“Altered Carbon” (2018)
Created by: Laeta Kalogridis based on ‘Altered Carbon’ by Richard K. Morgan
Featuring: Joel Kinnaman, Renée Elise Goldsberry, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Dichen Lachman, Leonardo Nam, Chris Connor, Ato Essandoh, Trieu Tran
Laurens Bancroft: “This is where I was murdered.”
The nadir of cyberpunk themed films is most definitely Ridley Scotts now classic “Blade Runner”(1982), that featured a dystopian future when artificial humans wanted to break free of slavery from their human masters. That film is closely followed by “The Matrix”(1999) which not only reinvented the Sci-Fi genre but like the former film has had to endure many imitators that were inferior to the originals. Now comes an adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s novel ‘Altered Carbon’ into a ten episode Netflix television series. This is a sprawling messy adaptation that never reaches the heights of “Blade Runner” or “The Matrix”, (that might actually be asking too much) it lacks the originality of those two films but co-opts some of their visuals as well as ideas to create a tech-noir that never really lands or knows what it wants to be or where it wants to fit. The show trades on tropes from a variety of genres as you might expect, in fact after the first episodes you will have an idea of how this series will operate, with its writing, the noir aesthetic using bait and switches with plot as well as narrative through its entire run. The real question is does it work, is it satisfying and does it all make sense?
There is no doubt that parts of the show work, in particular the action which leads to violence as well as the mise-en-scène which is co-opted from any number of cyber-pink movies, but if you thought you were watching a ‘Blade Runner’ television series at points you would be forgiven – ten years ago that may have been acceptable but considering the release of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) it seems less like homage and more like rip-off. Wisely the showrunners have employed experienced television directors to helm the dense episodes so as to be able to communicate what is actually occurring in the plot as the narrative takes place not only over a number of timelines but a huge array of characters as well as gender bending, and identity blurring technology – it is a wonder that the plot can keep up at times, much less the audience watching.
The series takes place approximately 350 years in the future, in the year 2384. In the future, people’s consciousnesses are contained in “stacks,” storage devices attached to the back of a person’s neck. Physical bodies are turned into “sleeves,” mere disposable vessels. Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a violent mercenary, wakes up 250 years after his sleeve is killed, and he is given the choice to either spend the rest of his life in prison for his crimes, or help solve the murder of the wealthiest man in the world (James Purefoy). Takeshi was the sole surviving soldier of those defeated in an uprising against the new world order 250 years prior. This is probably as much as anyone going in needs to know as the plot takes off from the second episode and you had better be prepared to keep up.
One of the major strengths of “Altered Carbon” is not only the direction, but the action that is contained within each episode. There has obviously been a considerable amount of time and resources spent on getting the action right, as well as how that action is portrayed by not only the actors, but the CGI elements as well, which for a genre show like this is vital as these episodes have to be sold on the look and feel of the environments. It is lucky then that they have been able to get physical actors like Joel Kinneman and Will Yun Lee who in their pasts have played some very physical parts so here they excel more than anyone else in this series. They are completely believable as the same person inhabiting very different bodies, both are intimidating in different ways, Kinneman with his size, Lee with his stature, he also uses above average acting skills as well.
There are two other aspects of the series that are exceptional, they are linked, the first one is the look of the show as well as the settings that are by themselves exceptional, you can see that the budget of the series was well used as the physical as well as CGI environments are excellent – they do not do an old trick of reusing shots from show to show – binging was on the creators and producers minds obviously. The second aspect is the Hotel that Takeshi ends up occupying that is run by an AI, as well as that the Hotel is themed around the works of Edgar Allan Poe, it is even called ‘The Raven’ – the only staff member is the Manager, who of course is supposed to be Poe himself – he is also a bit overprotective of Takeshi which lends a bit of humor to the series, and in the final episode some real humanity.
“Altered Carbon” has a very large and varied cast which is a nice experience to have, there are many cultures represented so we are able to have a varied experience with each of the original characters that are portrayed. What the series has gotten right is the casting of genre actors all who have extensive experience with the sci-fi genre as well as action orientated roles, it is also pleasing to see the cast made up of very different ages as well which again helps to give some authenticity to the characters they all play. The chemistry that grows throughout the series seems natural as well which is no mean feat, we feel at the end of the series we are not witnessing a new world but a community that has come together as naturally as any other.
As we begin the series and for the first six or so episodes there is a dual narrative taking place where we are in the present for the main story but flash back to at least two other time periods and locations, where as the audience we are witnessing Takeshi’s origins and the reason he is in the situation he finds himself in. The idea of multiple narrative strands gives the series some depth at least on the surface but once it is dispensed with the show does become extremely formulaic, in fact even as the final episode ends there are traces of a story for a possible season two which seems to be a little trite as the viewer should be rewarded for staying with the show for ten hours.
Which leads me to some of the downsides to the series as a whole, the first is that if you have seen the Joss Whedon series “Angel” (1999-2004) then you will have an idea of how “Altered Carbon” works, I mean it even takes place in a Hotel, the main character wears a trench coat for most of it, and he has a main side kick who obviously is in love with him, there is also a Scooby gang that end up helping him on his missions. Not only that but the plot is pretty standard nourish fair where there are unreliable narrators, femme fatales, betrayals and moving allegiances, the good guys are the bad guys and vice versa. The series is so nourish it even rips its episode titles from classic noir movies, which seems like a real afterthought. I can see the appeal of watching this series, particularly if you don’t have the knowledge or language to see the routine story as well as the plot devices that are used to push the story along – if however you have a working knowledge of noir as well as cyber stories you will recognize many of the elements that occur from episode to episode.
For a series that is about personality, souls and what it means to be able to survive beyond a kind of death the series spends very little time actually analyzing what this might mean to an individual, or a society at large. There are some allusions to social justice, social welfare as well as the poor and the rich, what that means to a society when money and status still exists. However, that is framed by what the rich can still do to the poor as well as what they can get away with. Of course what this means is the show has an excuse to show men being violent towards women, which has to be the laziest trope in the entire series. It gives the show runners an excuse to have sex scenes, naked women and the aforementioned violence to them dressed up in some kind of girl power metaphor. In fact the skin technology that is used means there is just more of an excuse to treat women as just that, skins, for men to do with what they want, something the main character is in fact guilty of with regards to his sister.
On the surface this is a show that is worth watching in fact if you have not seen anything like it before you will probably really enjoy it – but if you have seen other stories like this then it will not be anything new which is a shame because the main technology that exists really begs to be exploited in more og a philosophical way. I did find myself wishing the Wachowskis had have been behind it because the creator of the series, Laeta Kalogridis, does not seem to have the experience or skill to bring a decent adaptation out of the source material.
- Out of the Past: Waking up in a new body 250 years after his death, Takeshi Kovacs discovers he’s been resurrected to help a titan of industry solve his own murder.
- Fallen Angel: While Kovacs tracks down a man who sent Bancroft a death threat, Lt. Ortega bends the rules to keep tabs on his whereabouts.
- In a Lonely Place: Kovacs recruits an unlikely partner to watch his back during a banquet at the Bancroft home, where Ortega oversees the night’s grisly entertainment.
- Force of Evil: Tortured by his captor, Kovacs taps into his Envoy training to survive. Ortega springs a surprise on her family for Día de los Muertos.
- The Wrong Man: After learning his sleeve’s identity, Kovacs demands the full story from Ortega. A tip from Poe leads to a major breakthrough in the Bancroft case.
- Man with My Face: With Ortega’s fate hanging in the balance, Kovacs drops a bombshell on the Bancrofts. Later, he comes face to face with an unsettling opponent.
- Nora Inu: As Kovacs reconnects with a figure from his past, his tangled history with the Protectorate, the Uprising and Quell plays out in flashbacks.
- Clash by Night: His world rocked, Kovacs requests a dipper to help him sew up the Bancroft case quickly. Ortega races to identify the mystery woman from Fight Drome.
- Rage in Heaven: After a devastating rampage, Kovacs and his allies hatch a bold – and very risky – scheme to infiltrate Head in the Clouds.
- The Killers: As a cornered Kovacs braces for a final showdown in the sky, a new hero emerges and more buried secrets come to light.
“Altered Carbon” (2018) is streaming now on Netflix.