– By J.W. Fox –
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Netflix did not promote Altered Carbon as much as that new Cloverfield movie. That might have been a mistake. The first season of the unique new sci-fi show has a Blade Runner feel combined with good ole’ fashion Bruce Willis-style shoot’em up action. There are a lot of hooks to reel in plenty of viewers but the plot and sensory overload may chase others away. The show packs so many tropes and story lines into 10 episodes it is too unfocused to achieve greatness despite incredibly interesting subject-matter and an awesome worldbuilding.
Despite wearing many hats, Altered Carbon is mainly about immortality. It is set centuries in the future when humanity has the technology to transfer consciousness from one body to another. The first episode depicts the end of a conflict where factions fought over the question of whether humans out to live forever. Or as they call it, being “spun up” into new “sleeves.” The pro-immortality side won, as you could’ve guessed.
Human consciousness is stored on a small disc-like object called a stack, which is attached to the spine at the base of the neck. A person can die for real, called real death’d or RD’d, if the stack is destroyed. Otherwise, a stack can easily be removed from a dead body and transferred to a new one, like nothing happened.
Takeshi Kovac, played by Will Yun Lee and Joel Kinnaman, was part of a cyber-terrorist group known as the “envoys” who were anti-immortality. They feared it would transform human civilization into a barbaric shell of its former self. The envoys were wiped out and Kovac is put “on ice” or rather his stack was stored for over two centuries until he is awaken to find humanity has, in many ways, degenerated as predicted.
Kovac sees the technology as devaluing human life, leading to an existence devoid of meaning. Without consequences, people can become animals, living out their darkest, violent and hedonistic fantasies. This plays out in Westworld as well. It also plays out when you put the invincibility cheat code into a game. You begin to destroy and act recklessly in an effort to amuse yourself, once the challenge is taken away.
In a dark, twisted, irony, Kovac is awakened and hired by the insanely wealthy Laurens Bancroft, played by James Purfoy, to investigate his murder. They tried to blow out his stack but managed to only kill a body. Bancroft wants to know who tried to kill him for realz. He thinks the unique set of skills of Kovac is right for the job. Considering Kovac has mainly military and terrorist training, it is a bit of a mystery why he would be a good pick to play private detective. Maybe, Bancroft just a sick thrill out of hiring an envoy to solve the sort-of murder of an immortal.
Kovac’s investigation has the feel of a classic noir film, a style that dominates the early episodes. He’s a sullen, cynical operator who drinks away his past. You’ve seen this type of character in a number of movies. Bruce Willis in Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout, and Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine come to mind. Problems are solved through violence and witty one-liners. Unfortunately, Kinnaman does not have the appeal of Willis or Jackman.
Kovac is dangerously close to being a Marty Stu. He has insane hand-to-hand combat skills and is brilliant with a gun. During the torture porn scene, he demonstrates his ability to break VR constructs using his brilliant mind. Then there is his switch from dark, brooding antihero to idealistic hero, from “I don’t give a shit” to the selfless warrior. A tortured, violent, masterless warrior… he is basically Wolverine.
He’s intelligent, powerful, has an extraordinary backstory, and has several women desperate to get into bed with him. Bancroft’s wife makes a pass at him instantly, something that felt painfully obvious and predictable. After some denying the obvious sexual tension, Ortega falls right into his arms. Then there is his all-powerful and villainous sister ready to kill hundreds of people to keep him (No incest angle here, purely familial love).
The show offers a religious perspective on the issue of immortality as well. Detective Kristin Ortega, played by Martha Higareda, supports the use of stack technology because it allows murder victims to testify against their killers. Her family are members of the Neo-Catholic Church, whose believers see organic damage as true death. The consciousness that is transferred to a new sleeve is an abomination. They are deeply disturbed because the technology originated from some kind of alien tree or tech discovered during humanity’s exploration of the stars. That might explain why a stack looks like an ancient artifact or jewel of some kind (maybe they’ll explain that in season 2).
Ortega left the faith and argues with her family regarding the morality of stacks. In fact, she spends most of the show angry. Ortega expresses her vicious animosity toward the wealthy elites, toward her co-workers, toward every criminal she comes across, and toward Kovac. While she is supposedly an ally and heroine, her actions destroy numerous lives around her and tend to make things a lot worse. Despite all the dialogue and screen time, she is one-dimensional and full of that stereotypical “Latino” fire in the blood.
The Bancroft case takes Kovac and Ortega to some of the darkest layers of the city, exposing him to the very worse of the 24th century. The wealthy elites living above the cloud live lives of shameless hedonism whose violent delights know no ends. On the ground, the common folk are distracted from their hard lives by VR distractions, sex clubs, booze, and designer drugs. We’ve become so depraved, your favorite characters will be the non-human characters like Poe.
In the future, life is cheap. Bodies, even more cheap. It seems the show is trying to make a point that only the stack (our consciousness or perhaps our soul) really matters. Bodies are just temporary vessels, something that can be abused or destroyed. Humanity becomes utterly detached, capable of acts of masochistic self-mutilation.
Fighters are willing to fight to the death so long as they get a newer, better sleeve for the next bout. Women sell their bodies, not just for sex, but also to be brutally killed. Snuff films acted out in real life. It seems the only two hobbies in the future are sex and violence, often at the same time.
The show also plays on the lack of value of the body with a healthy amount of gratuitous nudity. There is no modesty or shame in walking around nude let alone have meaningless sex. Our ego, self-esteem, and psyche have an almost non-existent relation to our physical body.
Either that or the show’s producers wanted to follow in the foot steps of Game of Thrones, using boobs to keep the male audience hooked when things got slow. I’d say it’s possible, although the action seldom slowed down. Violence is a large part of the show and gets overdone by the end of the season. You get numb to it. A couple scenes were so graphic and disturbing, they bordered on torture porn. The show might’ve wanted to challenge The Walking Dead for the blood & gore crown.
Neither are necessary for a great show. They have a pattern of diminishing returns.
On the positive side, the show also depicts a society that does not put much importance on gender, since one can change it sleeve to sleeve. One of Kovac’s sort-of allies, Vernon Elliot, is reunited with his wife Eva. Only, her new sleeve is a white man. Ortega’s grandmother is spun up in a white biker lookin’ guy covered in tats with a shaved head. The scenes with these characters partially balances out the numerous scenes of sexual violence and exploitation.
Towards the middle, the show moves away from the noir detective story to explore Kovac’s past. Flashbacks fill in most of the blanks but towards the end, Kovac’s origin story dominates the plot. His reunion with his sister and her revelation about what happened to the Envoys hijacks the story from Bancroft’s murder. At this point, it is hard to tell what the show is really about and whether we should care. The season finale tried to tie everything up but it was not well-executed. Several important plot lines are rushed, including some extremely dramatic moments that are either abbreviated or poorly portrayed. Lizzie Elliot’s resurrection and unexplained powers are two examples. Ortega’s extremely short and unconvincing reaction to the murder of her entire family is another.
The drama surrounding Kovac and his sister is compelling but rushed. Reileen, played by Dichen Lachman, is awesome and terrifying but her dialogue was bland and repetitive. Her evil taunting and posturing fit well in a wrestling ring but felt out of place given the setting.
Poe is by far my favorite character. He is an AI that manages a hotel (he is the hotel). After decades without a single guest, Kovac walks through his door, preferring Poe to humans. Poe reacts with glee, excited to be engaged with humans once again. He grows attached to the other heroes around Kovac, including the mysterious Lizzie Elliot. Poe is compassionate, articulate, dangerous and most of all has an actual character arc.
The action, bad ass one liners, gratuitous nudity, and sick martial arts are enough to enthrall any young male viewer. Unfortunately, the ultra nerdy concepts are set aside for the majority of the first season. It feels like the show is more comfortable being Die Hard in the future than a hard science fiction show. Several deus ex machina moments, including the emergence of Lizzie Elliot as a bad ass in the final episode are one of several storytelling problems that undermine season one.
Storytelling problems aside, Altered Carbon deserves a second season. There is a ton of potential in its unique premise, excellent worldbuilding, and top-notch production values. A little more balance between special effects and storytelling would go a long way. Oh, and bring back Poe!
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.