2:00 pm EST, January 30, 2018

Netflix’s ‘Altered Carbon’ review: An ambitious cyberpunk thrill-ride

Netflix’s Altered Carbon is a feast for the eyes, with amazing performances elevating a floundering narrative.

There are two Altered Carbon shows on Netflix. One of them is fantastic, the other is a bit of a narrative mess (but both are gorgeous).

Much like the bodies of lead character Takeshi Kovacs, these two ‘different’ shows are in fact the same entity; if you’ve been watching and reading the promotional material for Netflix’s first large-scale foray into hard sci-fi, you know that Altered Carbon — based on the Richard Morgan novel of the same name — splits its time between flashbacks and present-day events.

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Set in a futuristic dystopia where humanity has achieved immortality through storing individual consciousnesses on ‘stacks’ that can be transferred from one lab-grown, disposable body (or ‘sleeve’) to the next, Altered Carbon follows freedom fighter Takeshi Kovacs (played in flashbacks by Morgan Gao, Byron Mann and Will Yun Lee) as he wakes up 300 years after his own death, in an unfamiliar place and an unfamiliar body (Joel Kinnaman’s).

There is no time to breathe or take it all in; Kovacs is immediately and mercilessly thrust into someone else’s fight even while struggling to reconstruct his identity and sense of self, forced to solve a murder mystery and confronted with the possibility that anything people say — and anything he sees or experiences — could be a lie.

As a result, the present-day Altered Carbon is fragmented, unsettling, and intentionally confusing. Kovacs is struggling to make sense of his unfamiliar, overstimulating environment, stumbling between seemingly unconnected, random, irrelevant people and events, and the audience stumbles right along with him.

In the present-day storyline, every frame is chock-full of visual stimulants. Action moves swiftly, and the violence is bloody and in right your face. Altered Carbon is an exhilarating assault on your senses.

Visually and thematically, there is no question that this is a masterpiece, a lush cyberpunk futuristic fairy tale to lose yourself in for a weekend.

Unfortunately, you might actually get lost in this narrative, the momentum of the present-day storyline severely slowed down by irrelevant side characters and overly complicated filler plotlines. It’s simply too much stuff with too little significance.

Even though the second half does a lot to tie everything together (almost too neatly), I can’t help but feel like the story was fluffed up unnecessarily, some of the episodes feeling almost old-school procedural with standalone villains-of-the-week that overcomplicate, rather than expand and enrich, the narrative.

This is a strange choice, considering that Altered Carbon‘s premise would seem particularly well-suited for Netflix’s streamlined, compact 10-episode season format.

Comparatively, the story of ‘O.G. Kovacs’ told in fragmented flashbacks is extremely compelling and just feels much more worth telling than the petty, finicky family feud mystery which present-day Kovacs stumbles around half-heartedly trying to solve.

The flashback sequences are much cleaner, both visually and narratively; the environment is lush and green compared to the black and grey ‘scape of the city; the camera lingers on characters’ reactions and emotions, and it’s easy to distinguish between the heroes and the villains.

This story plays almost like a classic fairy tale, colored by Kovacs’ own nostalgia for simpler times, a stylistic choice that pays off towards the end of the season.

Kovacs’ two timelines are clearly intentionally designed to contrast each other, and which part of Altered Carbon you prefer will largely depend on your personal preference (I would gladly have watched a full season of the flashbacks, personally, but I know not everyone would agree).

Speaking of flashbacks versus the present-day storyline: it is of course impossible to talk about Altered Carbon without tackling the topic of whitewashing at the core of the series, which has been one of the main talking points ahead of its release.

Although I confess to not having read the novel, I imagine the narrative choice to transfer an Asian man’s consciousness into a white man’s body works a lot better on paper than it does visually, where the same stylistic choice achieves the literal erasure of a person of color in a leading role without the benefit of experiencing the transformation from the perspective of the character’s (nonchanging) consciousness.

Knowing about this casting decision, and choosing to watch the show anyway, requires the viewer to have an open mind going in, but asking critical questions about what exactly the series is trying to achieve with it. (And you can absolutely separate the series from the book when judging the effect — it is an adaptation, after all, not a 1:1 conversion.) What questions of identity and society are being raised through Kovacs’ journey? What conversations are the creators hoping to spark? What are they trying to say?

Certainly, this could be a very timely story to tell, considering current debates about the responsibilities of mainstream media when it comes to representation. Altered Carbon had a perfect chance to tackle and challenge these debates head-on, if it so chose.

Disappointingly, however, the series spends very little time actually exploring the effects of Kovacs’ changed identity, aside from the present-day version of the character acting vaguely disoriented about everything. In fact, for a series that would appear to be one big commentary on identity politics (several characters reboot in all kinds of sleeves that diverge from their original bodies in various ways), Altered Carbon does the least possible work to explore what losing your physical identity does to you psychologically, and completely ignores potential societal repercussions of changing your race, gender or age.

Individual characters might vaguely struggle to accept that they now look different (though most people appear to be too jaded by the constant ‘re-sleeving’ to even care what they look like), but the world around them certainly does not. Perhaps this is a statement in itself, but it mostly feels like a massive missed opportunity, making the story oddly superficial despite the rich possibilities of its premise.

The actors portraying Kovacs in flashbacks, Byron Mann and Will Yun Lee, are both incredibly compelling. Lee’s Kovacs, especially, is someone you can empathise with and root for. Comparatively, Kinnaman’s Kovacs is hard to read, seeming emotionally distant and uninterested in his surroundings — becoming uninteresting himself as a result. We never really get to know the re-sleeved Kovacs, and the series doesn’t give us a reason to want to, which in turn means that any exploration of his sense of self that may have been present in the novel simply isn’t a part of the show.

But perhaps that is the point. The most generous reading here is that Kinnaman, Mann and Lee were directed to convey the contrast between a Kovacs with a purpose and a mission, and an aimless Kovacs pulled out of time and dumped into the future he tried to prevent. I can absolutely believe that this was the creative intention, and that the general disenfranchised and aimless tone of the present-day storyline is a way of conveying the existential apathy that accompanies humanity’s newfound immortality. ‘Don’t live forever, kids, just look what happened to Takeshi Kovacs.’

It’s an ambitious idea that unfortunately doesn’t quite work in practice. Casting Joel Kinnaman in the lead role doesn’t appear to be a particular commentary on anything and, while some of the secondary characters’ arcs are very engaging, the present-day storyline in general — already scrambled and confusing by design — ends up suffering for the fact that, for whatever reason, the lead character does not engage the audience emotionally.

It should be noted, however, that aside from present-day Kovacs, almost every single lead character and/or people with whom we’re supposed to empathise in Altered Carbon is a person of color.

There is a particularly powerful subplot involving Kovacs’ reluctant partner Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a Latina police officer whose family, for religious reasons, strongly oppose the practice of transferring your consciousness and avoiding natural death.

Kovacs’ sister Rey, played by the formidable Dichen Lachman, is easily one of the show’s best characters, even if there is far less of her than I was hoping for. Riverdale actress Hayley Law emerges as another standout performer, despite playing a relatively minor role.

And, even if she is relegated to ghost-Obi Wan Kenobi status for most of the series, Hamilton‘s Renée Elise Goldsberry is simply spectacular as Kovacs’ old mentor Quell.

While we can and should question the decision to cast Kinnaman as the re-sleeved Kovacs (or at least how the narrative handled — or didn’t handle — that choice), the fact that the best and most powerful characters in this hardcore sci-fi story are women of color should not be undervalued.

Final verdict

If you find the first part of Altered Carbon to be slow and confusing, I encourage you to stick with it. The second half of the season picks up momentum and begins to connect the threads in ways that are mostly satisfying.

The series is certainly ambitious, and quite a feat for showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, who draws on her experience from Bionic Woman, Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys to bring this rich, fascinating world to brilliant life.

As much as I missed some narrative clarity, I can respect the commitment to the claustrophobia and paranoia emanating from the main characters and enveloping the viewer; this is not a fun nor escapist watch, and is clearly made with the intent of taking the audience for a ride.

Allow yourself to get swept away by the visual splendor of Altered Carbon, and let it spark your imagination about all the ways in which humanity’s quest to expand and evolve could destroy what makes us human.

‘Altered Carbon’ hits Netflix on February 2, 2018

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