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.

 

On the Wonderful Anti-Capitalism of Black Mirror’s USS Callister

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The first episode of Black Mirror’s 4th season, titled USS Callister, is also my introduction to the highly regarded anthology show. The internet is full of Black Mirror hot takes that call the show everything from a worthy successor to The Twilight Zone to “kind of bullshit”. I can’t speak to the quality of previous episodes, but I was incredibly impressed by USS Callister. In particular, the episode’s anti-capitalist themes jumped out at me. Ostensibly, the episode (directed by Toby Haynes and written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker) is a dark riff on Star Trek that cautions against VR gaming and its ability to enable our worst tendencies. Beyond that surface layer, however, is a critique of hierarchical capitalist power structures and their dependency on exploitation.

The plot of the episode concerns Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), a sad sack coder who is second in command to Walton, the CEO of the software company (called Infinity) that they both started. In his every day life, Daly is a meek and disempowered loser who sleepily glides through his time at work and obsesses over an ersatz Star Trek TV show called Space Fleet. However, we soon learn that Daly reacts to any perceived slight by uploading sentient copies of his coworkers into an indistinguishable-from-reality simulation of Space Fleet, where he is an all-powerful captain who abuses and humiliates the crew to cope with his lack of confidence and power in the real world.

The first point I want to make about this episode is that it explicitly establishes a link between Robert’s dissatisfaction with the power structure of his company and the desire to recreate that power structure within his simulation. When Robert first meets the episode’s protagonist, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milloti), she is introducing herself to Robert and they seem to be getting along well enough. Robert even makes a corny joke she doesn’t get but he is visibly satisfied by his own wit after making it. This is the only time we see Robert happy with one of his real world social interactions. When Walton comes in and interrupts the interaction, he gives Robert and order and subtly undermines his position at the company when he says “I run the company. Well…we run it. Kind of.” Robert becomes visibly frustrated, especially because Walton is sitting on a collectable from Space Fleet. Notice that Walton towering over an icon from Space Fleet is an explicit inversion of the power dynamic presented in the game world. This scene is followed by Robert rushing home to enter his fantasy world, wherein he asserts himself over his crew and berates them with the kind of demeaning requests that we just saw Walton throwing at him. The implication that Robert indulges in his space captain fantasy because of his dissatisfaction with the hierarchy of his workplace is clear.

Robert’s fantasy offers a mirror (get it) to his workplace where he is in charge and did not let Walton push him out of a leadership position at his company. This connection allows us to read the events of the simulation as just another capitalist hierarchy. All the workers from Infinity are present and doing menial jobs. They have to kiss up to their boss on pain of punishment, just as they do in real life. When Shania (Michaela Cole) gives real life Nanette instructions on how to navigate interactions with the boss, she points out that he is often inappropriate and sexually motivated. This pairs him with Robert, as Robert dominates Nanette by making her kiss him in the simulation. Furthermore, Shania mentions later that the employees are planning to get incredibly drunk and then using their upcoming time off work to recover from it. This scene pairs with the multitude of times that we see simulation versions of the workers coping with alcohol. Through these pairings, the simulation of the capitalist  acts as a more explicit version of the real life one that we see, making its flaws more pronounced as the characters do not have their real life social structure in place to help make sense of what is happening to them.

The episode calls for a rejection of capitalism and hierarchical power structures when it comes time for the crew members to mount their escape from Robert’s simulation. The first thing to notice is that the decision to mount the escape is not unilateral. Nanette suggest the escape plan but everyone on the crew must consent to it before the plan is enacted. It is at this point that the viewer learns that Walton is motivated by Robert holding his son hostage. Robert has uploaded and killed Walton’s son before and can do so any time he likes. Since this is the case, Walton is compelled to fall in line with Robert’s demands. It is crucial that what keeps Walton complying with the power structure of the spaceship crew is his desire to provide for his son, an incentive that keeps many people from openly rebelling against and rejecting capitalism. Once the group ensures that Walton’s son will be safe, it is Walton who realizes the error of his ways when he apologizes to Robert for exploiting him in an effort to control Infinity. It is at this point that Walton himself, the most explicit capitalist in the real world, subjects himself to an extreme amount of pain so the group can persevere and escape Robert’s simulation.

We see the crew all take each other’s hand as they mount the final escape, showing the viewer their status as equals. After the resolution of the conflict, the crew finds out that they did not die as expected and now exist in the cloud. This is thematically important, because the cloud itself is a non-hierarchical space where the information and data of many coexists. This space is contrasted with their previous existence on Robert’s computer, which symbolized his control over them. The episode ends with Nanette rejecting the title of captain and thereby rejecting the hierarchical power structure that comes with it. For the reasons I have given, I conclude that USS Callister is not simply a cautionary tale about technology but about capitalism and its necessary exploitation of the working class. The final interaction with the self-proclaimed “king of space” gestures towards the crew not living in some kind of socialist utopia but instead in a space with individuals who will still try to dominate and threaten them. At the very least, they are existing in this space as a collective rather than a singular entity.