2045 is the year Ray Kurzweil anticipated in The Singularity is Near as the turning point of humanity, when the Singularity occurs, and technological progress is said to irreversibly change our lives. At our current point in time we are far from this projection, but the anxiety of what is to come is ever-present. The timeline proposed by Kurzweil was born from his own accelerationist sentiment, but the fascination for the future and its aesthetics was a vital component of human culture long before the Singularity was envisioned. From the moment fiction began exploring coming scenarios, rather than what has already passed, the projections became endless.
In March 2020, the third season of Westworld and Alex Garland’s miniseries Devs debuted on their respective platforms, each facing certain expectations: this season of Westworld came after HBO’s latest productions had an excellent performance streak (Watchmen, Chernobyl, Euphoria or His Dark Materials are proof enough) and had to prove that it will not turn into a Game of Thrones-level disappointment, while Devs is Garland’s first venture into the TV format, making fans curious whether he will be able to adapt to the different medium well enough. The two had different target audiences, with one closer to arthouse while the other trying hard to be enjoyable for everyone, yet they share neighboring spots on HBOGO’s Sci-Fi series list (Devs was originally released on Hulu as an FX production, but became available in Europe through HBO), accessible for everyone’s desires at any time they want. Besides airing in the same time frame and both wearing the Sci-Fi badge, the two TV shows managed to bring into the discussion one central subject that guides their opposite plots: Is free will possible?
(Warning: the rest of this article contains mild spoilers)
After staging AI mayhem two years ago, Season 3 of Westworld brought the action out of the park and into the human world, specifically in Los Angeles, 2058. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy construct a polished and beautiful image of the future with the intention of diverging from the vaporwave aesthetics of old school science fiction cinema (see Akira, Blade Runner) and propose instead the Singaporean skylines, La Fabrica’s concrete brutalism, and paper-thin metallic structures as the upper-class future haven, all mixed into a sleek outlook of the next decades, fitting for the optimistic expectations we once had. The already-wonderful cast is joined by Aaron Paul and Vincent Cassel, bringing together all the right elements for a good season of television that would have made Westworld depart from its “remake of an obscure 70’s film” premise. Instead, viewers were treated with the best example of bad storytelling and eye-roll-inducing lines that no excellent delivery would save. The pacing is slow at first, and then accelerates until the engines crash, the characters’ motives are never explained by the logic of the show and Aaron Paul talks as if he’d been smoking heavily for the last fifty years. Where the show fails is not in the plot itself, but in its exposition: in an attempt to appear complicated and shock their viewers with plot twists and easter eggs, Nolan and Joy have forgotten how to tell a coherent story or build a believable character.
Still, as a collection of would-have-beens, Westworld’s last season has some positive highlights, such as Ramin Djawadi’s beautiful piano tracks and the excellent choice of blasting Death Grips in multiple scenes, or the use of mechatronics outside the context of a Michael Bay film. The discussions proposed by the narrative are also relevant to how we, as a species, approach the technological other and also to how media redefines cinematic clichés: the robot that tries to annihilate humanity, the all-powerful supercomputer that controls our lives, the simple man who is supposed to free the masses from their chains and help them achieve true freedom. While in the previous seasons only androids had their agency contested, this time it was humans who were shown that they too belonged to a loop, a prewritten story of their life. Yet, these threads are left hanging in favor of the exaggerated spectacle that the show became.
Alex Garland’s return on screen, Devs, is an inquisitive look into Silicon Valley culture and the extents some people go to heal their traumas. Centered around a tech company and its secretive development department, the show stars Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman in the leading roles, supported by Alison Pill, Cailee Spaeny, Karl Glusman and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Sonoya seems to be a favorite of Garland, appearing in his last two feature films as supporting character, yet her acting in Devs does not convince her audience; soon after the camera moves on her, you can’t tell whether she’s portraying millennial detachment or is just unfit for this role, almost second guessing the tone of each line she delivers. Yet, where the show loses the gamble with Sonoya’s performance, it also wins with Offerman’s delivery of a guilt-ridden widow who tries to reconnect (and effectively revive) with his dead daughter, and show-stealer Alison Pill, whose performance as tech genius and apparent sociopath Katie brought warmth back into the narrative. Although having a lackluster season finale, Devs tied all its frayed knots back together, and losing itself for only just a bit into Garland’s wonderful visual storytelling.
Devs ponders upon the belief in determinism: how much of our choices are made by us, how much is just part of causality and if we will ever be able to escape this loop. Besides this, it proposes the idea that the world might function after the multiverse system – infinite versions of us, changed by only a strand of hair or, why not, completely different. There is a lingering exceptionalism around the revelations that occur inside the tech company, Amaya, followed by the figure of the enlightened tech guru, all these leading to one final question: if one can, does it mean one should?
The major technological element in Devs is the supercomputer at the heart of Amaya that processes the information from the developers and coders and transposes it into projections, allowing for their discoveries to take place. It is silent in its labour, uncredited yet still looming over those that understand its protocols. Westworld raises the bar in this department, portraying multiple forms of the technological other – the android (hosts, in their taxonomy), the supercomputer, the device-like robot – without trying to offer their dignity a human face. The leading hosts have a human-like appearance, but that comes second to their silicone-based nature.
As it seems, the loop is inescapable in both Devs and Westworld, the difference resting in how the two approach the issue – in the one season that is supposed to be human-centric, what Westworld lacks is exactly humanity and its dreadful reality. Aaron Paul’s character, Caleb, starts as the everyman of the show, guided by Dolores through the smokescreen, only to turn by the end into a third-rate Tyler Durden without the Gen X angst. Conversely, Devs’ Stephen McKinley Henderson submits to cause and effect and embraces its implications, admitting, after committing a heinous crime, that he shouldn’t be blamed – it was, after all, predetermined. For the characters in Devs, the realization that their lives are predetermined is not linked to an overpowering consumerist system, but by the laws of the universe – one can be swayed, the other not.
Westworld and Devs are both available for streaming on HBO GO.