Altered Carbon’s Wasted World
As I was thrust into the world of Altered Carbon, I did not know what to expect. I’ve never read the books, hell, I’ve only heard of them a handful of times before the Netflix show came out. The first episode’s aesthetic and feel had me all in, hook, line and sinker. Great visuals and an intriguing world, full of interesting ideas and moral quandaries. The baseline neo-noir detective tale reminded me of the brilliant first season of The Expanse. I wanted to see more.
Good sci-fi uses its premise to ask questions about us as people. Beyond Star Trek’s technobabble rested questions such as “what is humanity?” and “what is peace?”, the aforementioned Expanse forces us to question whether colonising space will really suddenly change our violent nature. Altered Carbon goes straight for the soul. Taking the body out of the equation is an interesting idea and the first episode hits all the right beats. However, while most sci-fi uses story to further explore the world they’re set in, Altered Carbon seems content to have the story skim through a lot of fascinating aspects. While moments of fun exploration like Ortega’s grandma going to a family dinner in a junkie’s sleeve happen, they still lack any real importance or impact.
There’s something wrong with a story set in a world with reusable bodies if none of the three main characters ever lose the body throughout the show. Sure, we see some flashbacks with Takeshi’s two previous bodies. But other than that, the show seems almost afraid to challenge the viewer with another portrayal of the same character. For whatever reason, the show even chickens out of showing Takeshi’s off-world operations in the flashbacks, heaven forbid the viewer would actually have to process the entire point of Takeshi’s superhuman abilities. Instead, we get glimpses of half-cooked magic. Sometimes, Kovacs sees through walls, other times he just does that modern-Sherlock thing with really quickly connecting the dots. As a whole, the only reliable skill he seems to have is the screenwriter’s penchant for wasting Joel Kinnaman’s considerable range on one of the most boring, emotionless characters we’ve ever seen.
Every single plot-related decision outside of flashback-land seems to be hellbent on keeping a simple cast intact. If a character from Takeshi’s/Ortega’s entourage dies, they die for real, just to make sure we don’t have a single chance of them seeing them in a different body. In fact, the only characters of any plot significance we see in different bodies are Rei and Ava, leading to some of the more interesting moments of the tail end of the season. Ava getting used to her new body, Rei consistently messing with Tak are both great uses of the setting for the benefit of the story. But then, just like that, it’s gone. At the end of the series, everybody comes back to their old body, Tak will probably pull a clone of his OG body, Ryker’s going to enjoy a brand new printed body and Ortega will have fun with her turbo arm. Even Lizzie got a synthetic body resembling her, while Ava got hers back from storage. In a world where sleeves are quite obviously just a little bit less disposable than clothes, the screenwriters sure seem hellbent on making sure that everybody stays in their original form.
Imagine if we’d get to see Ortega (who has been said to never be re-sleeved) in a new sleeve. Perhaps one of a criminal she once locked up. Imagine her mother’s reaction. Imagine if the pointless flashback episode was substituted with one of the main character’s struggles with accepting their new identity and later accepting that a body means nothing in that world. Imagine a reunion between Ryker and Ortega with both in different bodies and them having to decide whether their relationship was purely physical or actually deeper. Imagine a story supported by the world created around it, rather than one constantly going against its setting for no apparent reason.
Those are questions that I find interesting in the expertly crafted world of Altered Carbon, yet instead, we get a deus-ex machina filled story about a possessive sister, where the only truly interesting character is an AI hotel pretending to be Edgar Allan Poe.
There were some interesting beats in the story, fleeting moments of potential. Laurens Bancroft’s character had an old school charm of hypocrisy around him, making him a perfect secondary villain with whom we got to sympathize. Poe was an absolute godsend, as computers often seem to be in sci-fi, making us reconsider what being human, or good actually is. While those characters and their arcs did help the show have a measure of quality, the overall product was undercut by virtually everything else. The downplaying of Envoys into a heroic group of freedom fighters, the rather black-and-white world created around Takeshi, everything related to his sister and virtually everything that happened after that reveal, all sour a show that seemed to have so much potential.
Perhaps it was the burden of adaptation. Maybe a superhuman protagonist limited their scope. Or maybe the writers decided that their viewers weren’t smart enough to offer them a more complex, nuanced storyline. Then again, maybe Netflix wanted a happy ending? Whatever the case, Altered Carbon’s story failed to embrace the nature of the world it has created. That’s a real shame, given that with a little bit of creativity and courage, the show could’ve been a nuanced sci-fi masterpiece. Instead, we’re stuck with a good looking, brainless cyberpunk romp, where the story is like one of the low-grade sleeves. It’s there. You might be ok with it. You’d definitely change some things, and wouldn’t mind at all if it was completely replaced with a newer, shinier model.