ALTERED CARBON: Season One Review

When Netflix streaming first launched, its viewing algorithm was a useful tool to recommend films and TV shows you’d like based on your streaming habits. In the past couple of years, this has expanded- and now it feels like the company greenlights original programming based on whatever is proving popular with viewers. This is an ingenious method (from a business perspective at least) to distract viewers from “third party content” and to fall down the rabbit hole of Netflix originals that have been tailor made to suit their interests.

Although it’s an adaptation of an award winning 2002 novel, the TV adaptation of Altered Carbon looks nothing more than a by-the-numbers attempt to create a dystopian sci-fi show in order to capture the attention of those hoping to watch Blade Runner instead. Whatever personality was present in Richard K. Morgan’s novel is absent from creator/showrunner Laeta Kalogridis’ ten part first season- a passion project fifteen years in the making, that finally arrives on screens feeling passionless and devoid of any distinct character whatsoever.

The first episode opens with a voiceover telling us that “the first thing you’ll learn is nothing as it seems- ignore your assumptions”. Altered Carbon then proceeds to play out exactly as your assumptions would lead you to believe. After being shot and wiped out for hundreds of years, Japanese mercenary Takeshi Kavocs (Joel Kinnaman, in the Scarlett Johansson-style role of “white person portraying a Japanese character”) wakes up in a new “sleeve”, a new host body where a person’s consciousness, or “stack”, can be uploaded effortlessly. If the body dies, the consciousness remains alive, but only becomes active when transferred into another sleeve. However, the expense of changing bodies multiple times, and the toll of the ageing process, means only the wealthy “meths” choose the path of immortality.

Upon being waken up in a new sleeve, Kavocs initially plans on killing himself a day later after a brief vacation into the new 26th century world. Not long after, however, he finds himself being called upon by meth Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who after being resleeved and told he committed suicide in his old host body, needs to get to the bottom of his amnesia. Asking for help from Kavocs, he believes he was murdered- and needs Kavocs’ detective skills to help detect the culprit.

Across the ten part season, Altered Carbon does successfully explore the world it is building- taking us on tours everywhere from digital torture chambers to underground fight clubs and brothels in the sky. The show is even invested in its own mythology, and adds historical context for the reality Kovacs finds himself in via a mid-season, borderline feature-length episode. Kalogridis originally planned on getting the project off the ground as a feature film, but the move to TV has definitely helped the show manage to flesh out its world in accordance to the expansive source material.

Altered Carbon

The major flaw of this, however, is that we are presented with a dystopian future that isn’t remotely dystopian. A recent film such as Blade Runner 2049 attracted criticism due to its portrayal of women, for example: a criticism that seemed like a moot point considering the regressive dystopian society it depicted. Here, women are equally fetishised, but the world they live in isn’t painted in the damning light it needs to be. Instead, we’ve got a high-tech future where the advancements in society are presented with wonderment, and the more regressive attitudes are painted with noted neglect in comparison. Airing on Netflix a week after the President’s Club scandal, where Britain’s richest men placed bets on plastic surgery to “spice up your wife”, there is something a tiny bit tone deaf about an advert (played as an irreverent sight gag) for sleeve replacement with the tagline “put your wife in me!”

Furthermore, the theme of religion (in the Altered Carbon universe, religion plays a big part on an individual’s decision to be resleeved) is rarely utilised to the extent it deserves, especially considering its prominence within the source material- meaning that for all the R-rated sex and violence extensively featured, it still feels sanitised and shorn of its rougher and potentially more controversial edges.

As for the characters who populate this world, don’t expect any intriguing personalities. Joel Kinnaman seems unsure whether to play Takeshi Kovacs as a Han Solo-style droll badass, or an existential misery guts merely wading through his continued existence in a new sleeve. In the fourth episode, which largely revolves around him being subjected to high-tech torture, there are glimmers of hope that the character’s personality is finally being realised- but after a badass climax to this episode, he reverts back to being the same dull archetype. This moment here is also the sole moment when the staging of the action feels exciting; from episode five onwards, it has all the visual grace of watching somebody play a video game.

The only character who shows any glimmer of personality is detective Kristin Ortega, played by Martha Higareda. Although an archetype of a tough female cop, Ortega manages to transform a cliched character into the show’s one continued joy- her performance feels like a scientific experiment to blend the personalities of Rosa and Santiago from Brooklyn Nine-Nine into one character. This isn’t a flippant comparison either, as Higareda is the only performer in the show who manages to turn the contrived dialogue she’s been given into something genuinely hilarious; a particular character (and show) highlight sees her spit out considerable vitriol at a prisoner speaking too loud near her while on the phone to her mother.

At the end of the season, Altered Carbon winds up feeling largely forgettable. Despite building and exploring its world, it can’t help but feel formulaic and devoid of any original ideas- and the lack of personality emanating from the majority of the characters doesn’t particularly help either.

Review Summary

If a second season is greenlit, then Netflix are going to want to alter almost everything about this carbon to transform it into the must-see sci-fi event it thinks it is. 

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