Netflix took an ambitious step into original programming with Altered Carbon, a science fiction action series soaked in cyberpunk. The series features some slick visuals. It also attempts to blend noir and sci-fi to tell a mystery that spans centuries. It all sounds great, right? But does the show alter the landscape of television science fiction for the better, worse or not at all?
Immortality remains mostly attainable
only for the rich and powerful.
On the series, Envoy (think: super soldier) Takeshi Kovacs, first played by Will Yun Lee, dies at the hands of the people who made him — the CTEC. However, in the world of Altered Carbon, death can be cheated. Everyone has a “stack,” an implant that records all memories, thoughts, and intelligence. The stack can be switched into a new body, a “sleeve,” making immortality possible.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets to enjoy such luxuries. Immortality remains mostly attainable only for the rich and powerful. Now, two-hundred and fifty years after Kovacs’ death in the opening sequence, he’s back, but for reasons unknown. In this new world, Joel Kinnaman plays Kovacs.
By the end of episode one, we know that Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the most wealthy and powerful men in the inhabited worlds, brought Kovacs back. Why? Laurens needs Kovacs to solve the murder of the gazillionaire’s last sleeve. Kovacs, as per requirement of the genre, our reluctant hero takes the job.
Another box to tick off is the sprawling metropolis of
most every story set in this type of future.
Altered Carbon lazily meanders its way through the story. Dry narration, likely inspired by Harrison Ford’s uninterested after-the-fact work in Blade Runner, hovers over nearly every episode of the series. And like Ridley Scott adding narration was unnecessary, it’s also superfluous here. It feels as though the creators had boxes to check and cyberpunk must have narration because of its close ties to noir.
Another box to tick off is the sprawling metropolis of most every story set in this type of future. Picture New York, but ten times bigger with buildings that are ten times higher. Neon lights? Check! Congested, multicultural street markets? Yessir! Flying cars? You know it!
Altered Carbon indeed suffers from tropes. It’s a necessary evil, as all genre entertainment will fall into it here and there. So, it’s not to be held against the show. However, there is a definite lack of anything new added to the whole.
The thrust of Altered Carbon is the murder-mystery.
Stacks and the implications of potential immortality are two things that could serve a fascinating narrative. But as the episodes wear on, the show stays very surface level on most ideas regarding body-switching.
The thrust of Altered Carbon is the murder-mystery. But as we go along we learn about Kovacs’ previous life as a freedom fighter. However, we don’t see much of the world that he’s fighting for. It all comes off as if the world didn’t change in 250 years. Present-day Kovacs walks out into the world as if he’d been there before. There’s never a sense of confusion, even seconds after he wakes from a two and a half century sleep. Kovacs is up. He’s out. We’re on our way.
About that deviation from cyberpunk that I mentioned.
Altered Carbon’s biggest strengths are its visuals and the genre itself. Everything it borrows feels like genuine cyberpunk — most of the time. More on that later though. Another bonus of the series is the graphic violence and nudity. For fans of R-rated material, Altered Carbon delivers big time.
About that deviation from cyberpunk that I mentioned. An episode late in the series altogether takes a left turn away from everything that’s going on. Much like Eleven’s solo mission in Stranger Things season two, Kovacs of the past gets nearly an entire episode. And it’s a plodding, contrived backstory to serve as an exposition bomb explaining one of the show’s central twists.
Altered Carbon is based on Richard K. Morgan’s
2002 novel of the same name.
Exposition is a big problem throughout the series. It’s endless and comes from three sources. Narration, flashbacks, and dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s like being in an MMA bout with your arms tied behind your back. The show pummels with information time and time again.
Altered Carbon is based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel of the same name. However, as per usual with any show based on a book, there are significant changes to the narrative. For instance, Reileen Kawahara, Kovacs’ sister (Dichen Lachman) gets a much more significant role here. So, fans of the book should watch with an open mind as if this were (mostly) its own thing.
Is Altered Carbon worth a watch?
Netflix no-doubt pumped a lot of money into the production. Sets are beautiful, and though sparse, vistas of the city and future-tech are wonderfully rendered. Past the pretty, there’s little else to love. Kovacs is about as bland as can be. The story offers twists that cause little more than a pressed-lip nod. And most of the time, the twist is ruined by explanations for the sudden turn which drags the whole thing down.
Is Altered Carbon worth a watch? Meh. It has some moments of interest, but they come few and far between. Most of the time it feels like Netflix picked up a SyFy Channel idea and pumped HBO money into it. It’s pretty, but ultimately forgettable by the time the end credits roll.
Are you going to watch Altered Carbon? Have you already? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.