One look at Netflix’s Altered Carbon will likely be all that it takes to get even the most causal science fiction fan to prepare their next binge watch. The streaming service reportedly dumped a lot of cash into the series and it’s apparent from the get-go just how much of that money wound up on screen. The production has gone to great lengths to bring the cyberpunk dystopia of Richard K. Morgan’s novel to life, delivering a gritty, neon-trimmed future-scape where human consciousness can be downloaded and transferred from one body to the next through a process called “sleeving,”] effectively affording an infinite number of resurrections to those with the means to do so.
Such a conceit has immense potential and Netflix clearly wanted to offer a visual experience on par with the grand themes at play in the narrative. But while there are some lofty ideas ready to be explored, this is blockbuster television at its most conspicuous. The series is an obvious challenger to the spectacle of HBO’s Game of Thrones, albeit one delivered through the future shock aesthetic of Blade Runner. Like that film and its sequel, Altered Carbon asks the question of what constitutes a human, though in this case the question arises on account of futuristic body swapping ostensibly making natural death a choice. There is also the question of human nature, and whether or not it’s hardwired into the species to seek conflict and to kill, a question that provides the series with plenty opportunity for bloody action sequences and the season’s central mystery.
Despite the weight of those questions, for whatever reason, Altered Carbon is less interested in exploring the notions of humanness than it is in delivering spectacle. By focusing on action set pieces seemingly inspired by The Matrix and sending its displaced (in both time and body) protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (played here by Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, respectively) on a quest to investigate the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) a wealthy “Meth” who has been alive for centuries. The result is a mixed bag; one that desperately wants to blend the most obvious aesthetics of film noir and science fiction, in undisguised imitation of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film that did the same, while also paying superficial lip service to its sprawling philosophical questions with some stilted and unnecessary voiceovers — which, may or may not be another overt homage to the film it’s borrowing so heavily from.
As much as Altered Carbon hovers around quandaries pertaining to the state of being human and the potential ethical concerns associated with the sort of digital immortality granted its characters through “stacks,” the series’ most prevalent theme, and the one it returns time and again, is one of duality. That’s in part because of the two lives Kovacs has lived (and is living, thanks to the magic of flashbacks as a time-killing narrative device), where 250 years in the past he was a freedom fighter, and now, where he’s a hard boiled cybernetically enhanced detective in the form of Joel Kinnaman. But the issue of duality soon becomes indicative of a deeper schism in the narrative itself, as Altered Carbon wants to be both a futuristic murder mystery, and a tale of class warfare entrenched in the spiritual objections of manmade immortality.
There is so much on its plate, so much going on with the plot that Altered Carbon never takes the time to simply be in the world it’s created. There are 10 hours of television and series creator and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (Terminator Genisys) seems intent on filling each and every minute with dialogue. The script in the first hour is a blunt instrument, pummeling the audience with concepts, while characters literally and clumsily tell one another who and what they are. Like Kinnaman’s reborn freedom fighter, there’s no easing into the world or the story; it’s just a series of heated exchanges, flashbacks, and visions meant to check and recheck that the audience is following along. But the world of Altered Carbon and certainly its characters aren’t that complicated, and it’s not long before all of the hand holding being done by the scripts becomes a distraction. There’s a difference between the quality of breathlessness and needing to take a breath. Midway through the second episode it’s clear this series could stand to let some air in.
There is also a disconnect between the two Takeshi’s that’s difficult to overlook. Kinnaman excels at playing the hard boiled cynic; he’s essentially built for the film noir half of the Altered Carbon experience, but flashbacks involving Lee present a character whose differences are more than skin deep. 250 years may separate the two bodies, but there’s no accounting for just how completely different the a new sleeve makes Takeshi seem. Having overslept for two and a half centuries can only account for so much of the personality change. But the show is so intent on bridging the gap between Takeshi's present and his past it simply forces the issue rather than finessing the potential complications of what is literally and out-of-body experience. Splitting the screen with both men’s faces while visions of Takeshi’s rebellious past play between them is about as straightforward as you can get. But it comes at the cost of nuance and the sort of grace notes that would not only make this spectacular new world more interesting but the viewers’ time spent here more worthwhile.
Whether its bogged down by an adherence to the source material or too many plots and subplots being run simultaneously is hard to tell. But the end result is that Altered Carbon is a mixed bag of visual delights and an engaging performance by Kinnaman that is nonetheless hindered by a lack of finesse preventing the series from being a sci-fi event with ideas that are more than skin deep.
Altered Carbon season 1 is currently available in its entirety on Netflix.
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