Lavish in its visual effects and elaborate soundstage sets, the cyberpunk sci-fi drama ‘Altered Carbon’ has been proudly hyped as Netflix’s most expensive and ambitious production to date. What the story about? You’ve seen ‘Blade Runner’, right? How about ‘Ghost in the Shell’? Those will give you an idea of what to expect.
Based on a book trilogy by author Richard Morgan, the Netflix series adapts the first novel from 2002 into a ten-episode season that premiered in full last Friday. Presumably, if it’s successful enough, the following two books will get their own seasons.
The pilot episode introduces Chinese-American actor Byron Mann as former space-commando badass Takeshi Kovacs. Shortly afterward, he gets gunned down in a police raid and the show promptly switches from an Asian hero to just about the whitest guy available – Swedish-born Joel Kinnaman, star of ‘The Killing’ and the failed ‘RoboCop’ remake. The same thing happened in the book, and the show is kind-of making a point about personal identity with it, but the change is nonetheless disappointing during a time when issues of Hollywood whitewashing are already on viewers’ minds. Honestly, the race switch would be just as effective and less uncomfortable had it gone the other way.
Kinnaman – who looks like he spent 14 hours a day at the gym for the past year to build up more abs than a human being should rightly have – also stars as Takeshi Kovacs. The story is set in an unspecified future year several centuries from now, at a time when human memories and consciousness are digitally stored in computer chips called “stacks” that get implanted into the base of everyone’s skull. These stacks can be moved from one organic body (or “sleeve”) to another, effectively rendering the concept of death meaningless to anyone who can afford to keep hopping from body to body. Real Death only occurs if the stack is destroyed. Society’s wealthy elite maintain their immortality by keeping multiple clones of their own body on hand, ready to be swapped out whenever the need arises. Those in the lesser strata usually have to make do with whatever new bodies they get stuck with, assuming they’re lucky enough to get one after death, or that they want one. A religious segment of the population called Neo-Catholics abhor the idea of unnatural resurrection (ironic considering that resurrection was kind of a big deal for Jesus) and can be coded to prevent re-sleeving after death.
After his stack is kept in prison storage for 250 years, Takeshi gets revived into a new, tactical-ready body that was paid for by a wealthy benefactor. He awakes and finds himself in the perpetually dark and rainy dystopia of Bay City (formerly San Francisco), which looks pretty much exactly like the version of Los Angeles depicted in the ‘Blade Runner’ movies – neon hologram advertisements, flying cars, the works. He takes this in stride because he’s a special breed of soldier known as an “Envoy,” conditioned to quickly adapt to any new environment he finds himself in. (That’s a pretty useful trait for someone who needs to routinely jump into new bodies on different planets.)
Whether he wants to be or not, Takeshi soon finds himself in the employ of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the richest men in all the settled worlds. Bancroft wants Takeshi to investigate a murder – his murder. Days earlier, Bancroft was killed in his own home. Fortunately, his stack is backed up to remote storage every 48 hours, so he feels fine now. However, because he died shortly before his scheduled backup, he has no memory of the prior two days and can’t identify his killer. He hires Takeshi to do that for him, and offers him an unlimited line of credit to spend as he sees fit. If he finds the killer, he’ll also get a Presidential pardon.
The nature of Takeshi’s crimes against the state are revealed in flashbacks throughout the season, and conveniently tie in with this case. From the start, he’s dogged by sexy police detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), whose interest in him (and his current body) is more than professional. Other major players in the various storylines include Bancroft’s socialite wife (Kristin Lehman, one of Kinnaman’s co-stars from ‘The Killing’), a corrupt lawyer (Tamara Taylor from ‘Bones’), Takeshi’s sister (Dichen Lachman), and an A.I. hotel proprietor programmed with the persona of Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner).
Season Verdict / Grade: B
‘Altered Carbon’ basks in how expensive it is, and wants you to know it every minute. For a TV show, it certainly has a lot of scope and ambition. Nevertheless, the soundstages and visual effects still feel like soundstages and visual effects, and lack the lived-in feel that ‘Blade Runner’ and its sequel excelled at. The setting is very derivative of that franchise, while many of the story themes about the interchangeability of mind and body are lifted straight out of ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Meanwhile, the mystery plot that provides a backbone for this is heavily indebted to film noir classic ‘The Big Sleep’.
In fact, it’s perhaps too indebted to ‘The Big Sleep’ in the wrong ways. That film is famous for the incomprehensibility of its plot, which frankly doesn’t really make much sense. Likewise, Takeshi’s investigation takes many twists and turns that become needlessly confusing and difficult to follow, leading to an anticlimactic ending that peters out well before it’s over. The season would probably be stronger at six episodes, rather than dragged out to ten.
Those issues aside, the show has many merits in its favor. It’s very cool to look at and has some great action set-pieces. Despite the whitewashing, Kinnaman makes an effective (and very jacked) hero. At its best, the show has a lot of fun with the body-swapping conceit. In one amusing storyline, Ortega loads her dead grandmother into the body of a street thug she busted in order to spend time with her during a holiday; later, that same body gets taken over by a ruthless assassin.
The series also features a great deal of gratuitous sex and nudity, if you’re into that sort of thing. Most of the main players, both male and female, take their clothes off at some point. Some of this is justified by the plot, but most of it is pure titillation. An episode late in the season climaxes with an eye-popping scene where one of the major characters (an actress you’ve likely seen in a lot of TV shows) does extensive full-frontal nudity jumping between multiple naked clones of her body during a brutal fight. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like that before.