Altered Carbon May Not Be the Cyberpunk Show You're Looking For
In the world of Altered Carbon, death is cheap. The human mind is digitized in a transferrable chip called a "stack," capable of being moved from body to body as necessary—or, if you've got the cash for it, as desired. Bodies have become increasingly uncoupled from the consciousnesses that occupy them. Slang now just calls them "sleeves." The future of Altered Carbon, Netflix's new science fiction series, is one where flesh is just another kind of economy.
A world like that has a lot of storytelling opportunities. Early in the first episode, in a drab, low-income facility for resleeving—the process of being resurrected in a new body—two parents are reunited with their murdered seven-year-old daughter. Only one problem: the girl is now in the body of a middle-aged woman. The victim's compensation program that allowed the parents to afford another body for their daughter wasn't discerning in what kind of body she received. We linger for a moment on the horror and outrage of the situation. A young girl in a body she's deeply unprepared for, with parents who have no recourse but to try to buy a sleeve they can't possibly afford, or put their daughter back to sleep.
Altered Carbon could use more moments like that, that deeply interrogate the setting, that push us as the viewers into considering the opportunities and terrors a future like that might hold. One of the principle values of science fiction is its ability to inspire reflection on a potential future—and, through that, the present we live in. Good science fiction is defined not just by its ability to entertain, but to provoke thought, to build and explore interesting ideas about technology, about our future. And too often, Altered Carbon doesn't have much of anything to say at all.
The story, adapted from Richard Morgan’s 2002 novel of the same name, follows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee), once a supersoldier trained to stop the technocratic, immortality-worshipping regime that now rules human civilization. Kovacs has been dead for centuries, asleep in his stack, until Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the oldest and richest men alive, resurrects him to solve the murder of Bancroft's last body. With a new stack and a new unasked-for purpose, Kovacs has to come to grips with the regime he tried to prevent and find a way forward in a world that's relegated everyone he ever loved to ancient history.
On paper, that struggle works. Unfortunately, Altered Carbon's protagonist is also its biggest problem. Kovacs—at least on screen—is a deeply uninteresting hero, and his story isn't a compelling means to enter this world. Kinnaman does a fine job playing the old warrior, and Wil Yun Lee (in flashbacks as pre-sleeved Kovacs) is stellar, but neither of them can solve the simple problem that Kovacs has almost no stake in the life he's been given. He's detached and bitter, and justifiably so, but his lack of interest in the world leads the show to feeling untethered, distant, and focused on all the wrong things.
Instead of an exploration of the complexities and terrors of Altered Carbon's reality, the show is basically a detective story. This isn't, in and of itself, a bad idea—neo-noir has always been a part of cyberpunk's sci-fi DNA, and the broad idea of an outsider taking a tour through a hostile world has a lot of potential. But the engines of the plot, focusing on Kovacs' place in the world and Bancroft's murder, pull the viewer away from the provocative questions that sleeves and stacks raise. To what lengths are the poor willing to go in order to get the bodies they want for themselves, or the people they love? What about, say, transgender people, who might find the opportunity to switch bodies a profound and essential liberation?
Altered Carbon is aware of these questions, but they linger on the sidelines, away from the narrative, while Takeshi gets into another inevitable gunfight with mysterious assassins or spends another sexually ambiguous interlude with Bancroft's femme-fatale wife. The show picks up energy once it manages to shed some of the exposition that slows the first couple of episodes to a crawl, but it never manages to marry its plot with the bigger ideas lurking in the margins of its premise. One can imagine how, in the format of a novel, Altered Carbon could have its plot and eat it, too: following Kovacs through an ultraviolent, high-tech Raymond Chandler novel while letting the setting speak for itself in all its intrigue and mystery. The adaptation, though, chafes at its ten-episode constraints, and can't manage the balance.
Every distributor in television is looking for the next prestige genre hit. And a story like Altered Carbon has immense potential to be that show. Cyberpunk, as a specific subset of science fiction, is particularly well suited to our present cultural mindspace. Its focus on the implications of networked, digitized existence, dominated by technocratic regimes that merge economic and technological stratification, is more than a little relevant to where we've found ourselves in 2018.
But despite sporting the high production values necessary to bring a far-flung future to life, Altered Carbon isn't that prestige show. It's a generally interesting, if sometimes plodding, popcorn show with a few great ideas—it just may not be the cyberpunk you're looking for.
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