Netflix’s latest sci-fi spectacle, Altered Carbon, had so much going for it. But it doesn’t deliver on any account.
1982’s Blade Runner made science-fiction settings with cyber-noir undertones popular. Yet few films and television shows have been able to do justice to this sub-genre since, not even the film’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, which was so intent on capturing atmosphere, it forgot to give viewers a good story.
Now another show has fallen into the same trap: the highly-anticipated Altered Carbon, based on Richard K Morgan’s book of the same name. Viewers anticipated a more worldly-wise Blade Runner when the Netflix show’s trailer was released. The actual show, however, has turned out to be a mash-up of genres and themes with a cursory look at diversity.
We managed to make it through the first season (yay us!). Here are nine reasons you should keep your expectations low for Altered Carbon. No spoilers, we promise.
1 – The Plot Is Needlessly Convoluted
The story is set in the 25th century where people can download their minds into ‘stacks’ that can then be fitted into another body. We follow disgraced Envoy soldier Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), who wakes up in the body of a man very unlike his original form. Kovacs has been hired by super-rich, nigh-immortal Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to investigate the death of… Bancroft. The current Bancroft is a clone of himself – that’s how he and his family manage to remain immortal – but he has no memory of his actual death because his stack was updated hours before the incident that killed him.
Though the police insist Bancroft committed suicide, Bancroft is certain he was murdered. He needs Kovacs, the last of the esteemed Envoys, to get to the bottom of the truth. For a handsome paycheck, of course.
During Kovacs’ investigation, he finds himself attacked by one of the Dimi twins (Tahmoh Penikett) who has a beef with Ryker, Kovacs’ current sleeve. Now, Kovacs has to take down the Dimi twins and clear his sleeve’s name with the help of cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).
Then, Kovacs learns that Bancroft may have had shady dealings with a brothel where a young woman was murdered, so he has to investigate that, and teams up with the woman’s dad to do so.
Meanwhile, Kovacs is also trying to process the events of his life and the losses he has suffered – he keeps seeing visions of dead people. Not to mention, trying to adjust to life after being on ice for 250 years. And all this is introduced to us in just the first few episodes – the majority of the season ekes out these plotlines.
So, to break it down for you, Kovacs is basically investigating the death of one guy; he just goes on several side-missions during the course of his investigation. And, he has hallucinations. That is literally all there is to the story.
2 – We’ve Seen It All Before
People waking up in unknown bodies, after centuries asleep, having to live their lives anew – looks like an interesting enough plot device, I would say. Even more fascinating, Takeshi is an Asian-origin man who wakes up in the body of a white man. I presumed the show would explore this dissociation between Takeshi’s mental and physical identity.
Full disclosure time: I have not read the book. But, I have done some research. The book discusses Takeshi’s feelings about his new sleeve and its effect on his identity. The show, on the other hand, includes one scene – when Takeshi is awakened, he is shocked by his new body – but aside from this one moment, nothing.
Unfortunately, Altered Carbon is a lot less cerebral than it pretends to be. The characters’ philosophising over immortality and morality merely serves as exposition instead of enticing any real conversation or commentary on society. Had a little more thought been put into the effect of stack technology on society, the show might well have been a cut above the rest. Instead, all we get is Demolition Man meets Blade Runner, without any of the social commentary.
3 – The Nudity is an Eye-Sore
The show’s approach to sexuality, particularly female sexuality, is no different than every other ‘edgy’ show that has gone before. There is a proliferation of strip clubs and brothels, almost exclusively peopled by nude women. The male nudity is focused solely on Kinnaman, and though he looks good on camera, it feels like the makers of the show thought that Kinnaman being in the buff would balance out the scores of naked women parading on screen.
Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis has tried to explain why there is so much nudity in the show, saying that the human body is so commodified in the future we see in the show that people no longer hold any regard for how their bodies are perceived; that it is no different than showing off a fancy car. In that case, why do we only see the impact on female characters? After all, don’t fancy cars come in all shapes, sizes and colours? Kalogridis’ analogy fails the women of this series. There isn’t a good enough explanation for the overwhelmingly male lens used to shoot this show.
Yet another trope that appears in this show is that all the women Kovacs encounters throw themselves at him. As I’ve said, Kinnaman looks great, and he worked out hard for this role. But time and again, one wonders whether any real woman would be interested in such male characters if they weren’t the protagonist. The Takeshi we meet has little going for him with regards to his personality. He is surly, rude, irritating and a bit trigger-happy; why would any woman want to be near him?
4 – The Visuals and Action is Derivative
One of the few positives is that the action scenes are eminently watchable. They are exciting and beautifully choreographed. But, once again, we have seen almost all of it before.
Critics have compared the show’s action scenes to The Matrix trilogy and you cannot blame them. Stopping short of bullet-time, Altered Carbon has a lot of the same stunts, duels and shootouts. And the similarities don’t stop there.
A pivotal elevator fight scene is too reminiscent of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There’s an arena fight which looks like a mash-up of Star Wars and X-Men. At least Byron Mann, who plays one of Kovacs’ past sleeves, gets to be cool in the scene – the only saving grace.
The action scenes that made me sit up and take notice was the one featuring Tahmoh Penikett’s Dimi Twin fighting Kovacs in The Raven hotel, and much later, there is a scene between Ortega and a villain which I was equal parts intrigued and annoyed by. Intrigued, because it must have been incredibly hard to shoot. Actor Higareda said the shoot took four days.
The visual effects are beautiful but again, so derivative. It takes real effort to separate the world of Altered Carbon from Blade Runner. The visual similarities are too strong. Plus, there are limitations imposed upon the world that I just don’t understand. How has the world been affected by stack technology? We don’t know because we see such a fraction of the population, yet what we see is presented as a reflection of the entire world.
The show could have been amazing but instead it is a conglomeration of a few good things with too many clichéd elements.
5 – The Racial Diversity is Superficial…
The issue of diversity is a prickly one for me. Ever since I realised that the world of entertainment did not need to focus solely on the stories of straight white men, I have been questioning everything I view on screen. It is exhausting, but hey, someone’s got to do it!
I was initially excited when I watched Altered Carbon. The protagonist may be played by a white man, the super-rich people who have hired him may also be played by white people, but at least the cop most interested in his case, Kristin Ortega, is played by a woman of colour, Martha Higareda. Female law enforcement is still a rare sight in our media, so this was a progressive step.
Additionally, Ortega’s partner, Samir Abboud, is played by a Middle-Eastern-origin man, Waleed Zuaiter. They even speak to each other in Spanish and Arabic. There are more people of colour peppered throughout the show: Ortega’s mother (Marlene Forte), who has a larger role than expected; Ortega’s boss, Captain Tanaka (Hiro Kanagawa); Kovacs’ sidekick Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh) and his daughter, Lizzie (Hayley Law); the Bancrofts’ lackey, Oumou Prescott (Tamara Taylor); Kovacs’ former girlfriend and his sister, both of whom get some screen-time. This is great, I thought!
My enthusiasm did not last long. Yes, there are a number of people of colour here, but where is the culture? This is a universe based very obviously on Asian-inspired cyberpunk, similar to Blade Runner, and features a Southeast-Asian character, but there is no Asian, Latinx or Arabic culture here. We see a police car with Hindi writing on it but there is no other visual Indian or South Asian influence on the show following that point. The world we see is overwhelmingly Caucasian, even when we delve into Kovacs’ past. Hollywood’s attempts at diversity are still just skin-deep.
At least the show bothers to include different languages but the novelty of that wears off when you realise most of the actors aren’t attempting to speak foreign languages. Ortega and Abboud’s multi-language conversations show that they understand what the other is saying but the actors never step out of their comfort zone to speak those languages. The only actor who comes to mind is the man playing Ortega’s grandmother when she is re-sleeved into a tattooed gangster.
Netflix’s The Cloverfield Paradox, in contrast, has actors from all nationalities speak Chinese, Russian, German and English; it would have been good to see more of that in Altered Carbon.
Also, the proliferation of people of colour does not preclude the fact that this is undoubtedly Kinnaman’s show. We get to see his past sleeves, played by Asian-Americans Morgan Gao, Byron Mann and Will Yun Lee, but Kinnaman has full reign of Kovacs for the vast majority of the show. Only in episode seven is Kinnaman set aside and Will Yun Lee takes centre stage. It is also the best episode of the season, but that doesn’t say anything about the show, does it? Sarcasm
As mentioned before, episode seven is refreshing and packs in more plot than the rest of the season combined. Will Yun Lee gives Kovacs pathos and depth. Through Lee’s performance, we finally understand what drives Kovacs and makes him fixate on the people from his past. Would changing the source material more by having an Asian actor play Kovacs from the start have helped the show? Considering that the change in his race hardly bothers the show’s Kovacs, it may well have.
I, for one, was more captivated by the one episode starring Will Yun Lee than with the rest of the show.
In fact, don’t expect diversity of any kind. Netflix is the agency we turn to for representation when Hollywood lets us down. They changed up the source material for a lot of the characters, apparently, so, why leave out diverse sexualities? All we get are a handful of unintentional nods to homosexuality but nothing overt.
I am also really disappointed at the lack of diverse body types. The homogenous female bodies, almost all of them carbon copies of each other (see what I did there?), are less an indictment of the society within the show and more a statement about the people behind the scenes. One wonders if the nudity would have been so proliferate had there been fewer conventionally-attractive actors in the cast. At least that would have been more interesting.
Unfortunately, paying lip-service to diversity may have gained Altered Carbon more viewers but not for long.
6 – The Characters Aren’t Interesting
Altered Carbon’s other overwhelming problem is that the characters just aren’t interesting. I really could not care less what happened to these people.
Let’s start with our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs. He has been asleep for 250 years. The world around him has apparently changed, his body has definitely changed, but from the way he reacts to everything, you would think it was all par for the course for him. People around him die and do vicious things to each other – he brushes it off. He is tortured senseless and almost dies – he just goes about his day anyway.
It is so frustrating to watch Kovacs sleep walk through the show like he doesn’t care. Why isn’t Kovacs allowed to engage with the things that happen to him? That’s bad characterisation, as far as I’m concerned.
It isn’t helped by the fact that Kinnaman’s acting is patchy, at best. Actually, at times, his acting is so bad, it is unwatchable. He takes far too long to settle into the character and seems to be more comfortable in emotional scenes than in aggressive ones. One wonders why the directors didn’t play to his strengths and let Kovacs display how broken he is and how desperately he just wants an end to his hopeless existence.
Then we have the Bancrofts. They are the ‘rich people’ and that is the beginning and end of their portrayal. They are a family used to getting exactly what they want. Patriarch Laurens Bancroft plays with people’s lives just because he can. He also has a strained relationship with his son, who he thinks is useless. So original!
Matriarch Miriam (Kristin Lehman) is vain and sexy. That is really all there is to her. She is terrified of her husband but has remained married to him for over a hundred years. They have had several children over the course of their marriage, though we only ever see a couple of them. Why would they want to divide up their empire over a brood of children? No idea.
Also, despite her concerns about her husband, Miriam still engages in an affair with Kovacs because… reasons. She makes no sense and is basically a temptress/vixen/cardboard cut-out fantasy female character that the writers didn’t put any effort into.
Kristin Ortega is meant to be the kind of salt-of-the-earth character to form a perfect foil for the emotionally-stunted Kovacs. Unfortunately, Ortega turns out to be yet another sassy, badass Strong Female Character™. Her family is religious, particularly her mother, whom Ortega is close to. They have differing views on stack technology and have some discussions on whether or not they would want to be re-sleeved. But there isn’t much else we get to know about her. The show fails to give us a rounded character in Ortega.
Despite actor Martha Higareda’s great work in the role – she owns every scene she is in – Ortega is little more than a love interest who can fight. Her story is too intrinsically tied into her romance with her former partner and her current romance with Kovacs, a relationship that makes no sense. It would have probably worked better if Higareda and Kinnaman had some semblance of chemistry. They do not.
Arguably, the source material did not leave the writers much to work with – it was written as a first-person perspective from Kovacs’ point of view. But the show-runner was given leeway to build the peripheral characters, so what went wrong?
7 – The Only Interesting Characters Are Side-Lined
The characters I ended up caring about was the Elliott family. Ato Essandoh plays the hyper-emotional and cautious Vernon Elliott. Vernon has no family – his wife Ava has not been re-sleeved and his only remaining connection with his dead daughter, Lizzie, is the recording of her last desperate moments.
The tragedy of the world of Altered Carbon doesn’t become real until the Elliotts are introduced. And, even then, Vernon is constantly side-lined, even though his story is much more engaging than that of Kovacs’ or the Bancrofts.
The Elliotts are also at the centre of one of the only original moment of the show. When Elliott’s wife, Ava, is re-sleeved into a man’s body, she decides not to bother with her change in body, focusing instead on being back with her family and finding a way to take down the bad guys.
An important character from Kovacs’ past, Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), is built up as this mysterious figure and I was really looking forward to finding out more about her. Falconer only gets any significant screen-time in episode seven where her story is told to us via… exposition. Honestly, this show just didn’t try!
Had Altered Carbon put more emphasis on Kovacs helping solve Lizzie’s murder, rather than Laurens Bancrofts’, I think this show would have been more interesting. It would have also given the characters more room to grow, emotionally. Too many episodes are wasted on the Bancrofts, who bring nothing to the plate, instead of on more interesting characters like the Elliotts and Ortegas, who give audiences a much better understanding of the world of the show.
8 – Violence Against Women Isn’t Edgy
What bothers me most is the proliferation of violence against women. With HBO shows like Game of Thrones glorifying violence, especially sexual violence, against women, it has become trendy for consumer media to depict such violence in an effort to come across as edgy.
In addition, the male protagonists are always shown as being able to brush off such instances of violence because they are so strong and have seen it all. Ummm… no. How about we have the characters engage with the violence and the effects of this violence on the women’s lives? That would make shows more edgy and relevant to the world we live in. Why can’t creators understand how alienating this is for female audiences?
9 – It Tries Too Hard
Essentially, the problem with Altered Carbon is that it tries too hard to do something simple – tell a good story well. Which is unforgiveable considering how large a budget the show had to work with. It looks like the budget was mostly used for the extensive world-building, which still manages to be derivative!
There are people who absolutely love the show and that is fine, but one has to admit that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The gratuitous amounts of female nudity and violence against women are tropes that should have died by now, but the show doesn’t try and do anything different with these and thus, fails to give a fresh perspective in light of the #MeToo movement. The show’s dodgy sense of justice – at one point, a violent murderer is portrayed as an honourable man for admitting guilt over killing a prostitute – doesn’t really help its non-woke aura much.
I wanted to enjoy Altered Carbon but it is essentially a mish-mash of great elements poorly executed with atrocious acting and a host of annoying tropes. If you can get through the first episode, you are obviously a sucker for punishment, like me.
From its overly convoluted plot, which essentially boils down to a fight between only a handful of individuals, to the bad acting and gratuitous nudity, Altered Carbon fails to be original or entertaining.
Take a look at what goes into writing a science-fiction novel with our interview with The Martian author, Andy Weir.