Netflix’s bombastic new sci-fi action-drama Altered Carbon comes barreling out of the gate and is truly a big, bold, visually stunning sci-fi extravaganza that unfortunately lacks story and a poor choice for a leading man.
Altered Carbon does a great job dropping the viewer in a rich, complex, and confusing world with little hand holding or backstory. Its exciting first episode will have you on the edge of your seat followed by an incredibly trippy second episode that will already expose the lack of depth and holes in the storytelling.
Adapted from the novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon, created by Alita: Battle Angel co-screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, is a visual spectacle, it’s beautiful. This might be the first show I’ve ever seen shot in Vancouver that doesn’t look and feel like it was shot in Vancouver. The only time I noticed it was my hometown is a brief shot of the Lions Gate Bridge in the third episode. This world that has been created is a distinct, neon-drenched, cyberpunk-infused world that looks expensive. It’s a shame some of that money didn’t go to getting a better leading man and a more interesting story.
Set more than 300 years in the future, the world of Altered Carbon is a world free of death. Human beings can seemingly live forever with the help of advanced alien technology that downloads a person’s consciousness (their soul) into a disc called a stack. When the current body, or “sleeve” as everyone on the show refers to them as, you happen to inhabit dies, due to old age or violent trauma, your stack can be installed onto the back of the neck of a new sleeve, and you’re back in action. Essentially, you live, you die, you live again. That thought makes me uncomfortable and intrigued.
It’s a pretty cool concept but it means the stakes are low. Take our hero, for example, Takeshi Kovacs played by both Byron Mann in the past and Joel Kinnaman in the present. Yes, this is the same exact form of whitewashing that plagued the ill-advised live-action remake of Ghost In The Shell last year. The original Kovacs is an Asian man now trapped inside the body of a white man. I don’t really know why Netflix didn’t nix this idea and keep Kovacs Asian in both the present and future. Kinnaman isn’t enough of a star to pull in viewers so the reasoning doesn’t make much logic.
My biggest gripe with the show is Kinnaman’s performance. He’s not likable or exciting to watch. It’s nice to see Mann in each episode via extensive flashbacks giving O.G. Kovacs (as he’s listed in the credits) something to do. He’s a total badass and shows such a range of emotions that it’s a total bummer when the show comes back to Kinnaman and his broody monotone performance. Mann is such a better actor that I really wish he was the lead. He oozes charm and personality and would have helped avoid another case of whitewashing in Hollywood.
Kovacs has been awoken from digital hibernation (he was sentenced to jail for 250 years) to help solve the “murder” of the extremely rich and powerful Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft is now walking around as a cloned sleeve and can’t remember the48 hours leading up to his death and needs Kovacs to find the murderer. Gumshoe Kovacs on the case!
Once the murder-mystery storyline is in motion the show falls apart. Now only six episodes were available for review and I’m curious to finish the series and see where it goes but it already feels like the wheels are spinning. The visuals are one of the only thing keeping me hooked.
I like that there’s little hand holding and the world created in Altered Carbon is pretty damn neat. There’s some really cool mythology at play and I love the character of Poe (Chris Conner) who’s a weird AI version of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe runs the Ravel Hotel and steals every scene with his charm. I’m also curious to find out if there are others who take after famous people from our time on Earth. Poe does have friends outside the hotel that might play a big part in the future.
Unfortunately, other side characters aren’t as interesting. Officer Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) is your typical hard working cop who has no time for family and constantly fights with her superior. And there’s Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh) who plays Kovac’s enemy turned sidekick who is fun to watch but doesn’t offer much to the story.
There are enough subplots and little details sprinkled throughout Altered Carbon to make it a very enjoyable show going into season 2. There are scenes I wish we got more information on like a Dia de Muertos celebration which shows people refusing to have their stacks uploaded to new sleeves in order to celebrate life as something finite rather than infinite.
It’s clear a ton of work has gone into the show and there are some great things at play but it just never clicked for me. There’s a really interesting show hidden somewhere there and I think it would have been a stronger show if we saw the world through multiple character’s eyes. Only seeing the world through Kovak’s eyes becomes tiresome fast.
To make up for the story the show does have some incredible martial arts set pieces. This is a violent show. It’s also full of full-frontal nudity and at points feels like a sci-fi erotic thriller from the 80s. Can we get some of these awesome martial arts scenes in the next season of Daredevil, please?
If you’re looking for a highly visual show with some rock solid action scenes then Altered Carbon should be high on your list and I”m still curious to see where the series goes once I have access to all the episodes. Until then, I’m on the fence. There are some really great things at work but the show is very disjointed and oftentimes boring.
The first episode is so damn good that it’s such a shame the rest of the episodes couldn’t keep that momentum going.
Altered Carbon premieres February 2, 2018 on Netflix.