Altered Carbon

Now Streaming: ‘Altered Carbon’

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).

Verdict

‘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.

Grade: B

13 comments

  1. cardpetree

    “but the change is nonetheless disappointing during a time when issues of Hollywood whitewashing are already on viewers’ minds.”

    Probably not on most normal people’s minds. It’s certainly not on my mind. I couldn’t care less. I don’t give a shit if characters are white, black, male, female, American, Korean. I really don’t care. I just want to see good movies and good shows. I’m 5 episodes in and this show is pretty good btw.

  2. Movie Watcher

    If you’ve got a OLED set, this show is jaw dropping in Dolby Vision. Unlike some of the other Netflix releases, it’s razor sharp, has essentially no noise/grain, and great depth and color. I’m on the last episode and while it’s not the greatest thing I’ve watched, it’s pretty good and well worth the time spent watching it.

    • Ally

      I have an LG OLED. Watching via LG or Apple TV, the Dolby Vision suffers from the known DV technical issue of elevated black levels. I prefer the look via Roku in HDR10.

  3. Timothy Daniel

    It’s a decent story, but I’m also stuck on the fact that the whole premise is based on a “Murder,” when no murder, in the traditional sense, occurred. Dude lost two hours. Big deal. If nobody ever truly dies, then there’s no such thing as murder, right?

    In addition, it’s a small point, but I think the portion of society that doesn’t believe in “sleeving” are Neo-Catholics and not Neo-Christians — but I could be wrong.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      You’re right, it’s Neo-Catholics. I’ve made an edit, thanks. Still, Catholicism is a branch of Christianity, so my point about resurrection stands.

      Bancroft lost two days. Additionally, the killer tried to hack his satellite that contained his backups, so there was some fear that another attempt would kill him permanently. Even so, the fact that he is virtually immortal makes the stakes pretty low for Takeshi as the hero. That’s certainly an issue with the story.

  4. Dan Snoddy

    A small point, but the pilot starts off with Chinese-American actor Byron Mann playing Kovacs before he is “reborn” as Joel Kinnaman and not Will Yun Lee. Lee plays the original Kovacs in the story, but for how the show is laid out he’s the third Kovacs introduced. A nitpick, I know, but if people are going to harp on the supposed whitewashing they need to have their facts accurate. The flashback episode where Korean-American Will Yun Lee plays Kovacs for the vast majority of the episode is one of the best of the season. I get the concept of whitewashing I just don’t think it’s justified for this series. Casting a white guy as the main version of Kovacs fits with the source material. It would really only be whitewashing if the main version was supposed to be non-white and they made the character white instead. I’m normally all for Social Justice Warriors, I just think the attention being paid to whitewashing, in this review and elsewhere, is unfair. Harping on perceived whitewashing detracts from just how wonderfully diverse the cast of Altered Carbon is.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      Fair point about the actor mix-up. I wrote this review after watching the entire season, and I got confused on who played the character at what point. I’ve amended the post, thanks.

      I acknowledge that the supporting cast of this show is pretty diverse. Nonetheless, when it came time for the hero to settle into the main identity he’ll be known as for the majority of the series, they yanked him out of an Asian body and put him into a white one. Whether the book did the same thing or not, that’s a damned questionable decision. The show-runners were basically asking for controversy, and are now feigning surprise when they get it.

      • Dan Snoddy

        I’ve got no idea where you’re getting your idea that “The show-runners were basically asking for controversy, and are now feigning surprise when they get it.” That’s just straight up wrong, Josh. Here’s a link to a really nice Hollywood Reporter article about the road Altered Carbon took to the screen where Laeta Kalogridis, the show runner, talks about the perceived whitewashing controversy.

        https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/altered-carbon-inside-dramas-15-year-road-netflix-1080944

        Here’s the chunk of the article where she addresses the claims of whitewashing:

        The plot isn’t the only thing that’s complex in Altered Carbon. Its racial politics are also thorny, and the series has already been charged with whitewashing in its concept of an Asian man (played in his original original adult form by Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee) literally waking up in the body of a white guy. Kalogridis, who worked on the script for Ghost in the Shell before Scarlett Johansson was cast, is nothing if not sensitive to the issue, and she said she understands the concerns of those critics even if she doesn’t agree.

        “Of course I worry about whitewashing and I feel very strongly that whitewashing was, is and continues to be a problem in entertainment,” says Kalogridis, who was herself critical of Johansson’s casting. “And I wanted as much as possible to try and mitigate those concerns. But I want to be really clear that I can’t be the arbiter of whether or not I succeeded. The audience will have to see how they feel about it.”

        In attempting to avoid charges of whitewashing, Kalogridis greatly expanded on Kovacs’ backstory in the scripting stage, taking what amounted to “a couple of sentences” in the novel and substantially fleshing it out. This change, she says, offers an emotional window into the character that wasn’t present on the page.

        “By creating the story of Kovacs as he grew up … I was able to create a part for an Asian man in a leading role in this television show where he becomes emotionally as important as Joel, [and] is represented as opposed to talked about in the past,” says Kalogridis, who points out that this storytelling choice provided roles for three different actors of Asian heritage. “So a whole different and much richer … storyline that has a lot of meaning and a lot of emotion and informed every single thing that happens in the present day, you see Will Yun Lee embodying that part. … Very significantly, I didn’t want to erase Kovacs’ Asian heritage. I wanted to play it up and to mine it.”

        You’re entitled to your opinion, but you can’t say that Ms. Kalogridis “feigns surprise” about the claims of whitewashing. As she says, “I can’t be the arbiter of whether or not I succeeded.” If you see whitewashing, you see whitewashing. I see a beautifully diverse cast in an excellent science fiction show that does what the best science fiction is supposed to do, make us confront uncomfortable social ideas in the guise of entertainment.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          That article is exactly what I was referring to. “Whitewashing? Who, me? Gosh, I would never do that!” Meanwhile, in season 2 the Asian hero will be played by Armie Hammer.

  5. Ally

    It is not true that Altered Carbon is Netflix’s most expensive series. I see multiple sources stating that The Get Down is by far Netflix’s most expensive series.

  6. Boston007

    I watched the first episode and it’s almost unbearable to watch. Absolutely gorgeous picture but just awful. Not a fan of any of these actors, especially the lead. Not sure if I will continue watching.

  7. Thulsadoom

    We’ve been watching it, and only have a couple of episodes left. It’s not bad. Very “Let’s make Blade Runner the series!”, but almost too much. It’s fun, but I’m not sure it would’ve held our interest if it was weekly. The plot is very generic over-convoluted anime type stuff. All trying to be deep and meaningful, but not anywhere near as deep as it thinks it is. Still, it’s fun, and looks great.

    I don’t get the whitewashing thing in this instance. Whitewashing is if a white actor is used instead of an actor of a character’s original ethnicity, or a reference to Hollywood’s over-use of white people in films/tv overall. If the original book is like this, then I think people would rightly cry foul if it was changed to avoid any perceived ‘whitewashing’, because you’re then changing the story for the sake of an agenda.

    Stories should just be stories, and we shouldn’t go changing them just ‘because’, whichever way around the ethnic or gender role-swapping is. Films and TV are moving into a minefield at the moment. The whole point of TV and film is that it’s not real, with actors playing a part. Will we get to a point where region becomes an issue? Someone can’t put on an accent, we can only have actors who naturally have that accent? Can someone who was raised in the north not play a character raised in the south? I know I’m stretching the point, but it does feel like there’s a level of over-compensation kicking in now. Let’s just make good stories, and not care about what gender or race the characters are.

    Besides, this is science fiction, with characters swapping in and out of bodies of different gender and ethnicity all the time. Surely the thing to take away is that the ‘sleeve’ isn’t what defines a person? Instead we’re still getting hung up on the ethnicity of the lead actor… There’s more than a touch of irony in that… 😉

  8. William Henley

    I had only “heard” of Altered Carbon’s existance, and knew absolutely nothing about it. Based on the review, this sounds exactly like the kind of sci-fi I like. I will have to give it a shot.

    One of the thing that does bother me about a lot of made-for-streaming or made-for-cable series is needless nudity. I am usually okay if it adds to the story (for example, I am okay with the Terminator movies – its part of the story), but you get into something like Electronic Sheep on Amazon, and its like “hey, we have no censors, lets throw in stuff for shock value”. Except it is no longer shock value, as HBO has been doing it for over a decade. So now, its not part of the story, its no longer shocking, it is needless filler that is going to alienate part of your audience.

    As far as white washing, I don’t think that is really fair in a body swapping story – the best body swapping stories are when there is a swap in race or gender, as now we have a fish-out-of-water story. Going back to Electronic Sheep, we had both (although we are dealing with implanted memories as opposed to body swapping, but similar idea). I don’t know though if I like the idea that he is engineered to quickly adapt, though – struggling with your new identity is also what makes body swap stories so great.

    In any case, the concept sounds like it is right up my alley, so I may start it in the next few days, and I will get back to you after I have seen an episode or two.

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