Alex Garland Is Asking Big Questions with 'Devs'
Alex Garland has spent his life pondering and being troubled by big questions. You know, the kind of existential queries that pop into your head when you're just a kid and trying to figure out how it all works: Is there a god? Do we have free will? What happens after we die? Are we really unique? These are the questions that drive his new FX on Hulu miniseries, Devs, airing on Hulu, as well as his two preceding films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, both cult favorites in their own right.
"One of the criticisms I get, usually from people who are very educated -- educated to a higher degree than me -- is that the ideas I talk about are sophomoric because they're the kinds of things that people talk about when they're getting stoned in their dorm rooms," he tells me, sitting in a colorful hotel conference room in midtown Manhattan that's packed with random books. "But what really happened to me is that I had a bunch of questions and thoughts that came to me pretty young in life." He continues: "The thing is that I never really found any answers to those questions. They just remained. Some people say, 'Well, then you should move on from them,' but that's not in my nature, and I continued to think about them and still find them interesting."
The mysteries of the universe and how they influence human behavior are common themes in Garland's work, even stemming back to his debut novel, The Beach, later adapted into the Danny Boyle movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He keeps coming back to these themes in his work as a screenwriter, first with the iconic zombie film 28 Days Later and the under-appreciated space horror movie Sunshine, both directed by Boyle. Ex Machina, in 2014, marked his directorial debut, in the form of a visually sleek, psychologically challenging story about a tech titan (Oscar Isaac) and his robot creation (Alicia Vikander). His follow-up, 2018's Annihilation, followed a group of scientists venturing into an area consumed by a force called the Shimmer which causes the life inside of it to mutate horrifyingly.
But Devs -- Garland wrote and directed all eight episodes (the fourth just debuted on Hulu) -- is most similar to the two feature films he's directed. Each of them is an existential parable about a future that's equally beautiful and terrible. His characters seek the unknown to combat their loneliness and end up in moral and psychological grey areas.
In Devs, a talented Russian coder Sergei (Karl Glusman) is transferred from his department at Amaya, the tech company run by the elusive Forest (Nick Offerman), onto a super secret project known as Devs, housed in a gleaming cube. Sergei absconds with the data and runs away, only to be caught and killed by Forest, Devs second banana Katie (Alison Pill) and Amaya security chief Kenton (Zach Grenier). Sergei's girlfriend, Lily (Garland's frequent collaborator Sonoya Mizuno), who also works for the company, is left blindsided by his disappearance and seeks answers.
Devs isn't really about the mystery of what the secret project is because halfway through the series we already know the gist of it. It's a prediction algorithm that can broadcast footage from the past -- for example, it can conjure grainy footage of Christ on the cross. Devs came out of Garland's preoccupations with determinism from both scientific and religious viewpoints. "Quite often with philosophical questions they can feel a lot like thought experiments. They aren't necessarily consequential, they're just interesting things to discuss," he says. "But in the case of determinism it felt slightly different, because it might actually be true. It might be the case that we don't have free will."
Garland exudes a cool-headed and at times elusive energy in person. He resists taking too much credit for any of his work, repeatedly emphasizing the collective braintrust that goes into making the art for which he is credited. Still, he's resistant to divulge which scientists he consulted in order to understand the quantum physics that end up playing a large role in Devs, saying he feels like he would need their permission before doing so. He does cite David Deutsch's book The Fabric of Reality as one of his sources, but he adds: "I think that probably the most important thing I should say is that none of the ideas contained here are really my ideas, and it's not that I am presenting my own insightful take. It's more I'm saying some very interesting people have come up with some very interesting ideas. Here they are in the form of a story."
He earns effusive praise, however, from his actors. Offerman, speaking with me on the phone, described how impressed he was hearing how Garland refused to bow to studio pressure while making Annihilation, the strange dystopian saga with a gorgeous and confounding ending. Offerman also fawned over Garland in other ways. He looks like Colin Farrell's handsomer older brother," Offerman also said. "He's got a ridiculously seductive British accent."
Garland was inspired to write the role of Lily after a conversation with the half-Japanese Mizuno during the filming of Ex Machina (in which she plays a dancing, voiceless robot) about the lack of lead roles for actors of Asian descent. "The interesting thing about that for me was that I'm a kind of left-wing liberal, which means, in part, [that] I try to be aware of these things, and I wasn't aware of it," he says. "It was a complete blind spot, and until it had been pointed out, I'm not sure I would have arrived on it on my own, and that was sort of quite a surprise to me. It was a surprise to discover such an inability to see something that was then so obvious once it had been pointed out. Having had it pointed out, I then thought, Well, I'll do something about that. So although it wasn't explicitly written for Sonoya, it was, in some respects, written by Sonoya." Multiple members of Mizuno's family worked on Devs. Her sisters Miya and Mariya were the set photographer and Garland's assistant, respectively, and her niece Amaya plays Amaya, the namesake of Forest's company and daughter seen in flashbacks.
He was already writing Lily as the lead character when representation became a source of controversy for him. Annihilation was based on the first book in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. In the second novel in the series, the lead character is identified as being part Asian; Garland cast Natalie Portman in the role. He acknowledges that the criticism was, in many ways, deserved. "At that point, I'd written the entire of Devs and it had been greenlit, and also, in the book I read, there weren't even names, let alone ethnicities," he says. "But the thing is, look, those are kind of excuses or justifications, and they're not really relevant, because if you just take one step further back, although the exact nature of the accusation might not be precisely right in that precise instance, it's clearly more broadly right, because otherwise I wouldn't have needed Sonoya to point out this thing."
When I mention that, in Devs, actress Cailee Spaeny plays Lyndon, a male engineering prodigy who, in the latest episode, is fired when he tests out Hugh Everett's many-worlds theory on their algorithm, which makes it more functional but also adds another variable -- the multiverse -- that enrages Forest, Garland interrupts me to explain. "It's not a trans character, and it never was, and I never toyed with the idea of it being a trans character," he says, noting that he simply decided to cast a young woman to play a cisgendered boy. "In some respects, it's as simple as that. Now, of course I'm aware that there are broader debates about this kind of thing, but the existence of a debate doesn't mean I have to participate in the debate." (Trans performer Janet Mock does appear in a recurring role.)
Garland wanted Lyndon to look very young, but didn't want to cast a child actor both for reasons involving the restrictions that would place on production and because he wanted the maturity an older performer would bring to the character. (Spaeny turns 23 in July.) "With Lyndon, sort of as I'm flicking through actors' photos and resumes, I was just thinking, nope, nope, nope, and then got the idea of casting a girl to play a boy, and then met Cailee," he explains. "Even before she started reading, I thought, Oh, that's her. Like, This actress is going to be perfect for playing this boy. And then I never met anyone else."
As scientific as it is, Devs is also a show about religion and faith. The score by Garland's frequent collaborators Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is choral. And while the structure where Devs is housed was built to resemble an exaggerated version of an actual quantum computer, it also looks, as Offerman noted, like a church.
The fact that Garland has played in the tech sphere is not because he is particularly interested in any of the personalities in that space, even though it would be easy to compare Forest to an Elon Musk type, it's just because that's where he sees the big ideas he's so taken with being put in to practice. But he's also prone to inject a bit of eerie magic into any space he enters. See, for instance, the most unnerving image in Devs: A giant statue of Amaya that looms over her namesake company's campus.
"I just thought there was something inherently sort of almost irreverent about taking this tiny, little girl and making her into a 120-foot statue, towering over Redwoods," he says. "There's a sort of thematic thing which you can say the absence of this girl casts a long shadow over the life of her father, and therefore is her father's company. But also, it's just the imagery. It's just like, you've got a helicopter shoot and there's a fucking enormous, tiny girl, and that just on some level, it just actually made me laugh. It was such a crazy idea. It was sort of spooky -- a funny mixture of spooky and kind of daft."
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