Altered Carbon, an ambitious science fiction Netflix original show lands today with ten episodes. The slick looking show is a first for the streaming service which hopes to launch several new original properties this month. Of course, in this day and age, the true test of a shows popularity is how much it inspired a crazed marathon of watching. Shows succeed based on their addictive nature. So, the question now is whether or not Altered Carbon is the start of a weekend-long binge watch?
Fans of the 2002 hardboiled cyberpunk science fiction novel
by Richard K. Morgan should tread lightly.
The story of Altered Carbon is as follows: It’s a cyberpunk future with the typical massive, crowded, capitalism-obsessed cities as any other. In this future, death is a thing of the past. A device called a “stack” records our memories, and when people die, those memories upload into a new body called a “sleeve.” Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is an Envoy, a sort of super-soldier from the past who is killed and brought back into a new sleeve, 250 years later.
Fans of the 2002 hardboiled cyberpunk science fiction novel by Richard K. Morgan should tread lightly. Altered Carbon borrows the bare minimum necessary from the novel. It’s not quite a deviation like World War Z, but it’s also not remotely faithful.
Beneath the visuals is a story that begins with
an extended period of exposition.
The vibe of Altered Carbon throughout trailers and previews seemed to hint at a gritty, cyberpunk world. Throughout the first half of episode one, the vistas of such a society are sparse and uninspired. Some moments look like updated Blade Runner visuals, yet we already had Blade Runner 2049, so it seems mediocre by comparison. Cityscapes are reminiscent too of legendary Japanese anime Akira and Neo Tokyo. But again, it all falls short by comparison.
Beneath the visuals is a story that begins with an extended period of exposition. Like the epic towers dotting the city, these spires of story info stretch high. Additionally, it takes a long time to take it all in. But in the end, it’s a building like any other. While the structure might be interesting, the function is the same. At the mid-point of the first episode of Altered Carbon, the show is at a near crawl.
Visually, Altered Carbon is great to look at. It has plenty
of action to keep most viewers entertained.
At the midpoint is when we learn why Kovacs is back. It’s here we learn about the central thrust of the show. The wealthiest man in the world, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) wants to solve a murder — his own. It’s a clever twist and welcomed by this point as the show is meandering.
Viewers hoping Altered Carbon is a spiritual Blade Runner in TV form with an intriguing cyber-noir story may be disappointed. There are inklings of something interesting, and the implications of the way in which humanity can cheat not only death but also upgrade their bodies are the foundation for a fantastic science fiction series. But Altered Carbon just kind of plays out matter-of-factly, never reaching into those kinds of questions; never reaching for a more profound narrative. Instead, it’s content with tropes and faux character building and action. The show also has time for completely flat jokes.
Visually, Altered Carbon is great to look at. It also has plenty of action to keep most viewers entertained. But, as much as Kinnaman tries, his version of Kovacs is less interesting than the previous body, played by Will Yun Lee. But Lee has very little screen time, and Kinnaman’s mopey, uninterested Kovacs makes it hard to stay invested.
Altered Carbon might improve as the season goes on.
Other characters, like Lt. Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), is a law enforcement agent meant to serve as a soft antagonist and love interest for Kovacs. Ortega or Kovacs’ endless hallucinations of his past don’t add a single layer of interest. It all feels very by-the-numbers.
Altered Carbon might improve as the season goes on. But the buildup through the first episode is sparse. It feels like a show that spent more time on style and less on substance. While the visuals and concepts are smart, the story itself plays out with few points of interest. It’s clear Netflix spent money on the show, but they didn’t invest in the story. The narrative of Altered Carbon feels like many other shows of it’s kind. The combined whole makes it hard to justify spending 10 hours this weekend watching the show.