Tuesday, 5 May 2020
BBC/BBC iPlayer, FX
Warning: Very minor spoilers about the plot set up from episode one.
So if you’ve been reading my reviews for a while now you’ll know that I’ve never been that keen on Alex Garland's work but, here I am in the middle of Covid 19 lockdown and the trailer I saw for this eight episode miniseries called DEVS looked pretty intriguing so I figured I’d at least give the first episode a go. Well good for him, he actually managed to keep me watching the whole eight episodes and I kinda enjoyed thinking my way through what is, on the surface at least, the illusion of a fairly dense text. As it is, you will figure out almost everything fairly quickly and the simplicity of the idea is something that every young toddler thinks of at some point in their early life, I suspect, but the presentation of this, while it has its ‘ever so slight’ faults, chalks this up as being much better than his previous (although equally obvious) credited movie works either as writer or director... namely Ex Machina (which I reviewed here) and Annihilation (which I reviewed here).
The plot, as much as I can reveal without totally spoiling that central premise you are working your way towards in the first episode (it’s pretty much spelled out very clearly after that) involves a central protagonist called Lily, played by my favourite dancing robot lady from Ex Machina (and she was also in Annihilation), actress Sonoya Mizuno. The story starts off as a mystery when, at the end of the first episode, Lily’s boyfriend Sergei (played by Karl Glusman from Love, reviewed here), who has just been promoted to the DEVS section at their dream job IT company workplace known as AMAYA, is killed by the chief of security for an act of industrial espionage. This is presented to the world as a suicide but Lily, obviously, knows better and so she finds her computer genius ex-boyfriend (played by Jin Ha) to investigate further. This brings down the wrath of the security head plus an almost but not quite convoluted espionage story into the mix when, really, the story details don’t matter because it’s just a mystery to lure you into thinking about the real thing... what happens at DEVS.
And that’s where it falls down a little because, nice as the presentation of the central problem is... and it is really nice to look at with an extraordinary soundtrack comprised of some needle drops plus original score by regular musical collaborators Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury... you’ve already kind of figured out what you need to know by the end of the first episode and, if you haven’t guessed it already by then, you’ll certainly have it in the bag by the last episode. This is unfortunate because, yeah, you will be able to predict where the ending is going to take you and, despite talks of the nature of the work being ‘monitored’ at DEVS, it does seem to be a somewhat less than satisfactory conclusion to the whole thing. A kind of hollow victory for Lily, the boss of DEVS (Forest, outstandingly played by Nick Offerman) and his girlfriend (played by Alison Pill) which is only, to be honest, held together by the truly wonderful performances of these three.
Okay, my main problem with DEVS is also a problem with my overall perception of it because, I’m going to say it out straight and say that it does feel kind of padded in places and this storyline could have been much punchier and dramatic as a movie, rather than stretched out over eight long episodes. However, the contradiction for me is in the fact that, if it had been presented as a much shorter movie, the obviousness of the central premise and ending would have been a real turn off for me and I would probably have slated it. As it happens though, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would and that’s because of all the visual distraction overlaying that starting point, I think.
That being said, the very slight ‘twist’ on a cosmetic level of the title of the show and the name of the work section, DEVS, is not something I saw coming. I’m not really that impressed with it but it is quite clever... I just wish it meant more than what it does in the grand scheme of things in the show. I’m trying to keep this as spoiler free as I can so I won’t reveal it here but, if you’re wondering why my review title isn’t the standard pun yet has nothing to do with the content of the series, that’s because it’s a decoder key for the title of the show. Crack that and you will crack what is, honestly, a very minor spoiler.
There is one thing I would really complain about, though... and that’s the use of needle drop music at the start of one of the episodes. The piece is Steve Reich’s Come Out from 1966 and it’s a nice piece where the recorded phrase ‘come out to show them’ (I won’t get into the political implications of the recording here) is synched against a copy of it and each looped on two tape recorders at very slightly different speeds. As just over twelve minutes elapse, the two go more and more gradually out of phase and the way the human brain perceives them, often as a wooshing sound like a train on tracks, is constantly shifting as the fluid relationship between the two copies of the same recording continues. So basically it’s a track about what man calls ‘time’ and your perception of it through sound. Which is why I didn’t appreciate Garland’s use of it in the episode where the whole thing is chopped up and spliced together into about a minute or two... that’s not the point of the music at all although, I appreciate Garland was also maybe making a comment about the way analogue recording devices can be hijacked and re-used for a different purpose in the digital world.
But... yeah, nothing much more I want to say about DEVS, I think. A nice production with some nice direction from Garland (better perhaps than the writing although he certainly has an ear for dialogue), nice music, some outstanding performances and a certain sense of intrigue which, although it kinda falls flat at the end, keeps you mostly entertained as you go through the episodes. Also, if you’re a fan of Garland’s other stuff, then this sits right alongside it thematically and is probably right up your street. So give this one a whirl, for sure.