerman) and the lengths it goes to keep its intentions a secret. It’s impeccably shot and the cinematography throughout is drop-dead gorgeous, making full use of composition, colour and lighting to create a desolate landscape in-keeping with the show’s artificial tone. If you like your science fiction cerebral, then you’ve come to the right place.
The closest Garland has come to similar territory is within his directorial debut Ex-Machina. Both feature a seclusive genius operating within an architectural wonder in the middle of nowhere, but the expansive nature of Devs being a series allows it to spread its wings a little further. The show’s aesthetic and opening reek of subversion to Silicon Valley culture. Programmers and analysts wandering about a Google-like campus grinning wide and sipping store-bought coffees before plugging themselves back in. Offerman’s Forest is a caricature of the twenty-first century billionaire. His hair is unkempt, he has an endless supply of flannel shirts and his private life is a mystery. It’s not hard to see the genesis of these entrance points.
The difference however is within the show’s thematic goals, which don’t become fully apparent until over halfway through the episodes. Whereas Ex-Machina used the allusion of a Turing test to dictate the calling card of humanity, Devs goes all in on the debate of determinism and the illusion of free will. In order to go any further is should be know that there will be heavy spoilers for the entire show ahead. If you haven’t watched it already you can find it all currently on BBC iPlayer in the UK or Hulu in the US. Still with me? Okay…
In episode 6 Allison Pill’s Katie, the chief designer of the Devs system explains what the titular department does to series protagonist Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno). She does so by flat out stating the theory of determinism – that everything happens because of cause and effect. Lightning strikes are because of static discharge, young people die of disease because of abnormalities in their health, no matter how small and inconsequential they are such variables craft a sequence that dictates an effect. Essentially, these variables are data that can be put into a machine (an infinitely powerful one) and used to not only predict future events with 100% accuracy but look into the past with the same level of detail.
Obviously the biggest hurdle is accepting the amount of data and the power of Devs’ computer but the fact remains that the super-secret project within the Amaya department has limitless potential, both ethical and unethical. This is where a lesser show would have put its focus. Instead Devs dwells on the implications of assured determinism. Forest states in the series opener that he isn’t a fan of the multiverse theory (infinite number of universes where every possibility exists) and even fires someone from Devs just for entertaining the idea. For the last 3 episodes Devs’ writing toys and tinkers with predetermined events and uses them to advance narratives and character in a way that the best science fiction does.
“Man is a masterpiece of creation, if only because no amount of determination can prevent him from believing that he acts as a free being” – Georg C. Lichtenberg.
The Devs team at Amaya are forbidden from using the computer to look into the future. Well, everyone except Forest and his designer/girlfriend Katie. The two of them are well aware of every action that is going to happen throughout the entire miniseries because…they’ve already seen it. Hundreds of times even. And when it’s revealed that the computer has an end date both us and them are led to believe it’s some cataclysmic event. But let’s pull back a bit. Knowing every action, even dialogue, is pre-determined is a devastating piece of knowledge. Not only are you faced with the idea of not being responsible for yourself but in Forest and Katie’s case they’ve already memorised and seen what they say/do. It robs them of even the feeling of humanity and individuality.
This is where Katie presents herself as the embodiment of the show’s ideology of determinism. From her first appearance Katie is introduced as cold and clinical. Her voice barely has any emotion in it, and when she smiles it’s forced. What initially feels like a jarring performance slots together perfectly when pieced with the underlying situation, as she’s lost the impulsive nature from her life. Every smile feels fake because she already knows she has to do it and can’t deviate from the established pattern. Allison Pill has been doing brilliant character work for years in things like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Newsroom but I’m hoping Devs allows her to finally achieve the recognition she’s deserved for a while.
In a brief flashback to Katie’s time at university where she first meets Forest, it’s as if she’s a completely different person. She stands up against her lecturers and scoffs at theories and ideologies she has no faith in, and all of this pent-up anger is real and lacking in her contemporary self. It’s an almost robot-like performance in many ways, but that doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t there, it’s just distilled and…depressed. The smallest fragments of hope from her come from the brief compassionate moments with Forest. A particular scene in which the two declare their unified ‘liking’ of each other is adorable but tinged with a waning guilt that one of them knows they’re saying it just because they have to. Katie becomes the byproduct of the Devs system. A warning sign of how humanity will act if the information spreads out globally, and it’s a role that needed to be played with such precision that it’s dizzying to think about.
But then there’s Forest. Nick Offerman’s CEO is written by Garland with the subdued power of a supervillain, particularly in his moments of wrath. However, Offerman’s performance is understated. This is possibly due to his previous work in comedy, but in reality it makes him seem like a real person rather than a walking messiah-complex. Forest starts Amaya as a tribute to his deceased daughter who he lost in a car accident alongside his wife. The Devs system exists as a way for him to simulate extra moments with her, and the show toys with its audience by making us believe he’s doing it to bring her back to life.
Garland brilliantly ushers in visual moments of foreshadowing for those characters who have experienced loss by dwelling on this. Forest's hatred of the multiverse theory is played against him by the show, and during his family's devastating demise his alternate selves are shown reacting to various outcomes of the event - the different outcomes that continuously haunt his own mind throughout the series. But wait...when Katie first exits the lecture hall in a huff during her flashback we're treated to the same thing. Various multiverse incarnations of her character blindly letting out her anger until those differing Forests are able to catch up to her. Their similarities are more than just a stylistic choice for the show.
Lily is also the victim of loss twice throughout the show. After Sergei's disappearance and before Jamie (Jin Ha's) murder we're shown her alternative lives in the apartment split between the two loves of her life. All three of them are present because they're either killed or suffering from the grief and the various 'what if?' questions that haunt them. Forest doesn't like the multiverse theory because it implies that he could have done something to prevent Amaya's death, and that's the thought that keeps him awake at night. Not only that, but Katie's unseen and untold grief only adds to her complexity and willingness to partner up with Forest throughout the Devs operation. The talent to simultaneously present subtext whilst demonstrating such visual flare is an achievement that doesn't go unnoticed, even as Devs tricks you into believing it's all about Forest's goal to get more time with his daughter. Of course with Garland it’s not so simple.
Forest has the same future knowledge as Katie yet still makes an effort to smile and connect with people, for better or worse. It makes for an oddly compelling dichotomy, and not just because you can’t decide whether he’s an antagonist or not for the initial instalments. But this is where an insidious theme rises from the ranks, a fallout from the determinism argument – Religion. More specifically, the existence and message of God (or Gods, whatever). The Devs finale flat-out has Forest compare himself to the almighty force, even having him dismiss death because resurrection is ‘what Gods do’ – and he’s not wrong.
Let’s treat this example as an analysis essay and say that Forest is God (or the idea of God). All the parallels are there. He watches over his creation (humanity, Earth etc.) and the Devs team are his angels. Instead of losing a son to the simulation he lost a daughter. He (mostly) isolates himself and even has the trademark bushy beard commonly associated with its image. Whilst being the bearer of violence and torture he never outwardly harms anyone throughout the series, and even forgives Sergei (Karl Glusman) and atones him of his sins before his murder in the premiere. The giant statue of Amaya bears the same symbology as the cross and is even present in every episode being shown looking down on the events of humanity below. It’s all seamless subtext that acts as an extension of the determinism argument because why? Well as anyone who ever did a Religious Studies GCSE knows, you can’t argue about free will without bringing God into the equation.
“For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John” – C.S. Lewis.
Now, God isn’t a theme. The comparison here is metaphorical and is used to extend the actual theme of determinism. Devs ultimately ends with a true choice (just like Adam and Eve) that aids Forest in achieving his intended goal of being reunited with his family. Lily unknowingly follows God’s plan by defying him. The only problem is…Forest didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. For the first time in years this is uncharted territory for him and I can’t help but feel as if the intention behind this isn’t some kind of positive, altruistic message but rather a cynical jab at the effable-ness of someone being in charge without having every single answer. If Forest and by extension the Devs system is God, then their plan is only stated to be ineffable out of fear from the chosen path. It actively diverts you away from the notion of free will. Too much overthinking I know, I’ll stop.
The best stories can simultaneously say multiple things and represent each side of the same argument without feeling forced. Devs suffers a little from a sagging middle but manages to recapture the initial magic that makes science fiction so powerful. What started as an exploration into the importance of Allison Pill’s character Katie very quickly snowballed into a debate about faith and religion, free will and determinism, cause and effect. At the same time the show can be equally entertaining at face value. Both Annihilation and Ex-Machina were streamlined in their technique due to their feature-length running time, but Devs is afforded the luxury of patience which allows a character like Katie to sneak up on you. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t mention the haunting score by Ben Salisbury, who it seems has hit his stride since working on the ethereal and morphic Annihilation score. Combined with Rob Hardy’s cinematography the presentation of the show alone crafts an otherworldly and deeply-unnerving experience that offers just enough glimpses of magic to pull you in deeper.
But of course, you know all of this already because you’ve already watched Devs. If you haven’t you wouldn’t be reading all of these spoilers, right? Right?
I’m a screenwriter/writer always hungry for some work so if you know of any opportunities let me know! I also just love talking about films if that’s what you’re into…so yeah. Thanks for reading!
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