Alex Garland fused science and philosophy in “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.” His new TV show tackles quantum computing—and Big Tech’s dark side.

Alex Garland fused science and philosophy in “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.” His new TV show tackles quantum computing—and Big Tech’s dark side.

Residents of the San Francisco Bay Areaand anyone who works in tech, reallywill 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. Its not just the quiet, empty aerial views of the city, some with roiling summertime fog. Its 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 coursebuilt around an amphitheater centered on a giant statue of a toddler, towering over a grove of sequoias. Like Pixars 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. Thats a Menger sponge, a three-dimensional fractal mathematical object.
The top-secret lab of the show’s fictional tech company is housed in a buildingthis is a scale modelbuilt 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. Its 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, its the secret lab of Amayas developers divisionthe devs of the titlein 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 fictionnotably the movies Ex Machina and Annihilation, and now Devstends 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, its 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 testto 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, thats not a Turing test. In a Turing test, the questioner doesnt know whether theyre talking to an AI or a human. If the questioner cant 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 its 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 thats not how Turing tests work? Nobody actually cares if laser swords would be an effective melee weapon, either. Just get to the robot fight!

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