Alex Garland

Devs (2020) s01e08

With “Devs,” writer, director, and creator Alex Garland manages to be at least twenty-one years late to be original with what he’s going for. Though he’s also apparently in the zeitgeist because the big twist is also another show this year. Does he bring anything new to the table? Not really? It’s not the point. The big twist comes about halfway through the episode, which is only fifty minutes but feels three times as long, and it’s fairly predictable stuff.

Though, kind of not. It requires a technology reveal deus ex machina but whatever.

The beginning of the episode has Nick Offerman and Sonoya Mizuno’s big showdown—though last time she had to talk to Alison Pill about all the hard stuff because Offerman wasn’t qualified but this time, this time, she’s going to talk to the man. “Devs” ends with its female characters being all about the boys. It’s a non-ha ha funny.

Before the episode changes trope lanes, there’s this possibly suspenseful suspense sequence with Offerman, Mizuno, and Pill where Garland gets to do more in the Devs laboratory—where the Kubrick-y production design allows for a lot of portentous shots, but to a point, all the action is fairly mundane. Garland’s amping them up for the viewer’s experience, totally detached from the characters. On the long list of “Devs”’s problems, I’m not even sure narrative distance makes the top ten. Garland’s able to get away with the problems with it through the sci-fi-ish gimmicks and the oddness of Offerman’s performance (more than the performance itself). Though the oddness of Offerman’s performance is another gimmick on its own.

In the end, Garland manages to have a last slip with how he tries to balance the big twist and but also the philosophical murmurings he pretends are important to the show.

“Devs” somehow manages not to come off pretentious—sometimes because of Garland’s abject ineptness, other times because he’s so desperately aping Kubrick it’s impossible to take seriously—but it’d probably be more interesting if it were….

“Devs” starts mediocre in one way and ends bad in another.

Though Jin Ha is absolutely fantastic. Nothing else about “Devs” is anywhere near as good.

Devs (2020) s01e07

Lots of “surprises” this episode as far as how the show’s going to go into its final episode. Like three deaths surprises, as writer, director, and creator Alex Garland starts paring down the cast to something more manageable.

The funniest thing about the death scenes is how anticlimactic they all are. Everyone on “Devs” acting like a sociopath at the very least makes them not particularly sympathetic in their deaths, especially since the most “tragic” is also the silliest. Garland writes some really bad scenes to try to make things work this episode. Really bad scenes.

Including the “normal” scenes. We get to see Jin Ha and Sonoya Mizuno pretend they’re not hiding out in her apartment trying to stave off a determinist apocalypse but just having a normal day as a couple. Albeit one where Ha is sleeping in Mizuno’s recently deceased boyfriend’s bed, which in turn was once also his bed before Mizuno kicked him out. Layers.

Not.

It’s an incredibly uncomfortable scene because Mizuno’s flat affect doesn’t fit with her playing along.

What else.

Oh, the episode opens with cave people. The Devs team is now able to use the predictive algorithm to peep insights into cave people. It leads to Garland getting to do a big ol’ 2001 “homage.”

But it’s also the last day on Earth as far as Nick Offerman and Alison Pill understand it with “The Machine,” so there’s all this setup with Cailee Spaeny trying to get his job back from Pill and Stephen McKinley Henderson going nuts and standing in the hallway spouting Shakespeare. It’s unclear if Henderson’s actually lost it or if it’s part of his plan with Spaeny; Henderson’s got a great voice. Listening to him read Shakespeare or Yeats would be better than the show.

Anyway.

Then there’s Zach Grenier, who finally gets to find out what’s up with Jefferson Hall. Hall’s the guy experiencing homelessness and living on the street near Mizuno’s apartment and razzing Grenier whenever he creeps by. It’s predictable. Because Garland’s predictable.

Wait. I can’t forget.

Ha’s got this line about the people running tech companies thinking they’re messiahs and it’s the blandest, most overt thing in the show, which is really hard because Garland emphasizes obvious over all else. It’s so bad. Breaks the verisimilitude immediately.

It also gives Garland a chance to establish how Mizuno, despite working in tech and dating tech guys, thinks tech culture is insipid. I mean, sure, but wouldn’t we have seen this take expressed in the last six episodes not at just the right moment for Garland to score a point?

Devs (2020) s01e06

This episode introduces “dumb Jamie,” which is writer, director, and show creator Alex Garland’s way of making Sonoya Mizuno clearly smarter than Jin Ha. It just requires Ha be really dense all of a sudden. Even though he just got done doing the superhero move of breaking Mizuno out of a mental hospital.

Doesn’t matter really, because Ha’s got zilch to do this episode (except make Mizuno seem smart when she needs to seem smart). It’s a bummer; Ha’s easily the best performance in the show, but it’s also not because… Ha’s not missing anything.

Most of the episode involves Mizuno sitting at a table with Alison Pill and Garland passing Bechdel with an exposition device. Mizuno wants to know what Devs is all about, so Pill does this Socratic Method thing of asking her questions—and Garland trying to do a David Mamet, which turns out to be showstopper bad—and it drags out the information dump (as it were, basically Garland’s trying to get Mizuno invested in the main “hard sci-fi” plot and failing) while also gives the girls something to talk about besides boys.

Because until that point, they’re just talking about the boys they like and the boys they don’t like.

Garland’s writing style for it all is very much “Jeff Goldblum monologues from Jurassic Park written by Roman DeBeers.” It’s dreadfully basic.

Though we do find out this episode Pill and Offerman could totally have done these characters in a better show just because they’re similarly anti-social but in distinct ways where you could get some mileage out of it. Like a sitcom. Like a dark sitcom.

“Devs” would be a lot better as a dark sitcom.

There’s also a new B plot involving Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson, which ought to be good because Henderson and Spaeny are fun together except it’s not fun. It’s histrionic and exasperating.

Garland also has a couple big reveals, which he could’ve introduced sooner but then he wouldn’t have his episode six of eight surprises, including how we’re only days away from reality breaking down as we know it. Or something. It actually seems really obvious and makes the smart characters seem insipid for not guessing it.

But… yay… only two more episodes.

Devs (2020) s01e05

So last episode ended on two pretty significant cliffhangers for intrepid hero Sonoya Mizuno and her loyal sidekick Jin Ha. This episode opens with a “stylish” composite shot where involuntarily psychiatrically held Mizuno remembers life in her apartment with ex Ha as well as recently deceased boyfriend Karl Glusman simultaneously.

Different versions of Mizuno walk around the apartment—remember when “Many Worlds” was introduced to “Devs” last episode (something Nick Offerman yells, though he means Devs, the department, not “Devs,” the show, well, buckle up. Alex Garland doesn’t do anything with that big composite shot, sort of just faking a modern equivalent to a complicated tracking shot.

Then the episode checks in on Ha, who’s in the middle of Zach Grenier beating the ever-loving shit out of him (I’m glad they either didn’t film or didn’t include an explanation for the blood covered toilet bowl). It’s easily the best scene in the episode, with a terrifying Grenier. Also some low-key racism infused energy, which… doesn’t work with making Offerman, Grenier, or Pill sympathetic. But whatever. Ha’s great too.

It’s not even a particularly good scene, it’s just a sign maybe Garland can do the industrial espionage thriller thing, but the rest of the episode is so tedious it’s an easy win.

Because the rest of the episode—including some intentional ableism (I’m curious what edgelord stuff Garland leaves out)—is just Pill going over most of the cast’s personal lives and intruding. It’s informative—like not ten-year old Summer Hsin Yo Forbes playing ten-year old Mizuno, finding out Offerman’s not just responsible for his kid’s death but because of his own technology and evangelism for it, and Pill being Offerman’s partner more than employee. She’s the only one who understands “The Machine” and why Offerman wants so much for it to prove a determinist universe.

It’s unclear if he knows how she’s been using it, which includes her figuring out what’s going on in other character’s subplot. Including Grenier threatening Offerman given how many felonies he’s committed.

Oh, and we also find out what the stylish opening to the previous episode means. It doesn’t mean much. It was a call ahead to something in this episode.

“Devs” seems like it should be grouped… the first three episodes, the previous one and this one. The narrative might work better.

But with three episodes to go, it’s unlikely Garland’s taking “Devs” anywhere good. It’s also funny how he’s only got his four Kubrick rips and he just uses them over and over again.

Ugh.

Devs (2020) s01e04

I believe the technical term for what writer, director, and show creator Alex Garland does with the “cold open.” Artsy-fartsy. I mean, it’s not bad or anything, it’s just blandly stylized. Though in a somewhat different way than usual. It doesn’t have that “compare it to Kubrick” desperation Garland fills the rest of the series with.

Anyway.

The show’s shaken out to have two storylines—the tramlines of determinism with Nick Offerman and Alison Pill and Sonoya Mizuno trying to escape Zach Grenier, who presents some kind of danger to her. Offerman and Pill have a big disagreement about what the Devs project should be used for, with Pill taking a pragmatic approach Offerman doesn’t endorse. But it turns out Pill knows Offerman better than he knows himself. Because she’s a de facto oracle… maybe. Fellow Devs dev Stephen McKinley Henderson is convinced Pill breaks the rules for “The Machine”—basically no porn and no prediction (the latter not the former)—and it’s a nice bit of character development and levity. Though Cailee Spaeny’s subplot about sound waves, which includes the closest the show’s come to explaining the “science” of the Devs project, albeit without any details to ground it in any reality, ours or the show’s, is disappointing.

And when’s the last time you wrote a four comma sentence.

The Spaeny subplot, which involves Offerman and Pill’s disagreement about the project goals, is kind of a narrative waste given Offerman immediately capitulates to Pill. So it wastes Spaeny, making her—okay, so we also find out Spaeny’s character’s pronouns are he/him, which means Garland had a trans character and didn’t cast a trans person but it’s also not a surprise because a lot of “Devs” feels like Garland low-key responding to complaints about inclusion and his last movie (though Janet Mock apparently wasn’t playing a trans character, which is great but also doesn’t seem like it makes up for casting a woman as a man). Not my lane but also not Garland’s so….

Meanwhile, Mizuno gets a full action sequence—and a surprisingly not good one, given how much effort Garland puts into the composition he apparently doesn’t have any thoughts on action—and gets to hang out with Jin Ha a bit, which is great because Ha’s in it and Ha’s amazing. He’s with Mizuno for the morning and then she comes back that night after her adventures. There’s also this weird thing where Mizuno and Ha argue about why they broke up years before and then the episode ends with Mizuno telling Ha he was right and she was wrong, even though she rightly pointed out neither of them actually knew how to navigate international industrial espionage drama.

But then when the cliffhanger hits, it’s so over-the-top—Garland bellowing, “Call me Kubrick”—I guess it doesn’t really matter because the characters are finally in real danger. High tension!

Devs (2020) s01e03

About three-quarters through this episode, when I was wondering if Alex Garland had indeed both written and directed this episode as well because it sure doesn’t have as much of the directorial flourish as the two previous episodes, I also realized the show’s closed its open questions. Three-quarters of the way through episode three of eight. And the new A plot Garland does introduce at the end of this episode doesn’t really seem like it’s going to get good mileage.

Of course, it turns out the sensational but entertaining open—albeit entirely ripped out of Timeline at this point—is going to be the episode high point. Unless you count a Janet Mock cameo as Nick Offerman’s favorite senator, who wants to know what he’s got cooking in the Devs department. Mock brings some energy.

Though, given we find out Devs workers Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson use “The Machine” for porn and it turns into a comedy thing with disapproving Alison Pill, this episode does have a lot of energy. But the main cast’s performances are still muted.

Except when lead Sonoya Mizuno has a panic attack in Zach Grenier’s office during a meeting where she tells Grenier all about dead boyfriend Karl Glusman being a spy and whatnot. It’s Mizuno’s best scene in the series so far. By far.

But then when Mizuno heads back to Jin Ha’s apartment to examine all the evidence she’s collected, they pretty quickly discover the answers to all Mizuno’s questions. They don’t have the motives and they don’t know what’s going in the Devs department, but Mizuno’s arc is basically done.

Though I’m still confused what the reversed security camera footage thing Garland does at the end (he’s seen Zodiac too, by the way). It either discounts Mizuno and Ha’s discoveries or it just turns out Offerman and Grenier are kind of dopes.

Devs (2020) s01e02

The start of the episode introduces some more of the Devs at work—there’s also a concerning assault in a garage—before getting to Nick Offerman’s Stallman-bearded tech giant telling lead Sonoya Mizuno she’ll have a job and secure income forever. Her boyfriend lighting himself on fire in front of the giant statue of a little girl (who turns out to be Offerman’s dead daughter) apparently is a Dead Man on Campus-type thing.

Though security chief Zach Grenier’s pretty worried Mizuno’s going to start digging too deep. One of the more interesting narrative developments this episode is Grenier’s genuine concern for Offerman and Offerman’s indifference to it.

Big developments for Mizuno this episode include not just discovering her boyfriend was an industrial spy, but also meeting his handler, Brian d'Arcy James, who tries to recruit her to pick up the torch. Because it’s not about Russian patriotism, it’s about Offerman’s company having too much power. James is fine but the dialogue’s so cutting and fun in its real talk about the United States, it would’ve been nice for a showier performance. Even the show’s “showiest” performances, Grenier and Offerman, are severely muted. It’s part of Garland’s thing. But still. James is a little too subdued.

Now, what complicates the thing with James is the viewer knowing more about the company, including… drum roll please… the MacGuffin. What they’re making in Devs. Is it what “Devs” is going to be about? I don’t know.

But the last time they adapted Michael Crichton’s Timeline, it didn’t turn out well. Oh, wait, Garland doesn’t acknowledge he’s literally doing the setup to Timeline: The Novel, so maybe it’ll turn out better. Billy Connelly would’ve be fun in James part though.

Anyway. The big reveal is not androids, which is great. The actual MacGuffin… eh. We’ll see. The people on the Devs team working on it—old Black guy Stephen McKinley Henderson, young possibly queer person Cailee Spaeny—are fun together. Alison Pill has to translate Offerman to them. It’s fun. “Devs” doesn’t have much fun.

Particularly not at the end of the episode, when we get that afore-teased garage fight and it turns out to be Garland trying to Kubrick-ize a realistic fight scene.

As before, some really great lighting from Rob Hardy.

Devs (2020) s01e01

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a director more desperately want to be compared to Stanley Kubrick than “Devs” creator, writer, and director Alex Garland. The show’s a stylistic mash-up of 2001 and The Shining, maybe with some Eyes Wide Shut thrown in (for the street scenes).

It takes place in San Francisco at a Google-esque tech company, run by a mumblecore dramatic Nick Offerman (with a Stallman beard going, no toe cheese yet), and involves some young programmers. There’s Karl Glusman, a Russian guy who came to the States after undergrad, and his girlfriend, Sonoya Mizuno, who’s third generation Chinese-American. Why’s it important? Because when Glusman gets promoted to the corporation’s most elite project—Devs—security chief Zach Grenier (at his most Zach Grenier) doesn’t like the idea of a Russian and a Chinese person around.

Though it’s unclear when “Devs” takes place, is it present-day or near future, does Garland have some other kinds of sociopolitical situations in mind or are they “just” our own.

There’s a big bait and switch in the episode—followed by Garland trying to amp up the Kubrick with some Fincher thrown in—but it’s not a big enough one to distract from Garland not actually explaining the Devs department. It’s this mysterious bunker lab with a Phase IV garden outside—there are various “hints” at to what it’s going to be through references, like when Mizuno is reading Colossus (AI goes wild). Phase IV is hyper-intelligent ants. Is Offerman making hyper-intelligent ants?

Neat.

But we don’t find out this episode. Instead, we find out things are not what they seem at the company, which maybe should be obvious from the giant “statue” of a little girl, the company logo, towering over the campus like a less disquieting Palomar statue.

The best performance—oh, the cast also includes Alison Pill as Offerman’s sidekick—but the best performance is Jin Ha, as Mizuno’s ex-boyfriend. She goes to him for help when Glusman flips out post-first day in Devs.

Really good cinematography from Rob Hardy.

“Devs” looks great. It’s manipulative and basic (albeit in 20th century sci-fi deep cuts), but it does look great.

Annihilation (2018, Alex Garland)

The two most bewildering things about Annihilation are director Garland’s inability to frame for Panavision aspect ratio—did cinematographer Rob Hardy just not want to tell him he was reusing the same three close-up shots, with his subject on one side of the frame, looking off, the other three-quarters empty, or did Hardy not see a problem with it (given the amount of post-production filtering and CG enhancing, it’s hard to guess what they actually shot)—and Jennifer Jason Leigh being a supporting player and not the lead.

Natalie Portman is the lead of Annihilation. She’s a Johns Hopkins professor, married to a special forces guy (Oscar Isaac), who has been dead for a year. We know he’s been dead for a year because Garland (as screenwriter, adapting a novel) has a whole bunch of exposition dumps in the film. We’ve already seen a meteor (or something) crash into the planet Earth, targeting a lighthouse because… V’Ger had a series of romance novel covers on it too and then Portman in an isolation room, with a fantastic Benedict Wong interrogating her, then we flashback to before the isolation room, after the meteor. Isaac’s been dead a year, Portman’s friend at work, David Gyasi, invites her to a barbecue but she can’t because it’s finally time to paint she and Isaac’s bedroom.

Cue flashbacks of Portman and Isaac’s idyllic, playful sex life.

We’ll soon find out—because Isaac interrupts her painting the bedroom—he hasn’t been dead, he’s just been missing. In fact, the Army hasn’t even officially classified him M.I.A.—though Annihilation plays real loose with what one might consider military protocol, there are Chuck Norris movies with a heck of a lot more reasonable verisimilitude as far as military operations go. But something’s obviously wrong with Isaac, even before he starts bleeding uncontrollably. When Portman tries to take him to the hospital, a bunch of stormtroopers intercept the ambulance and kidnap them.

She wakes up in what seems like a hospital room, talking to a psychiatrist (Leigh), and quickly learns Isaac had been missing because he went inside the strange, growing zone of something or other around the lighthouse where the meteor (or whatever) hit in the opening. It’s been three years, this zone, called the Shimmer, has increased exponentially in size and overtaken the towns, military bases, shacks, and who knows what else. No one has ever come back from the Shimmer, except Isaac (and Portman, as the frequent flash forwards to the interrogation remind—it’s not a bookend device, but a narration one)—and, well, Leigh’s putting the next team together.

Leigh, secretly dying of cancer, is sick of sending men to their apparent deaths and is going to go in now. It’s going to be an all-female team; her, paramedic Gina Rodriguez, scientist Tuva Novotny, other scientist Tessa Thompson. And wouldn’t Portman make a great fifth, being a not just a Johns Hopkins biologist, but also a former soldier. There’s a (bewildering) scene where Novotny asks Portman about her CV and Portman says she was in the military so Novotny can ask which branch so Garland can kill another fifteen or thirty seconds of the runtime, which is supposedly okay because the mise en scène of life in the Shimmer—a Florida swamp with lots of colorful plant mutations–not to mention Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s emotive score, is so compelling.

Is the Shimmer visually compelling? Sure? Garland’s not great at establishing shots. Annihilation feels very much like someone aping Terrence Malick aping 2001 but without the commitment to either. Mark Digby’s production design is good enough it’s too bad Garland’s not patient enough to explore it. Whether Digby is a Vertigo Swamp Thing fan or it just happens to always looks like panels (or covers) from that series aside… it’s a great proof of concept for an adaptation of the comic because a bunch of it is straight from those comics. But Garland avoids visualizing too much, instead sticking close to Portman’s perception of things unless he’s got to manipulate the audience to make the next narrative twist work.

At a certain point, Annihilation peaks and then plateaus. The thirty minutes (it runs just under two hours) before they get into the Shimmer isn’t great, especially since Portman’s protagonist is flat. We keep learning more and more about her and Isaac throughout and all of it’s boring. Same goes for the rest of the team (save Leigh, who gets so little onscreen character development it does gin up curiosity). But Novotny, Rodriguez, and Thompson? They’re shadows of caricatures, Rodriguez and Thompson the most. Maybe Garland couldn’t figure out how to write them in a reality where no one in the world noticed a whole section of Florida disappear, which would be visible from space. Maybe he really thought Portman was somehow the most compelling.

Doesn’t matter. Like his framing, like his downgrading of Leigh’s character, like his choice of composers… he was just wrong and it doesn’t work.

Kind of like Oscar Issac doing a Southern accent. No matter how much CGI you throw at it, no matter how much scary gross you make it, somethings just aren’t going to work.

Annihilation desperately wants to be heady, lush, hard sci-fi and is willing to sacrifice everything else to get there.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Garland; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; director of photography, Rob Hardy; edited by Barney Pilling; music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury; production designer, Mark Digby; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Lena), Oscar Isaac (Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Dr. Ventress), Gina Rodriguez (Anya Thorensen), Tuva Novotny (Cass Sheppard), Tessa Thompson (Josie Radek), David Gyasi (Daniel), and Benedict Wong (Lomax).


Dredd (2012, Pete Travis)

Dredd is a good time. Sure, it features exceptional ultraviolence, but director Travis finds a gimmick–the drug “Slo-Mo” slows time for its user–to make the violence appear almost academic. One wonders how they did the special effects for the sequence. Travis also never glorifies the bad guys, which is interesting for what’s sort of a superhero movie. I say “sort of” because Dredd’s more like an episode of a really good future cop show. Its present action is short; it’s a procedural.

Besides Travis’s direction–and Karl Urban’s performance as the lead–Alex Garland’s script is the major factor in the film’s success. Even when Urban’s alone in a scene, even if the shot’s from his point of view, Dredd always gives him a lot of distance. Even though he narrates the expository prologue, the viewer isn’t supposed to identify with him. The viewer’s occasionally supposed to identify with the bad guys, always with his rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby), but never with Urban. Having an indifferent protagonist work in an action movie might be Dredd’s greatest success.

Also lending to the episodic nature are the villains. Wood Harris has what almost amounts to a cameo appearance–though he’s on screen for a lot of the first half, he’s silent–and Lena Headey’s great as the big villain.

Good music from Paul Leonard-Morgan, good photography from Anthony Dod Mantle.

Dredd never tries to be ambitious; it over succeeds. Much better than the other way around.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Pete Travis; screenplay by Alex Garland, based on characters created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Mark Eckersley; music by Paul Leonard-Morgan; production designer, Mark Digby; produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich and Alex Garland; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Karl Urban (Judge Dredd), Olivia Thirlby (Anderson), Lena Headey (Ma-Ma), Wood Harris (Kay), Langley Kirkwood (Judge Lex), Junior Singo (Amos), Luke Tyler (Freel), Jason Cope (Zwirner), Domhnall Gleeson (Clan Techie), Warrick Grier (Caleb) and Rakie Ayola (Chief Judge).



This post is also discussed on Judge Dredd (1995) / Dredd (2012).
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