Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area—and anyone who works in tech, really—will get a kick out of the languorous establishing shots and scene-setting of Devs, the new series on Hulu from writer-director Alex Garland, premiering March 5. It’s not just the quiet, empty aerial views of the city, some with roiling summertime fog. It’s the Brechtian contrast of gracious old buildings with homeless people in their foyers, the dive bars with carefully curated recycled-wood wainscoting, the luxury shuttle buses to Silicon Valley. (The one in the show has the name of the fictional company it serves, Amaya, painted on the side; in real life, most are too stealthy for that.)
Amaya has a campus, of course—built around an amphitheater centered on a giant statue of a toddler, towering over a grove of sequoias. Like Pixar’s giant Luxo light or the Tyrannosaurus rex at Google, the Brobdingnagian kiddo is a perfect symbol of the kinds of places where socially awkward geniuses stay up late and generate disruptive innovations (or disrupt innovative generations or innovate generational disruption).
Garland and crew, many of them frequent collaborators, shot footage around the Bay Area and a few other locations. But the heart of the show is here at a soundstage in Manchester, a big city in the north of England that the production chose because all the other UK soundstages big enough were occupied by Star Warses and Marvels. On the main stage, amid canvas-backed directors’ chairs, lights, and the ubiquitous Holy Trinity of Adhesion (gaffer, masking, and duct), rises, 30 feet high, a literal set piece.
Picture a cube. Now subdivide each face into nine squares with a tic-tac-toe grid, and then delete the middle square. Now do the tic-tac-toe-and-delete thing to each of the eight remaining squares on every face of the cube, but smaller. Now do it again, infinity times. That’s a Menger sponge, a three-dimensional fractal mathematical object.
Now build a 30-foot-tall Menger sponge, line it with pulsing LEDs, and then surround it with scalloped, gold-lined walls, and you have the Devs set. It’s a real-ish building inside, with a (nonfunctioning) bathroom, snack fridges, purpose-built metal computer terminals, an ornate inlaid table meant to be a high-tech scanner, and so on. In-story, it’s the secret lab of Amaya’s developers division—the devs of the title—in a forest clearing, surrounded by Faraday shields and 12 feet of concrete, hovering on electromagnetic waves inside a complete vacuum. In the middle of the cube, dead center, is the point of all this buildup: a quantum computer with the nearly mystical ability to see beyond time and space.
This is all very Garland. His science fiction—notably the movies Ex Machina and Annihilation, and now Devs—tends to eschew “engage-the-neutrino-drive!” technobabble. Instead Garland has a rep for getting zeitgeisty science just right enough to bolster a grander theme. So his first attempt at television has his fans recharging their thinking caps in anticipation.
Devs is about parallel universes, a little bit, and it also contains at least two: In one, Devs is a 1970s-style sci-fi tech thriller, in which a woman goes looking for her missing boyfriend inside a sinister corporation. In the other, it’s a story of capitalism, free will versus determinism, and the Big Data that controls us all. Which is good, because those are all stories about the kind of people who like Alex Garland movies. (Well, the second timeline anyway.)
Somewhere around the beginning of Ex Machina, the 2015 movie Garland wrote and directed, the bad guy sparks the plot with a question. Nathan, an insane tech genius played by Oscar Isaac, asks his naive visitor Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to perform a Turing test—to determine whether a sophisticated artificial intelligence named Ava, built to look like a beautiful young woman, can pass as human.
At which point Caleb says, you know, that’s not a Turing test. In a Turing test, the questioner doesn’t know whether they’re talking to an AI or a human. If the questioner can’t tell, the AI passes. Nathan takes the kind of offense that masters of the universe often take when someone from downslope on the power gradient disagrees with them, but for a moment it’s as if the movie itself is also taken aback. The characters have broken not the fourth wall between spectacle and audience but some otherdimensional nth wall between fiction and science.
In a way, who cares if that’s not how Turing tests work? Nobody actually cares if laser swords would be an effective melee weapon, either. Just get to the robot fight!
Except, no, because actually a lot of nerds really do care, and besides, that’s not how Garland does things. At least, not anymore. The son of a famous British political cartoonist, Garland wrote a couple of novels—The Beach turned his own global backpacking experiences into a Lord of the Flies riff that became a Leonardo DiCaprio movie. But when he transitioned to screenwriting two decades ago, Garland felt like he was missing the mark. His 2007 script for Sunshine, for example, is about a spaceship crew trying to relight the dying sun, and features a murderous zombie with a 14th-degree sunburn. But it was also supposed to be about existential ennui and entropy. “Sunshine doesn’t add up in any number of different ways,” Garland says, “and that subsequently kind of frustrated me. I thought I hadn’t been rigorous.”
Working on his 2010 adaptation of Never Let Me Go, based on a novel by his friend Kazuo Ishiguro, suggested to Garland a new approach. Ishiguro’s story was a quiet adventure, but also an allegory that dealt with the ethics of cloning. “Prior to that, I was much lazier,” Garland says. “I’d sort of have some idea about entropy, and then there’s this whole other idea of a spaceship. I just wouldn’t care about it that much.” Turning Ishiguro’s novel into a script required intertwining, as Ishiguro had, technology and science with emotional and political themes. For that to work, the technology and science not only have to be right, they have to be thematically resonant.
Every one of Garland’s scripts since has been a deep dive into some tough, controversial corner of science. He loaded up on AI theory and gender dynamics for Ex Machina. Annihilation is about the psychology of time, and flicks at the HOX genes that control body shape. “I get fixated on a subject,” Garland says. “When you get to that state it’s not surprising that the plots will adhere to the subject matter.”
By the time he got to Ex Machina, he’d also started vetting his work with scientists and philosophers. The script had always been a battle of intellects revolving around AI. But Garland says an AI expert named Murray Shanahan read the script and told Garland that he’d gotten the Turing test wrong. So he added Shanahan’s warning as a cautionary line for Caleb.
Shanahan, an AI researcher at Imperial College London and a senior research scientist at DeepMind, the Google acquisition that built a Go-master AI, actually remembers that differently. Garland read his book and they met multiple times, Shanahan says in an email, but “when I first saw the script, I’m pretty sure that scene was exactly as it is in the movie. Alex understood very clearly what the Turing Test is and isn’t—and he brings this out beautifully in the film,” Shanahan writes. “Alex’s test is something different. (I call it the Garland Test.)”
Either way, it reads to me as a smart moment—when you know there’s more going on than a scary robot story.
“If I hadn’t done that, because you are more informed about that than I am, you’d have bumped,” Garland says. “It would have pulled you out of the movie.”
“I don’t think it would have,” I say. “I just would’ve understood you were playing sort of loose.”
“But if this is presenting itself as any kind of argument, then the argument needs to stand up to scrutiny,” Garland answers. “You need to have done your homework.”
Garland does his homework. For Devs, his dive has been even deeper than usual. He visited a bunch of Silicon Valley offices to get the vibe, including Google’s X labs and the company’s quantum computing group. (Just for same-pagination: Normal computers compute their computations with strings of electronic bits that register either 0 or 1, on or off. The quantum property of superposition allows a quantum bit—a “qubit”—to be both at once, resulting in a huge leap in speed. Theoretically, if you had enough qubits and a reliable way of reading them, a quantum computer could be incalculably powerful.)
The prop quantum computer at the heart of Devs weighs three-quarters of a ton and is made of 11 gold-plated aluminum rings (this is the actual prop!); it looks like a rotationally symmetrical electric jellyfish, or maybe a Star Trek warp core in a brass steampunk corset—very much like the real ones at Google. Real-life quantum computers need very precise cooling, it turns out, which requires a lot of copper tubing in beautiful arcs.
Everything you ever wanted to know about qubits, superpositioning, and spooky action at a distance.
The show is nominally about a coder, Lily, trying to figure out what happened to her boyfriend in the depths of Amaya’s development division. But the audience knows what happened to him before the first episode is half over. The rest of the show is procedural detective work, and the quantum computer is in one sense just a MacGuffin. But the fact that the characters are dealing with a technology that seems to be able to calculate how any event will turn out from the behavior of constituent subatomic particles means the story is really about free will and data.
And because the computer is the product of the Silicon Valley milieu, Garland gets to talk about wealth and the ethics of a computing revolution controlled by corporations. “A lot of the time when I was growing up, in a funny way it was almost a naïve thing to distrust. There was a point where a paranoid conspiracy just seemed to be a stupid paranoid conspiracy. It was just fucking ridiculous,” Garland says. But the pendulum (controlled, no doubt, by lizard people under the White House) has swung the other way. “Now we are fully back in the zone where if you do not feel incredibly suspicious of some of these megabillionaire geniuses, you’re making a mistake.”
Which makes a tech campus an excellent place to locate a conspiracy thriller. Genre—sci-fi, thrillers, whatever—is the five milliliters of sugar that helps a heady plot go down. The quantum computer in Devs is as far ahead of real quantum computers as Ava, the AI in Ex Machina, was ahead of a Roomba. That offers some storytelling shortcuts. Knowing the tropes, having some expectations for how the stories will work, means audiences will be satisfied with pulp moves (murders, gunfights, monsters) and their relative predictability, even when the plot zags or zigs. It also leaves brainspace for theory. “Genre gives you a whole bunch o