altered carbon review

Netflix’s new original series Altered Carbon is a big, bold, visually stunning sci-fi extravaganza. Unfortunately, the story the show is telling fails to live up to the jaw-dropping visuals on display, ultimately robbing the series of its power.

Minor spoilers follow.

altered carbon joel kinnaman

A Visual Feast Lacking Sustenance 

Netflix’s bombastic new sci-fi action-drama Altered Carbon comes barreling out of the gate with little or no regard for logic. Here is a show with a rich, complex, confusing mythology that doesn’t give two shits about catching the audience up. Instead, it lays into the viewer, and unfolds a wild, exciting, downright energizing first episode full of jaw-dropping moments and bold decisions.

And then proceeds to blow it.

Adapted from the novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon, created by Alita: Battle Angel co-screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis, is a visual feast, with nearly every inch of every frame seemingly tailor-made to show up as part of the One Perfect Shot Twitter account. Like another visually sumptuous Netflix series, The Crown, so much effort has been poured into creating the world of this show – a distinct, neon-drenched, cyberpunk-infused world where nearly every dollar of the budget is up on the screen. Alas, everyone was so obsessed with getting the look of this show right that they forgot to focus on the 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 alien technology that downloads a person’s consciousness (or soul, if you will) into a little disc dubbed a stack. When the current body, or “sleeve” as everyone calls them, you happen to inhabit dies, due to old age or, more likely, violent trauma, your stack can be slapped onto the back of the neck of a new sleeve, and you’re back. In other words, you live, you die, you live again, to quote a far-superior tale of futuristic entertainment. 

It’s a neat concept, but it also inadvertently lends an unintentional nihilism to the proceedings. Characters can beat, bludgeon and behead each other with very little consequence. Eventually, the show starts to make a statement about this – certain characters start talking about how they need to rebel against immortality and accept death, as this method of eternal life has only made the wealthy more wealthy and the powerful more powerful. But for the most of Altered Carbon’s runtime, the show treats life itself indifferently. It doesn’t matter how much torture or destruction a physical form endures – a new body is just a sleeve away.

So why should we even care what happens to anyone on this show, if the stakes are so low?

It’s a problem Altered Carbon doesn’t quite know how to address, and as a result, it never even tries. Instead, the series is content to be a slice of future-noir borrowing heavily from the Blade Runner playbook. Takeshi Kovacs (Byron Mann) was once a super soldier fighting against the new world order. Then he got himself caught by the powers-that-be, and had his stack locked away in solitary for centuries. Now, Kovacs is brought back to life in a brand new sleeve – that of a dead cop, played by Suicide Squad’s Joel Kinnaman.

Right away, you’ve likely spotted a big problem. Altered Carbon is trafficking in the same exact form of whitewashing that plagued the ill-advised live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell. The original Kovacs is an Asian man now trapped inside the body of a white man. Why, exactly, Netflix thought it was a good idea to go ahead with this concept after so much justified outcry arose around Ghost in the Shell is a mystery, but here we are.

To Altered Carbon’s credit, it gives Kinnaman and Mann almost the same amount of screentime. While Kinnaman’s Kovacs is usually front-and-center, Altered Carbon features extensive flashbacks in nearly every episode giving Mann’s O.G. Kovacs (as he’s called in the credits) plenty of time to shine. Still, the specter of whitewashing is hard to shake off.

Kovacs has been brought out of hibernation to help solve the “murder” of super-rich bad guy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). The “murder” is, of course, subjective, since Bancroft is up and walking around in a new cloned sleeve. As plot devices would have it, Bancroft can’t remember who murdered his previous sleeve, and so now Kovacs must play detective to get to the bottom of it.

Sort of.

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