Beautiful But Oh So Cold: 'Devs' Delivers Arty Take on Silicon Valley Dystopia

Sonoya Mizuno stars in Devs, an ever so slightly fictional take on Silicon Valley; drenched in light, color and contrast. (Courtesy of Mia Mizuno/FX)

Regardless of whether you like anything else about the FX sci fi thriller Devs, its cold, ethereal, luminous vision of the San Francisco Bay Area in the near future captures the look and feel of our lives right now. From a strictly visual perspective, Devs is a work of art.

Writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) has a degree in art history, and with this TV series, he reconstituted a team with a history of producing visually striking work: production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day, cinematographer Rob Hardy and visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst.  Together, they've created an ever so slightly fictional take on Silicon Valley, one drenched in light, color and contrast.

Naturally, there are establishing shots of San Francisco: foggy, silver, washed out, when it's not glowing like a silicon chip at night. The series begins in the white, washed out apartment of software engineer Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman). Both live in the city and ride a company shuttle to work far, far away in some unnamed suburb to the south.

Amaya, the cultish tech company where they work, is set on a campus tucked inside a grove of redwoods — in real life shot at UC Santa Cruz.

The crew of the FX TV series Devs shoots a scene on the campus of UC Santa Cruz
The crew of the FX TV series Devs shoots a scene on the campus of UC Santa Cruz (Courtesy of Raymond Liu/FX)

Why UC Santa Cruz? For a start, it was available. "We would never be able to use the real [tech campuses], because they're always in use by the companies. We needed somewhere that we were going to be for several months, shooting in and out, coming back," said Digby, who admits the Devs team was initially looking for a modern campus full of glass and steel, more akin to what you see in downtown San Francisco today.

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But as with any visual production team, they adjusted to account for practical constraints and on-site inspiration. "It was a little bit out of left field," Digby said of the slightly older, Brutalist buildings that dominate the UC Santa Cruz campus. Their characteristically massive, monolithic appearance, though, won the team over. "The minute we stepped foot in the area, we fell in love."

So it was McHenry Library, Quarry Plaza and Science Hill provided the exteriors for Amaya's public-facing office complex in Devs. And from the inside, you could be looking at any Silicon Valley open floor office plan, featuring floor-to-ceiling glass and sweetly nerdy Millenials tapping away intently at their computer stations.

In this case, they look out on those bucolic, green redwoods. "The redwoods embed you in California and the Bay Area," Digby said.

Add a monumental, pop art statue of a little girl incongruously towering over the campus in a manner not unlike Robert Arneson's Eggheads at UC Davis, and you have foreshadowing.

The quantum supercomputer at the heart of Devs, an eight episode FX series that streaming on Hulu in March.
The quantum supercomputer at the heart of Devs, an eight episode FX series that streaming on Hulu in March. (Courtesy of Mia Mizuno/FX)

What's Inside the Box

Because, of course, all is not well in this Garden of Eden. The company is running a secret operation that the world and most of its employees know nothing about.

Set off from the other buildings in a nearby meadow, there sits a computer-generated, concrete ziggurat that looks like a bunker or utility building from the World War II era. "It's supposed to detract from any interest," said Digby, "but it's supposed to have scale. Also, from the outside, it's supposed to juxtapose with what's inside. What's inside is supposed to take your breath away."

Inside sits a shimmering, gold jewel box of an office that is the heart of Devs. Constructed and shot in a U.K. sound studio, it's also an unabashed temple to technology as it might be in the near future. At the center of the cube, encased in glass, floats the innards of a quantum supercomputer that looks a lot like, for example, IBM's Q System One.

The quantum supercomputer at the center of the FX TV series Devs looks a lot like IBM's Q System One.
The quantum supercomputer at the center of the FX TV series Devs looks a lot like IBM's Q System One. (Courtesy of David Becker/Getty Images)

Which was the idea.

"They are amazing pieces of art. Once they're taken out of their shields, they are these gold and glass and aluminum and silver masterpieces. You know, the machines that we use, the insides of computers, are absolutely beautiful. It can be Awesome!-inspiring. It's a character in itself," Digby said.

The supercomputer is also at the center of the Devs story. Much as my first impression of the space was of the lobby of a boutique hotel, or a futuristic, black, gold and glass inversion of an Apple store, Digby explained that science inspired the visual look of the supercomputer's home.

Sound waves, light waves, electromagnetic waves — nothing will be able to penetrate this bunker encased in concrete and lined with lead and gold. Or gold leaf: the team applied hundreds of squares of gold leaf to the walls, using a recurring fractal pattern called a Menger sponge, a visual representation of the idea of boxes within boxes within boxes.

It's a gilded, airless, isolated space that also looks and feels quasi-religious. The story circles around a metaphysical topic obsessed about in classic, over-heated sci fi fashion by Amaya's multibillionaire founder, Forest (Nick Offerman).

Does knowing the future allows us to change it to something more akin to our liking? Or are we compelled to act out the future laid before us in the magic mirror by artificial intelligence we built? It's the old free will versus determinism debate some of you will remember from university philosophy classes.

Moody, self-doubting, passively trapped in a gilded box of our own making: sounds like Silicon Valley in 2020. Looks like it, too.