Netflix’s Altered Carbon is an ambitious mess

The dystopian sci-fi series fails to hit the heights it strives for

Altered Carbon

Bleak visions of the future are a dime a dozen in 2018: the dystopias of The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror dominate the TV landscape, and they’re beginning to throw up imitators. Last year, Channel 4 rolled out its undercooked anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, and now, with the release of bombastic sci-fi epic Altered Carbon, Netflix has made a play for the mantel held by HBO’s Westworld.

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However, despite impressive feats of world-building from show-runner Laeta Kalogridis and Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik, the drama tries to find its groove by shifting erratically from noir detective drama to war epic to soap opera, ultimately failing to meet its own lofty ambitions: it’s a thunderous haymaker that only manages to graze it’s target.

Plucking its concept from a 2002 science fiction novel by Richard K Morgan, Altered Carbon focuses on a future (the year 2384, to be exact) in which consciousness has been digitised, and humans have the ability to hop between bodies, known colloquially as “sleeves”, thanks to small discs which are slotted into the back of the neck like Sega Mega Drive cartridges.

Don’t expect any existential musings on the implications of everlasting life, though. The rabbit hole here is only skin deep, and the show is more concerned with the newfound ability to shift between different identities, rather than the more philosophically intriguing idea of carrying on ad infinitum.

Immortality is, in theory, attainable for all, but only the 1 percenters have the finances to safeguard it. The poor can be finished off almost as easily as before: a shot through the neck, destroying the stack, will do it. In a sentence: capitalism reigns with greater might than ever before.

Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a 300-year-old aristocrat who lives in a mansion in the clouds, physically removed from the lower echelons of society in modern metropolis of Bay City, has got a satellite which backs up his stack every ten minutes and a host of clones of his body. It adds considerable heft to his god complex.

So, when he is murdered, his decision to awaken former rebel soldier Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) from a 250-year hibernation seems curious. What could a man of untouchable power possibly need from a disgraced war criminal?

The grotesque decadence that Bancroft and his peers exhibit doesn’t bode well for our lead man: world-weary and bored after far too many years on the Earth, they’ve had to find new ways to entertain themselves. In episode two, he throw banquets where guests dine on Bengal tiger and watch a married couple fight to the death with the promise of a new, upgraded sleeve for the victor.

It’s in this narrative arc, in which Kovac tries to solve Bancroft’s murder, that the drama finds its surest footing. Kinnaman functions well as a hardboiled detective, and the band which forms around him – a robotic brothel owner (Chris Konner), a disillusioned police officer (Martha Higareda) and a distraught, vengeful father (Ato Essandoh) – show off some fine chemistry. Here, it has something interesting to say about the dangerous trajectory of modern capitalism.

But by the time episode four swings around, the show-runners have decided to flip the entire thing on its head, and not for the last time.

Renée Elise Goldsberry in Altered Carbon
Renée Elise Goldsberry in Altered Carbon

The knotty premise allows for several moments of confusion over the course of the season. A bit-part villain, known as Dmitry II, shows up in different sleeves, and it becomes increasingly difficult to remember why he is in it, and why we should care. But for the most part, the show goes out of its way to spoon-feed the audience its insights: “I’m a figment of your tortured psyche”, a ghost from Kovac’s past tells him during a daydream. It’s the kind of thing a vision of someone’s tortured psyche should never actually say.

Unlike its Netflix predecessor, Stranger Things, Altered Carbon refrains from directly gleefully pointing to its rough work with references to its influences, but they are no less present: The Matrix, Blade Runner and Alien have been heavily pulled upon to craft Kovac’s universe.

Will Yun Lee and Dichen Lachman in Altered Carbon
Will Yun Lee and Dichen Lachman in Altered Carbon

It does, however, find originality in its deeply cynical depiction of society. It is a particularly worrying vision: a world totally bereft of any recognisable artforms, where the greatest technological advancements seem to have come in advertising – pop-up advertisements accost pedestrians on the street – and the drug and sex industries. In the pilot, Kinnaman’s lead, while tripping balls on some sort of psychedelic eye-drop, initially holes himself up in an artificially intelligent brothel, which almost brings about his demise.

But ultimately the show seems to have lumped for quantity over quality.

There are multiple sideplots, including a dive into Kovac’s past – featuring strong turns from shadow-leads Will Yun Lee and Renéee Elise Goldsberry as star-crossed lovers – which starts off interestingly and descends slowly into ennui. There’s a series of love stories – some believable, some less so. There’s violence, sex and more violence. But so much of this could have been reserved for season 2.

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Altered Carbon: season 1 launches on Netflix on Friday 2nd February.