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Television

Review: ‘Devs,’ Alex Garland’s latest sci-fi thriller, may make you want to watch it twice

Nick Offerman in “Devs,” the latest sci-fi thriller from Alex Garland
Nick Offerman as Forest in “Devs,” the latest sci-fi thriller from Alex Garland.
(Miya Mizuno / FX)

In Alex Garland’s new FX on Hulu series “Devs,” Sonoya Mizuno plays Lily, a coding drone working in encryption at Amaya, a giant tech campus planted in a redwood forest a shuttle-bus drive from San Francisco. Her boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman), is a budding genius in quantum computing, and after he demonstrates an algorithm that can crudely predict the behavior of a nematode, he is drafted by his lank-haired, bearded boss, Forest (Nick Offerman), into a project called Devs. (Alison Pill, as Katie, is Forest’s right hand, or perhaps he is hers.) Everyone at Amaya knows about Devs, but outside of the few who work there, nobody knows what it is, or does, or is trying to do.

One day Sergei goes missing — how and why is never a mystery to the viewer — and Lily, searching for clues, enlists the aid of her old boyfriend, Jamie (Jin Ha), to decrypt an app on Sergei’s phone. Thus begins a familiar sort of thriller, if an unusually languid one, on the one hand, and a metaphysical sci-fi magic show on the other.

Garland, also the writer and director (as here) of the films “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation,” is a sci-fi classicist in that he begins with Big Questions and works from there. One would suppose from his work that he has read avidly, if not academically, in science and philosophy and science of philosophy, and also, from its look as well as its tone, that “2001: A Space Odyssey” really blew his mind. Obvious and subtle, intriguing and tiring, icy and sentimental, “Devs” has the flavor of a late-night dorm room conversation: excited, searching and a little sophomoric.

The issues up for discussion include free will versus determinism, classical versus quantum physics, one universe versus the multiverse and that old standby, “What is reality?” This will surely engage some viewers, even as others will exit our metaphorical dorm room to see what’s up in the snack bar.

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Sonoya Mizuno in “Devs”
Sonoya Mizuno in “Devs.”
(Miya Mizuno / FX)

(FX has many specific spoiler requests, but these lines from the trailer give a pretty fair idea of the series’ thematic and dramatic concerns: “Nothing ever happens without a reason.” “You want to take them down? It’s impossible.” “The sense that you were participating in life was only ever an illusion.” “It’s an amazing fact where love will take you, the road you’ll travel, the lengths to which you’ll go.”)

Garland, who has a degree in art history, reteams here with production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day and cinematographer Rob Hardy and, like his earlier work, “Devs” is a finely worked film art object. Every shot is well-considered, and everything within every shot is considered, as well. The golden floating cube in which Devs is housed, with the main brain of its supercomputer displayed in a central vitrine — as if in a gallery, or the lobby of a boutique hotel — is as much the subject of the series as what happens inside it. (Hushed and gilded, it’s also a quasi-religious space.) The monumental, super-realist statue of a little girl that towers over the treetops on the Amaya campus is a plain-sight clue to Forest’s animating trauma, but above all it is a big, disquieting Thing, a Charles Ray sculpture times 10.

His actors too are beautiful and modern, even the ones who aren’t built like models, including Offerman, whose irises, for whatever photographic or post-photographic reason, have a strange translucent luminosity here. The first time we see Lily — Mizuno appeared in both “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” — she is a thin, blurred shape against the light: an alien.

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When, toward the end of the series, two characters, killing time while two other characters deal with heavier business, break unexpectedly into something resembling casual conversation, it comes as a great relief. (Frisbee follows.) When actors we might think of as more or less villains speak with a sort of parental fondness of characters we think of as heroes, also late in the game, it’s a treat — a human moment one wishes had come earlier and more often.

Garland has taken television’s extra real estate and filled it by grabbing his story at both ends and stretching it like taffy to last eight hours. He hasn’t used the extra time to stitch in side plots and digressions or develop more than cursory backstories. He just makes everything go slower, last longer. (“Devs” could easily fit into a film of average length, with no injury to story or character.) And so the action often proceeds with the ritual slowness of Noh theater or a Robert Wilson opera, if you like, or with frustrating lethargy, if you don’t. It does give you plenty of time to think about things, and to see where Garland might be going before he gets there.

Alison Pill in “Devs”
Alison Pill in “Devs.”
(Miya Mizuno / FX)

If “Ex Machina,” about a femme fatale android and the dupe who loves her, was essentially a James M. Cain thriller — “Double Indemnity” for robots — “Devs” has the bones of a Hitchcock thriller, with Lily the average Jane sucked into its orderly chaos. Though where Hitchcock relied on the MacGuffin, the meaningless central device that excites the characters and drives the plot, Garland is fully invested in the implications of his thought-experiment gizmos.

Deep thoughts and shiny surfaces mark this recognizably as a Garland work, but much of the story follows well-worn paths. The company’s security chief, Kenton (Zach Grenier), behaves pretty much as you’d expect the security chief in a thriller to behave. The equation “science multiplied by grief” has powered many an overreaching antihero, while the question of whether knowing the future allows us to change the future, or merely creates the circumstances by which the future is unavoidably fulfilled, is Sci-Fi 101. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be,” Scrooge asked the third spirit, “or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”

Given all that comes before, it’s not surprising that Garland offers something of a quantum ending, which might be regarded as happy or unhappy — or both — depending on your reading. (There is something quantum, for that matter, about Nick Offerman himself, his mix of forbidding formality and ordinary goofiness: He’s a particle and a wave.)

Still, for all that feels open or random about “Devs,” there’s nothing accidental about the finished product. Seemingly casual or gnomic dialogue early on — as when Forest tells Sergei, “Don’t worry, I know you’re going to figure it out” — turns out on second look to be carefully placed nuggets of foreshadowing. Some will surely watch “Devs” twice. That’s my prediction of the series’ future, and I feel confident making it.

‘Devs’

Where: FX on Hulu
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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