Altered Carbon Puts Familiar Noir in a Rich Beautiful Naked Sleeve

first_img Netflix is Launching New ‘Altered Carbon’ and ‘Pacific Rim’ Anime SeriesT-Shirt Tuesday: The Best Cyberpunk Shirts Stay on target Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey.center_img The world appears to be coming back around on cyberpunk. The neon-covered subgenre of sci-fi enjoyed a heyday in the 80s/early-90s, and then it just kind of faded into the background. Gone were the days when everyone was freaking out over how great Neuromancer was or making over-the-top and instantly dated movies about hacking. People were still writing Cyberpunk stories, but outside of The Matrix, few of them crossed into the mainstream. Thanks to The X-Files, we all became obsessed with alien abduction and government conspiracy. In the 2000s, we all flirted with steampunk for a bit before we realized that we all looked really stupid putting gears on everything. Dark fantasy has been the genre go-to for a while now, but it’s looking like Game of Thrones might close the door on that one on its way out. And since we’re all hooking our lightbulbs, door locks and sex toys up to the internet, inviting countless scary security vulnerabilities, what better time for cyberpunk to make a comeback.Just in the last year, we got a new Blade Runner and a new Ghost in the Shell (hey, they can’t all be winners). Over in the video game world, the makers of The Witcher series, the closest thing the medium has to Game of Thrones, are leaving the swords and magic behind for their next game, which is just called Cyberpunk 2077. And here on Netflix, we have Altered Carbon. A Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk noir mystery based on the 2002 novel. I say Blade Runner-esque because from episode one, that’s the tone it’s going for. It’s a detective story in an overwhelming futuristic society. It takes its premise to a logical conclusion about what happens when humanity gets its hands on certain technology. It starts to ask the question of what part of us makes us human, though it never takes the question quite as far as Blade Runner did. It even has the main character’s noir-style voice over like Blade Runner’s theatrical cut. Yeah, not every classic pull was a good idea.Ato Essandoh, Joel Kinnaman (Photo via Netflix)Altered Carbon takes place in a world where humans have developed the technology to store their entire consciousness in a removable chip called a stack. Bodies then, are simply sleeves. Many people can afford to go from one body to another, but the process causes some mental decay after a while. If you’re truly rich, you can have your body cloned and preserved, able to jump into your prime self whenever your current sleeve gets old or damaged. Destroying someone’s stack is the only way to permanently kill them. The process is called “real death,” but like pretty much everything in this world, there’s a way around it if you have the means. Rich people can keep periodic backups of their stacks just in case they get real deathed. If someone is killed that way, they can be revived, though they won’t have any memory in between the last backup and the moment they’re brought back. Those missing hours are what drive the mystery of this first season. A rich man named Laurens Bancroft was murdered by a weapon only he and his wife had access to. The murder occurred just before his stack made its scheduled backup. He has no memory of the two days that led up to his death. So he has a former anti-government mercenary who’s been in prison (which is essentially having your stack put in sleep mode) for the last 200 years released. Takeshi Kovacs is placed into the sleeve of a white man, a cop (we later learn) framed for corruption. Bancroft hires Kovacs to find out who killed him. In return, Kovacs gets his freedom.So what we have is a straightforward film noir detective story dressed in elaborate sci-fi trappings. The story does go to interesting places, and has a few surprises up its sleeve, but it all ties back to the mystery. As wild as the show gets, it feels like it always returns to that familiar template. It’s one of the disappointments of the series. All of its original ideas are confined to branches and detours. Though you might not guess the exact outcome of the case, you definitely know how it ends. With a man smartly narrating to a room full of shocked people, broken up by sped-up flashbacks. It’s an oddly by-the-numbers ending to a show that had previously felt new and different. On its own, playing in familiar detective story tropes isn’t a bad thing. It gives you something familiar to hold onto when everything else looks like completely new territory.Will Yun Lee, Nora Inu (Photo via Netflix)The problem comes with the series’s pacing and structure. It spends long periods of time away from the central mystery. Whole episodes go by with Kovacs getting caught up in some plot that doesn’t seem to matter much at all. By the time he actually does check in or start putting puzzle pieces together, it’s less of a cool deductive reveal and more of a, “Oh yeah, he’s supposed to be solving something.” To the show’s credit, it all ties together nicely in the end. Everything eventually is revealed to have a purpose, making for a solid final few episodes. But when the show gives you no indication that any of these different storylines and characters are connected, it’s hard not to wonder why it’s spending so much time on them.Most of its pacing problems come from an over-reliance on its streaming format. This is a show made for Netflix. It’s designed to be binged in one or two sittings. Binging is a bad way to watch something if you want to remember specifics, and Altered Carbon counts on that. That’s why it feels it can have whole episodes where nothing happens. It can introduce some random new element without having to make it pay off in the same hour. Just as long as it gets addressed at some point before the finale. And because Netflix ferries you from one episode to the next, it’s easy to forgive the sins of one as long as the next one grabs your attention again. And Altered Carbon knows when it needs to win you back. It’s very good at it. Overall, I really liked this series. It’s fun, the story is captivating and the acting is all really good. It just has some serious flaws, including a few episodes that seriously drag and don’t hold up on their own. I don’t think it should get a pass on these issues just because its format makes them easy to ignore.James Purefoy (Photo via Netflix)It also has the annoying habit of either undermining or over-explaining every point it tries to make. That grumbly voiceover, while a staple of classic noir doesn’t do anything for the story. It reminds me a little two much of the Harrison Ford voiceover added in post-production to the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Whenever Altered Carbon gives us anything approaching a powerful image, like the museum that casts Kovacs’ former love as a terrorist villain, Kovacs has to talk over it and explain it to you. It’s relying on telling because someone didn’t have confidence in the series’s ability to show. Then, there are the moments where it undermines itself. It presents a world where inequality and unfettered capitalism have irrevocably widened the gap between rich and poor. Where a rich man can kill a poor woman for sexual pleasure as long as he buys her a new body when he’s done. Where the same rich man can pay even more to kill a woman who doesn’t know she won’t be coming back to life. And it has nothing to say about how we got there. Its point comes across as more “some rich people are bad” rather than looking at the system that allows these rich men so much power.Other attempts at making some kind of statement are just dropped. There’s one great sequence where Bancroft seemingly uses his wealth to do something good. He goes into a quarantined area where people are infected by a deadly plague. The sickness spreads on contact and he gives them the warmth and human comfort they’ve been separated from for so long. His body contracts the sickness and he dies, only to be resurrected in a new sleeve a few seconds later. It looks charitable, but then we see the real reason he did it. Now, the poor are worshiping him as a god. It’s a haunting commentary about how we as a society venerate the rich. Sacrificing our public services and our health in the hope that they deign to show us a second of affection. After this scene is over though, the issue is no more. We never hear about it again. Later in the season, we spend a long time learning that Kovacs and his lover wanted to destroy the stack technology. Arguing that these atrocities were caused by the removal of death, and our humanity along with it. But it’s not like inequality just goes away because rich people can die again. Also, this would have been a great opportunity to really wrestle with the question of humanity. If our entire consciousness is stored on a chip that can be inserted into anybody, which part is the human? Is it the artificial piece of silicon? But this idea is never really brought up. Any questions about the nature of humanity are dropped once the long flashback episode ends.Martha Higareda, Joel Kinnaman (Photo via Netflix)The way it treats bodies is also suspect. A lot has been said about the nudity and violence on this show, and yes it is a little much. Characters get their clothes off for the slightest of justifications. Either because it’s been a while since we’ve had a sex scene and the audience needs some incentive to pay attention to the exposition that comes after, or just because the shower is a really good place to glower. Look, I like looking at pretty naked people just like everyone else does. But in a show about the horror of commodifying bodies, it turns awkward real quick, and not always in the way the show intends. It expects us to be shocked as sex workers are used as props by the rich, their bodies were thrown away and replaced when they’re broken. Then, it tries to titillate us one scene later with closeups of butts and breasts because we can afford $11 a month for a premium streaming service. This wouldn’t stick out so much as a question of the scenes weren’t so gratuitous and ever-present throughout the season.At worst, it undermines a major point it tries to make. In the middle of the series, we meet a couple who fight to the death. The winner gets a new combat-enhanced sleeve; the loser gets a downgraded one. They kill each other for the pleasure of the rich, and the show makes it very clear that the reason they do this is because it’s the only way they can make money. When Kovacs is forced into the fight, and maims but does not kill the husband, his wife starts crying. They can’t afford to fix his sleeve. The only way he gets better is if he dies. It’s a powerful moment, and one of the strongest scenes in the season. A few episodes later, a seemingly endless stream of naked clones rushes at one of the protagonists, each brutally gunned down for our entertainment. It’s a show that indulges in the same sins it tries to take a stance against. Visually, it’s a stunning sequence and a well-choreographed fight. But it comes at the cost of weakening the show’s own arguments.Joel Kinnaman, Dichen Lachman (Photo via Netflix)So yeah, the show has some problems, but it also does a ton of stuff right. The mystery takes some really interesting turns along the way, delivering genuinely earned shocks. The cast is fantastic, giving their full commitment to every line, even when it gets ridiculously heavy-handed. The production design is gorgeous. Every frame of the screen is covered in money. Well-spent money, too. Not only does everything look like the future, but it also looks like a future people live in. Every little piece of the set is packed with detail. Every prop and piece of set dressing has a purpose. Every shot gives you an immediate sense of place and how the people of this world live in it. The worldbuilding on this show is so good you don’t mind that it comprises almost all of the first episode. The story doesn’t really start going anywhere until episode two, but watching the show spend an hour setting everything up is fascinating by itself.Altered Carbon’s flaws would be a much bigger deal if everything else about it wasn’t so much fun. It’s beautifully directed, and as many action sequences as there are, they never get boring. Each one is different, and the fight choreography is brutal and captivating. Even its reliance on detective noir tropes is excusable. Introducing a general audience to a world this complex takes work, and this series takes the time it needs to do that work. As well as it does the worldbuilding, you can excuse a slightly simpler plot. All its flaws are things that can be easily fixed in a second season. Now that we’re familiar with the world, it can focus on telling a more complex story in its next outing. Now that Kovacs’ goal is more focused, the series can more fully explore the implications of the stack technology. Even with its problems, Altered Carbon is a fun, beautiful series that’s absolutely worth the 10 hours it takes from you. After seeing what its first season has to offer, I’d be happy to give it ten more.last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *