Altered Carbon: “Out of the Past” Review

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As I finished the first episode of Altered Carbon–a new, gritty sci-fi noir series from Netflix–I was left feeling cold and unsatisfied. The production quality has rarely been higher in a Netflix show and there is a clear intention to push Altered Carbon as a potential flagship property for the company. However, underneath the big budget and the handsome cinematography is a show without a pulse. There is undeniably potential here, but I can only report on what I have seen so far. Coming away from the first episode, entitled “Out of the Past”, I can’t help but feel disappointed and underwhelmed.

The plot of the show thus far concerns Takeshi Kovacs, a former member of a radical political resistance called the Envoys, who fought in a conflict called The Uprising against The Protectorate (if you plan to check this show out then you best get ready for a lot of generic sci-fi names). Kovacs dies very early on in the show, which doesn’t mean the same thing in the world of Altered Carbon as it does in the real world. A central plot device in this story is that people’s minds are downloaded onto portable devices called stacks that are plugged into “sleeves” (i.e. bodies). After Kovacs dies, he wakes up 250 years later in the body of Joel Kinnaman. Unfortunately, this means Kovacs now has the charisma and screen presence of Joel Kinnaman. Kinnaman has never been a particularly impressive actor and he contributes to the aforementioned lifelessness of Altered Carbon in a big way. Kovacs is basically a gritty noir version of Firefly’s Malcom Reynolds, someone who is struggling to cope with the loss of a war and the displacement that is caused by no longer having anything to fight for. Those of us who have seen Firefly will know that Reynolds remains compelling despite many unsavory character traits. Kovacs, on the other hand, is a total bore who it is consistently difficult to spend time with. Kinnaman delivers every line with the same monotone affect and completely neglects to give the viewer a hint of anything under the surface of Kovacs’ misanthropy and unlikability.

The show does manage to play with some potentially interesting ideas over the course of its run time. Takeshi is tasked with solving the murder of an incredibly wealthy man named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) and, because of the mind downloading technology, he is still alive for the investigation. It is interesting to see the different ways that Bancroft’s wealth manifests itself during the episode. He lives in a tower that literally separates him from the rest of society and, most pertinently, his money is the only thing that allows him to backup his consciousness remotely. Everyone else can be RD’d (RD stands for Real Death and is contrasted with just the destruction of a body) by having their stack destroyed. The stack is implanted in the body, so it is still easily accessible to any would-be murders. Bancroft’s wealth allowing him to have a better version of immortality than everyone else is just one of the ways that “Out of the Past” gestures towards large class disparities in the Protectorate ruled society. We also see poor people getting new bodies that are essentially “the leftovers”. Near the beginning of the episode, a 7 year old is tossed into a older woman’s body and sent on her way without any regard for how she might cope with her newfound situation. These elements of the show provoke the most interest and I am genuinely excited to see it explored more in future episodes.

I mentioned Altered Carbon’s gritty noir style, which is another weak area so far. The lack of any new spin on the “every sci fi future since Blade Runner” neon-soaked aesthetic makes the world of the show feel like an impression of other well-known properties rather than a living, breathing place. The show almost self consciously assures the audience of its seriousness and maturity by staging scenes in strip clubs for seemingly no reason and making sure that Takeshi is assailed by propositioning sex workers during his walk down the seedy city streets.  It is possibly unfair to suggest that the emphasis on commodified sexuality is extraneous. Altered Carbon clearly wants to be about the commodification and ownership of bodies under capitalism more generally, as illustrated not only by Bancroft but also by the sequence in which Takeshi first gets his Kinnaman-bod. The problem is that, as of now, the sex work stuff that we have seen is disconnected from everything else and one can’t help but think it was primarily included for the purposes of audience titillation than to explore capitalist exploitation of women’s bodies. This is just my initial reading and it is possible that future episodes will retroactively makes these scenes worthwhile.

I know that I am mostly complaining but I don’t mean to say that Altered Carbon is a total bust. As I already stated, it is an incredibly handsome production. The action is also very well choreographed, with Takeshi’s initial death sequence being one of the better TV action scenes that I have seen in recent memory. The filmmaking is generally strong all around, with the editing team doing particularly solid work in conveying the disorientation and hallucinations that come with being put in a new body. The show definitely has potential and I will keep watching but I can safely report that “Out of the Past” was not a strong first impression.

 

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