The new sci-fi blockbuster Netflix series Altered Carbon doesn’t waste much time announcing its style and scale. Following a slithery and slick CGI opening credits sequence of a developing newborn, we’re shoved head first into this would be sci-fi headtrip. There’s a revolution, there’s a heady cloning system. There’s a dystopia. There are laser guns. Stuff blows up. People feel down. The show strives desperately to be edgy and thoughtful and comes as close to succeeding as it possibly can without actually developing an original voice. It should scratch an itch for those desperate to experience such things again and again. The show just doesn’t get off to particularly stunning start to suggest that it’s going to catch on in the way the studio that spent a rumoured $7 million per episode hopes it will. Oh well. At least it isn’t Bright (whew!).
Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan and adapted to television by showrunner/screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator Genysis) the pilot episode of Altered Carbon dives head first into a litany of sci-fi tropes. In a hastily paced introduction that rips off everything from The Matrix to The Terminator and Blade Runner, we meet our “hero” Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnerman). He was a mercenary who died fighting a revolution who wakes up to find that the world has been taken over by the totalitarian corporations that he died fighting against. It’s been decades since the conflict ended. He’s brought back to life through a new system that puts minds on discs and uploads them into bodies (called sleeves for added coolness/edginess). You may have noticed that the character’s name is Asian but the actor is certainly not. That’s classic internet controversy-baiting white-washing, this time excused through a plot device that means the Asian man lives inside the generic white model/actor star. Hey, at least it’s written in, right? Maybe that makes it ok?
Anyhoo, there’s no need to dwell on that for too long. Many others will and will also likely have more insight to impart. I just couldn’t help but point it out. Anyhoo, no sooner has Takeshi found out that he’s alive again in a world that he fought to stop, the guy learns why he’s been brought back to life. Mysterious billionaire (James Purefoy) has hired Takeshi to solve a murder…his own! You see, the billionaire is living in a sleeve and decides that only Takeshi can solve the crime. Why? Well, that’s the mystery isn’t it? The sort of thing to build a novel/series around. Oh sure, Takeshi may want to go back to sleep, but he’ll get dragged deeper into the mystery. That’s the only way these sorts of stories can go, ya know?
So, Altered Carbon is essentially a pastiche of every dystopic science fiction tale to come before it. The story is part film noir, part action flick, part social commentary, and all cynical all the time. Every scene could be read as a reference or rip off to something that you’ve seen before. That probably suggests that the show is playful and reverential. It’s not though. This story is deathly serious. The sort of thing where every actor either sulks or scowls with no other emotional variation. The tone is “edgy” and adult in ways that appeal more to adolescents seeking adult content than anything that will appeal to a mature viewer. There are weird brothels styled to feel Victorian despite being futuristic. Strange drug dealers who use terms like “brain grease” to describe their wears. And of course everyone has a shotgun or updated laser equivalent so that stuff can blow up real good when required.
Well, there aren’t too many explosions. Despite the massive budget and stylized directing by Miguel Sapochnik (Repo Men, sadly not the 80’s cult classic), Altered Carbon is still a TV series. That means there are two big action set pieces per episode and then the rest of the time is spent on slow brooding dialogue scenes to set up the next meagre action sequence that the production can afford. Lather, rinse, repeat. The series is incredibly formulaic to the prestige drama model. The premise is decent, the peaks are better, but everything else is drawn out as long as possible. This apparently was a film idea that Laeta Kalogridis had tried to sell to studios for years but kept running into problems when she demanded a big budget and an R-rating. On Netflix, she could do everything she wanted, just as long as the running time was unnecessarily tripled—and that’s not always a good thing.
Now, as harsh as I’ve been on Altered Carbon, I can’t pretend it’s a complete disaster. The production values are as high as any TV series out there. The core ideas/themes might stink of Philip K. Dick thievery, yet there is some clever material there. The action might be sparsely slotted in to the story, but it makes an impact when it arrives. For those craving some dystopic sci-fi or an action series to binge on now that there’s no new season of Black Mirror, a Marvel series, or Stranger Things available to eat away those long winter nights, you could do worse than Altered Carbon. It scratches an itch and Netflix offers the money and freedom to elevate the show far above the generic sci-fi series nerds used suck back on Space or Syfy when there were no other options. In fact, it’s even well made and R-rated enough to feel like substantial science-fiction. Sadly, there’s not much there when you peek below the surface. But hey, when the surface is that shiny, it’ll still do for a while. If shows like Altered Carbon are the contemporary equivalent of Sliders or SeaQuest 2032, then we’re doing okay. Just don’t expect it to fill the Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica sized hole in your heart.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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