This article originally appeared on Crossfader
Immortality. Living forever. Today, it seems like an impossibility: even as our technology advances at a rapid rate, there is no machine or cure to prevent death, the biggest constant in the universe. But what about in a year from now? 10 years? 100? Netflix’s latest series, ALTERED CARBON (based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan), explores these themes in a future where a person’s memories are uploaded into “stacks” and physical bodies (or “sleeves”) can be replaced only too easily. Yet, for all its lofty ambitions and impressive visuals, ALTERED CARBON falls far short of being a show worth watching. From sloppy characters to lazy writing, the show does little to delve into the philosophical questions of immortality and instead becomes a 10-episode science fiction extravaganza, filled with enough gory violence and nudity to rival HBO’s GAME OF THRONES.
250 years after his first “sleeve” was killed, former Envoy rebel Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up in prison with a new body and is given a choice: either solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the wealthiest men in the world, or spend eternity in jail for the crimes he’s committed. While trying to find Bancroft’s killer, Kovacs also begins to discover a deeper conspiracy tied to his own checkered past. The biggest drawback of placing the audience down in such a complex future is that it takes a while for one to keep up with the story; I often found myself pausing and going back 10 seconds to understand what a character was talking about.
Yep, there are still religious fanatics in the future
From the first 15 minutes of the pilot alone, you can tell ALTERED CARBON is one of Netflix’s more extreme shows. In a flashback early on, Kovacs’s lover is executed in front of him by soldiers and his original sleeve is shot to pieces. The constant of bloody violence and graphic nudity seem to make sense for a show that focuses on people moving from one physical body to the next, but it can be a bit jarring and even feel excessive at times for some viewers. The series clearly attempts to follow in the steps of BLADE RUNNER: a hard-boiled, cyberpunk world that shows the seedy underground of the future. Yet the similarities with BLADE RUNNER end there; whilst Ridley Scott’s 1982 film focused on what it meant to be human, ALTERED CARBON’s message deals with the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor.
In the world of ALTERED CARBON, the most wealthy (nicknamed “Meths”) have mansions situated miles above the surface of the earth. They have more than enough money to not only acquire multiple replacement bodies, but also have copies of their memories digitally uploaded. Indeed, even though his physical stack was destroyed, Bancroft is still alive due to digital backups of his memory being stored. On the other hand, the rest of the population can acquire replacement sleeves after their body dies, but they have to go through the aging process again and again with each new sleeve. On the surface, ALTERED CARBON seems to be a simple murder mystery, but by the end of the season, it becomes something else altogether: a critique of the top 1% and the power they hold over the rest of the world.
So. Much. Neon.
There are some things to praise throughout ALTERED CARBON. Even if the writing for his character is lackluster, Joel Kinnaman does a stellar job at portraying Kovacs, a man out of place in both the world and his own body. As I mentioned earlier, the visual effects are spectacular, surpassing any previous Netflix show and perfectly capturing the futuristic Bay City in which the story is set. The series does have some terrific scenes, but that in and of itself is a problem. A show cannot just have one or two great sequences per episode; with so many series available to watch or stream today, it has to be consistently great to keep one’s attention.
The one refreshing thing about the first season of ALTERED CARBON is that it has a definitive ending that ties up all loose threads. Most series nowadays keep storylines over several seasons or at least end on cliffhangers to keep viewers watching (the ending of Season Six of THE WALKING DEAD comes to mind). This storytelling choice could have been made in case Netflix chooses to cancel the show, but the ending gave me hope for a second season that could serve as a fresh start for most of the characters. ALTERED CARBON has plenty of potential, and future seasons could improve on the mistakes of the troubled first season. For now, though, ALTERED CARBON is a weak addition to Netflix’s library; you’d be better off re-watching STRANGER THINGS.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend