Upon recommendation from Twitter users, I binged the FX sci-fi thriller Devs over the weekend. It can be found on Hulu.
Devs, short for Developers but ultimately revealed as a play on the Latin word “deus,” meaning “god,” is set at the open-concept modern Silicon Valley headquarters of a fictional tech giant, Amaya. Like most tech companies, it’s headed by a coder with a God complex. The episodic extended movie was written and directed by another California creator with a God complex, or rather a godless complex, Alex Garland.
Note: Major spoilers ahead.
Proverbs 14:7 states, “A scorner seeketh wisdom, and findeth it not.”
Devs asks a central question: Do humans have free will, or is life determined by an endless stream of cause and effect? The question is agonizingly set up by the personal tragedy of Forest, Amaya’s CEO. Forest stands in the yard waiting for his wife and daughter to return home, while still talking to his wife on the phone. She wants to hang up, gets distracted by him, runs a stop sign, and gets broad-sided. Both his wife and daughter are killed. Were their deaths at this moment inevitable? Or could he have chosen differently, and then his family would have lived? His single-minded pursuit is to answer that question with supercomputing ability. The goal is to let him off the hook or, if possible, join his family again.
He will do anything, even kill, to make his dream come true. And he does kill. He kills the boyfriend of Lily, an Amaya employee. The series follows the decisions of these characters and comes to a direct and conflicted conclusion.
The writer-director, Alex Garland, says he’s an atheist. Through the protagonist Lily’s interaction with Forest and his choices (or his determined path?), he wants the viewer to question his beliefs in free will or determinism. From IndieWire:
Garland said that he hopes that Lily’s actions in the finale, which by the show’s internal logic would constitute the first instance of a human exerting the idea of free will, give audience members a chance to grapple with that idea, regardless of their beliefs. [Emphasis added.]
“I say this as an atheist, but I’ve always found it problematic that dissonance is never properly addressed. But you don’t need to know the mind of God for this to be a paradox,” Garland said. “I would love it if people thought about, ‘Why is this imagery here? What is it about Lily’s actions?’ And then to have a dawning sense of an argument being made. The problem with overtly making arguments is that people usually know what they feel about the argument before it’s presented. They’re agreeing with it or they’re disagreeing with it, but there’s no internal sense of being open.”
First, Christians do grapple with the notion of free will and predestination. It’s one of the central philosophical challenges of a Christian: to believe in Jesus Christ’s choice to lower himself to become human and Savior while also knowing that this action was planned at the foundation of the world. Sure, there are plenty of unthinking Christians. But for most, where they come down on the answer to that question determines where they end up worshipping God — from Calvinist Presbyterians and Baptists to Catholics and everyone in between. It also determines the Christian’s self-view. At a recent Bible study, two old members at the church I attend vehemently argued this issue again. They have had an intense feud over this for more than 20 years.
Second, Devs‘ protagonist, Lily, is not Eve, though Garland has said he wants viewers to grapple with God creating Eve knowing what would happen to her beforehand. Eve was at the beginning, ostensibly, in Garland’s telling, though the viewer never sees her. They see cave people painting on walls for thousands of years but don’t see humanity or consciousness come into being. They see neither creation nor evolution. Those sticky dilemmas are glossed over. The fall of man, the time in the garden, and the prophecies of a coming savior in Genesis 3:15 aren’t addressed, but neither is the evolution of man.
There’s no grappling with world creation and ideas like free will, determinism, and predestination without considering the Creator’s place in the world and its fate.
To get to salvation, one must acknowledge what came before. Devs does not do that. Jesus Christ features prominently and dramatically in one of the episodes. In it, Jesus is consigned by a series of cause-and-effect events that results in him dying a gruesome, and, in this framing, meaningless death.
Lily, according to the logic of the show, is the first character to choose, or exercise free will. But she isn’t the first character to choose. In fact, by the times she chooses there have already been several choices throughout the series by various characters, most importantly by Forest and his muse/scientific compatriot and ideologue, Katie. Their sinful choices (which they acknowledge as painful, but inevitable) set up innocent Lily’s choice.
Forest and Katie, the only characters who were thought to look forward in time with their “Deus-tech,” see the future, but rather than save themselves and others, à la Doc in Back to the Future, they continue to bumble along. Notably, Forest chooses to kill someone (or, rather, have someone killed), and Katie allows and even encourages a young scientist to kill himself.
The fact that Lily chooses differently means that anyone could have chosen differently. This puts the responsibility back onto the characters who have seen the future, know its terrible progression, and do nothing. Their response to seeing preventable pain and misery is to shrug, be pulled along, and repeat the words they’ve seen said over and over on the forecaster. It’s absurd that the willful, intelligent scientists wouldn’t have the strength of mind of young Lily, who, interestingly, choose life. She chooses to not kill.
Lily is no Eve. Lily is a type of Christ. A person who had every right of revenge and chooses instead to save lives. She dies anyway, innocent to the last. What does her sacrifice net? The finale doesn’t tell us.
As to the director’s hope that Christians question their premises, one wonders why an atheist is concerned about them at all. If this world is an evolutionary quirk that just happened, if life has no meaning beyond our day-to-day earthly existence, if humans are soulless mammals, machines really, working to eat, rut, reproduce, excrete, and die, why do the philosophical questions Christians face matter? Their musings are as wasted as an atheist’s. Why does an atheist care what some other mammal does?
But that’s just it. There’s no grappling with world creation and ideas like free will, determinism, and predestination without considering the Creator’s place in the world and its fate. The series finale ends with Forest’s and Lily’s consciousnesses being projected into another timeline, a “paradise.” That’s doubtful. The creator, in this case, was a demented scientist, and the world he created will reflect the creator, just as ours does. It’s puzzling why atheists like Alex Garland don’t take time to consider that idea in the midst of their own creations. Their creations reflect their scripts, casting, and art choices. Why don’t they consider the world and all that’s in it, and wonder at the Creative mind that made it?