Alex Garland’s new sci-fi series ‘Devs’ aims to mix quantum mechanics with ‘elegance’

March 5, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

For British writer-director Alex Garland, the idea always comes first—not the characters, not the plot.

And so it is that Devs, his new series debuting Thursday on FX on Hulu, takes quantum mechanics for a head-spinning ride through a bucolic Silicon Valley campus teeming with Russian spies, a plucky software engineer and her two boyfriends, one ruthless Big Tech mogul, and a homicidal ex–CIA “security” director—all entangled in a secretive mission to tame the time-space mysteries of the universe.

Garland, who earned an Oscar nomination for his robot-on-steroids Ex Machina script and directed Natalie Portman’s aliens-on-earth sci-fi freak show Annihilation, went down the rabbit hole that led to Devs a few years ago when he burrowed into the field of quantum physics.

“For me, the ideas always come way before anything else,” says Garland, whose biologist grandfather won a Nobel Prize for medicine. He tells Fortune: “What happens is, I get obsessed with something, read as much as possible, turn it around in my head, and then at some point, usually years later, a story suddenly starts to coalesce around that idea.”  

Devs Nick Offerman
Nick Offerman plays Forest in Alex Garland’s FX on Hulu series “Devs.” The character is a departure from standard-issue Silicon Valley stereotypes.
Miya Mizuno—FX

In the case of Devs, Garland explains, “The starting point was me trying to get my hand around quantum mechanics. It appears to be the best way we have of understanding how the universe works, and yet it’s completely counterintuitive. As human beings, we’re imbued with this intense certainty that we have free will. But when you really look at it [through the prism of quantum mechanics] you can easily think, ‘Oh, free will doesn’t exist at all.’”

In Devs, true believers subscribe to the metaphor of “tramlines,” which supposedly map out a deterministic sequence of events forward and backward through time. Using staggeringly powerful quantum computers, researchers on the show “replay” atomically precise reconstructions of historic events on a giant screen and calculate the future before it happens. Mastery of this time-hopping technology leads to feelings of godlike omniscience.

“As soon as I say, ‘messianic tech leader,’ I’m sure two or three names immediately pop into your head,” Garland notes. “These people clearly see themselves as gatekeepers who hold the key to something like magic—the magic of science or technology.”

Garland is just getting started. “A product launch is like a church [service], as if you’re being offered enlightenment or improvement: ‘If I buy this thing, my life will be better.” Often it just feels to me like there’s a hell of a lot of Kool-Aid getting drunk, when you have this messianic quality ascribed to tech leaders pursuing something more grand or philosophical than money and power. It’s like, ‘Maybe if I follow, I’ll get there too.’”

Garland, who wrote the screenplay for “28 Days Later” and directed movies including “Annihilation,” says, “My absolute ambition is elegance.”
Miya Mizuno—FX

In Devs, the object of adoration is Forest, the deceptively low-key Big Tech entrepreneur whose Amaya corporation is located—like Apple, Google, and Facebook—within commuting distance from San Francisco. Garland cast author-comedian-woodworker Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) in the role.

“As soon as we met, it became obvious to me that underneath the humor, Nick has this soulful almost melancholy quality. Yes, there’s this this very apparent warmth to him, but something sadder sits behind it. That’s essentially what I was looking for in the character of Forest,” Garland says.

With his long hair, bushy beard, flannel shirts, and burly build, Offerman’s Forest departs from standard-issue Silicon Valley stereotypes. “He’s not the guy wearing a hoodie that actually costs $2,000,” Garland says. “He could have been one of those mega-wealthy hipsters, but Forest had this terrible thing happen to him, and it tilted everything. Technology, money, prestige—none of it means anything to him anymore, because Forest has been changed by tragedy.”

The top-secret research led by Forest and his brainy lieutenant, Katie (Alison Pill), attracts unwelcome attention from software engineer Lily Chan, played by Sonoya Mizuno. “Some actors want to be liked by the audience, but Sonoya’s not like that. It’s up to the audience to step towards her,” Garland says.

As with his previous projects, Devs traffics in what Garland calls “hard science fiction.” He notes, “I try to be rigorous with the science, otherwise what’s the point?”

Mizuno, a Japanese-born British actress who previously appeared in Annihilation and Ex Machina, invested her Devs hero with the quicksilver combustibility required for the role. “Sonoya has a very specific energy about her,” Garland says. “I needed her to play this alternating state between being very reserved, almost remote, and then suddenly exploding into action. She can’t be knocked off course.”

Mizuno as Lily in the new FX on Hulu series “Devs.” Garland says the actress has a very “specific energy about her.”
Miya Mizuno—FX

His first screenplay, for the 2002 zombie flick 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, featured a “rage virus” bearing eerie similarities to current TV news footage of coronavirus patients being torn from their homes by men in hazmat suits. In 2016, he directed Annihilation, which depicted a bio-morphing planet in a state of ecological crisis. Ex Machina stretched current advancements in A.I. to chilling extremes.

“In all the work, my absolute ambition is elegance,” Garland says. “Specifically, I’m trying to create an elegant construction between theme, character, and story. Earlier in my writing career, the arguments behind the stories would work well at times, but then they’d fall apart, and I’d try to use Band-Aids and bits of corrugated iron and wood to hold it all together and make it look like a structure.”

In his mature work, he says, “I’ve attempted to get more disciplined so that everything cross-relates in a meaningful way to everything else, all in service to the larger argument.”

Garland regards the eight-episode Devs limited series, filmed in and around Santa Cruz, Calif., as his most ambitious undertaking to date.

“When you move from film to television, you have way more time, which is harder in some ways because the story can become unwieldy, and you have more things to deal with,” he says. “But if you get it right, TV can actually be more elegant.”

He remembers being moved by one particularly bittersweet sequence shot at a sun-dappled Northern California dam. “I knew by that point how everything was going to fit together, and I felt a kind of rush come over me: ‘I’m doing the right thing at the right moment for the right reasons.’”

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