Before you start watching Devs, a trippy, mind-boggling thriller from Alex Garland, make sure your phone is in another room.
Don’t be tempted to second screen during this miniseries because then you’d have no chance of making any sense of it.
Challenging, yet rewarding, Devs is the latest offering from Garland, the mercurial novelist of The Beach before he shifted to film, writing the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, among others, and writing and directing Ex Machina and Annihilation.
If you’ve seen either of the latter two, then you have a pretty good idea of what Garland is about – and that’s definitely not letting you off with a lazy, distracted viewing experience.
He commands your full attention and you should give it to him because he’s interested in big ideas – like sentience, consciousness and artificial intelligence in Ex Machina and destruction in Annihilation. Devs is packed with big ideas.
The eight-episode miniseries was written, directed and produced by Garland and starts this week on Foxtel. It’s rare in TV for there to be such a singular authorial voice – you might get a show in which one person writes all the episodes (especially in the UK) and another directs, but you don’t tend to get one where one person does both and all.
It stars Nick Offerman as Forest, a sombre founder of quantum computing tech company Amaya, which has a secretive division called Devs. No one knows what the team is doing, and it operates out of a glowing cubic building in the middle of the woods, isolated from the main campus.
AI specialist Sergei (Karl Gruzman) is tapped to join the Devs team, but when he doesn’t come home after his first day there, his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), who also works at Amaya as an engineer, starts to investigate his disappearance.
While Devs would technically be classified as sci-fi, the genre is merely a framework to introduce technological concepts around which Garland can craft a narrative that explores those big ideas he’s so interested in.
Early on in the first episode, Sergei is presenting to Forest an algorithm that could predict the actions of a living organism seconds into the future. After a short spell, it fails. He suggests that there could be a multiverse in which it doesn’t.
Forest responds that he doesn’t like that idea. The mention of multiverses is deliberate, but what’s Garland signalling to his audience? Does he want you to rule out the possibility of multiverses in his creation, or is he showing his hand?
The ideas around multiverses, simulated realities, determinism and, ultimately, free will, are cerebral, and they’re not necessarily things you want to think about if what you’re really looking for is Instagram wannabes bickering around a dinner table for god knows what purpose.
Which is all to say that Devs is not for everyone. It requires something more from you, to actually put your phone away and engage with what’s unfolding on screen.
And it’s not always in what characters are saying, it’s often in what they’re holding back. Or it’s the hypnotic visuals with its hyper-real environments and colours. What Garland does above all else is create an uncomfortable atmosphere in which you question everything.
If you find yourself muttering, “what the hell is going on?”, you wouldn’t be alone. Devs is the kind of show that benefits from viewing twice.
To that end, the performances from the cast, but in particular Mizuno and Offerman, have this mannered quality to them, not quite Brechtian but certainly not naturalistic. The distinction is effective because it shakes you out of the torporous autopilot we sometimes switch on when watching TV.
Visually, Garland makes the most of the San Francisco setting, the fog a literal manifestation of the storyteller’s penchant for obscuring what’s going on from his audience. And because the narrative unfolds at a leisurely pace, much of what hooks you at first is what you can see, and appreciate.
Is it occasionally frustrating? Yes. But Devs‘ magnetism is undeniable, and you feel yourself giving in even if you’re completely lost.
Devs premieres on Sunday, March 8 at 8.30pm on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now