Inside “Devs,” a Dreamy Silicon Valley Quantum Thriller

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.

The top-secret lab of the show’s fictional tech company is housed in a building—this is a scale model—built in the shape of a Menger sponge.

Courtesy of ©2019 FX Networks. All rights reserved.

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.)

Sonoya Mizuno plays Lily, an employee of a sinister tech company whose boyfriend has disappeared.

Photograph: Miya Mizuno/FX

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.

“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.”

Courtesy of ©2020, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

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.)

Mizuno performed in Garland’s 2015 Ex Machina, playing the silent AI Kyoko, left.

Photograph: Everett Collection

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.

Image may contain: Plan, Diagram, and Plot

The WIRED Guide to Quantum Computing

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 of free gifts,” Garland says. “And you’re allowed to get sort of philosophical in science fiction. In certain kinds of science fiction, it’s encouraged.”

As much as Garland’s movies have played with vast and abstract themes, the best of them do so in the tightest of confined spaces. You might say that the sets are almost characters themselves; Garland is an architect of complicated stories and actual spaces. Traditional sets let a director or crew pull out a wall or a ceiling to get a better camera angle or mount a light. But Garland’s team tends to build sets that are the opposite of that. If they’re not real locations, they’re as real as possible.

That’s been true since before Garland was in charge. He set his script for Dredd in a single locked-down skyscraper, more to deal with budget restrictions than to solve story problems. Still, deft costuming and a fully game Karl Urban dispensing murderous jurisprudence from behind Dredd’s mirrorshades helmet kept the movie more authentically Dreddful than, like, Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 version. (Garland has said he counts the Dredd comics in 2000AD and the dystopian urban science fiction of JG Ballard as major influences.)

Ex Machina, though, used story and setting as warp and weft. As in Devs, what seems like it’s going to be the central mystery of Ex Machina is actually a misdirect. Whether Ava is a machine is never in question; the movie introduces the character in a reverse Hajime Sorayama striptease—a robot donning sexy-girl skin and then cute-girl clothes. We, the audience, watch Caleb watch Ava, and there’s little question she’ll seem human. The movie is a question of pronouns.

The show’s elaborate quantum computer 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.

Courtesy of ©2019, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

The set focuses those questions. The first draft of the script described Nathan’s house as a traditional mansion with walls and a manicured garden; in the movie, it’s an ultramodern, luxurious bunker. Isolation is Nathan’s security system; the windows look out on impenetrable jungle. Which doors lock when, and what’s visible from where, play a major part in the overall puzzle of the story.

That bunker was a real, solid place. The rooms were rooms, in a specific floorplan. “It was a challenge,” says Mark Digby, the production designer, who’s also working on Devs. “It was about three people, two of whom are in one room talking about each other against a wall.” So it had to be interesting. The spaces have to help guide the narrative.

That might be why Annihilation doesn’t feel as energetic. The road portion of the movie isn’t as throat-tightening as the parts where the team of scientist-soldiers enter an alien temple at the heart of their particular darkness. (That temple, by the way, is another three-dimensional fractal—a blown-up version of the reclining-fat-man-with-curlicues known as the Mandelbrot set.) Less charitably, the movie might also have suffered because, as Garland says, there’s precious little actual science in the Jeff VanderMeer book it’s based on. Also, Garland and his team didn’t really know the terrain. The movie takes place in an altered American Gulf coast, but they filmed it in England. “We literally had the world’s supply of fake Spanish moss,” Digby says.

But the space where the narrative takes place is back under control for Devs. Digby and set decorator Michelle Day share a wide, tall office across the hall from the soundstage where the cubic lab is, their walls plastered with designs for everything from the quantum computer to people’s office space. They even have poster-sized graph paper laying out the fictional Amaya campus, like it was a Dungeons & Dragons map.

All the design work is emblazoned with the Devs title and logo; this is where I notice that the D in the title is a reverse of the A in the Amaya logo … which is also somehow a Q, for quantum. Very Silicon Valley, that. Digby and Day tell me they tried to explain to Garland that a quantum lab wouldn’t actually be a giant red cube, suffused with gold LED light, floating in a vacuum. He told them to spread their wings.

In practice, making movies like this is more complicated than that. Garland, Digby, and Day trade sketches and scripts back and forth—it helps that Garland’s dad taught him to draw. And once the sets are built, Garland rehearses and blocks scenes with the actors. “If I storyboarded it beforehand I’d effectively be saying, ‘OK, now you walk over to the window and look out,’ and then we’re going to get the shot outside the window. But what if they don’t really do that? What if that’s standing in the way of a natural performance?” Garland asks. “So they’re not being driven by the camera department. They’re being driven by their sense of their characters.”

Once Garland has that blocking, he and his director of photography Rob Hardy, another longtime collaborator, have to figure out how to shoot those scenes—on sets where the walls and ceilings, and sometimes even the lights, are permanent. That has affected their entire rhythm. On Devs, instead of sticking to a typical pace of wide “master” shots taking in multiple actors and entire sets alternating with “coverage” of close-ups, Garland and Hardy have been shooting takes up to eight minutes long with lots of cameras running, some shooting the master and others capturing closer angles.

Or they’ll shoot masters with a crane from overhead, with lenses mounted on high and the guts of the digital camera on the ground, connected via an umbilical. That’s a shot at an emotional remove from the characters but one that captures “the scope of the building and the scope of the space,” says Hardy. “It shows you the space is real, and that it’s all interconnected.”

In fact, Hardy and Garland use those kinds of remote cameras even for the most intimate shots. For a climactic conversation between Lily and Forest in the Devs lab, neither Garland nor Hardy are watching in person. Hardy has put remote cameras in the room; the actors are alone. Hardy operates from another room in the Devs cube, watching the feeds on an iPad screen.

If, visually, Ex Machina is about frames and windows, Devs is about reflections and ghosts. Lots of scenes take advantage of multiple reflective surfaces and people talking to their own optical doppelgangers—one might even say they were superpositioned or entangled with other characters, if one were a giant quantum physics nerd. “We have reflections on reflections on reflections,” Day says. (The actual set is so full of glass walls that the crew posted pieces of paper on them that say “mind the glass,” so the grips don’t bonk their heads.)

The story recapitulates the themes; the cinematography amplifies them. “You don’t piss about. You make it about determinism. You make it about free will. You make it about quantum physics,” says Garland when I catch him between takes on set. “I’ll bring in the terminology and then a few scenes later visualize the terms so you can attach them to things you’ve seen. The asset of a visual medium is that you can show things.”

Television beckoned. That’s why Devs turned into eight hours of Hulu content instead of another movie. “I’ve had a whole career of making films, somehow getting financed, delivering them to people who were supposed to want them, and who then say ‘we don’t want this,’” Garland says. The studio A24 distributed Ex Machina in the US because the original studio bounced it, he says (it had a $15 million budget and grossed $24 million); a different team of execs green-lit Annihilation than those who were in charge when he finished it, and production notes were … well … Garland says all he ever did was shoot the scripts he’d shown studio execs. “And yet somehow,” he says, “they’d still be surprised at the dailies. And maybe not in the good way.

Nick Offerman plays the CEO of the tech company as the direct opposite of the gruff modern samurai he played in Parks and Recreation.

Photograph: Raymond Liu/FX

“It would be more like, ‘can you make it a happy ending? Can you not have Natalie Portman cheating on her husband? Can you find a way of making the story not as hallucinatory and more prosaic—let’s say,” Garland says.

“Hypothetically?” I ask.

“Hypothetically,” he says, not meaning it. “Notes are an emergent property of the system.”

Except not at FX, which commissioned the show and is running it on Hulu, because Hollywood is just four companies now. “It’s been breezy,” Garland says. He delivered the scripts, got thoughtful comments back from studio execs like the famously writer-friendly John Landgraf, and then … shot the script. As executive producer Allon Reich says, “Alex delivers something that’s very Alexy, and they go, ‘that’s brilliant, this is great, thank you, carry on.’ We’re used to people who go, ‘what?’”

The result is indeed Alexy. Like Ex Machina the plot unfolds with machined precision. Eight hours of runtime means ruminative takes, lots of silence and people considering their lot in life.

Lily, played by Sonoya Mizuno, who played the silent AI Kyoko in Ex Machina, plays Lily as a slouchy, slightly flat-affect coder dealing with brutal grief. Nick Offerman plays Forest, the CEO of Amaya, as the direct opposite of the gruff modern samurai he played in Parks and Recreation. And as is the case with lots of premium-golden-age-of-television, explanations are not explicit. You have to pay attention; Captain Exposition is not going to remind you of what’s been happening at the beginning of every act.

While that’s the kind of thing television can do in this new golden age, a potential downside is that television does quite a lot of it. Garland has already started working on another eight-episode series—hopefully, he says, working not only with the same crew but also the same actors as Devs, if they can arrange it.

But in the meantime, Garland and the network worry that everyone’s watchlist for sophisticated sci-fi is already flashing a memory-full warning. “People are being carpet bombed with content. How you can possibly be visible as one small destination in this wall of fire? Who the hell knows?” Garland asks me, almost exactly a year after I visited the Devs set. “Someone was talking to me the other day about a German-language Netflix show called Dark, which is about a time traveling wormhole underneath a nuclear power station in Germany. It’s subtitled and dour and kind of serious in its intentions, and yet it’s found an audience.” He hopes Devs finds that kind of audience.

Garland pauses. “Like any human being who’s just made something, I hope that when you see it you like it,” he says. “In the end.” No grand themes here, no Turing tests or quantum superpositions. Just the permanent worry of a writer who hopes he’s caught the zeitgeist by the tail again.

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More