Given its themes, it was hardly surprising when Netflix announced it was adapting Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon. About social classes, rebellion and what it means to be human, it’s hugely relevant as a mirror to today’s world. But just because something is timely, there’s no guarantee it’ll actually be good.
Set in a future where a person’s consciousness can be stored digitally on a “stack” and then implanted into a different body, Altered Carbon sees former soldier Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) given a new “sleeve” — something he struggles to come to terms with. Not only because 250 years have passed since he died, but because the future he wakes up in is the one he was fighting to prevent.
Kovacs is pulled out of his synthetic slumber and placed into the body of a disgraced cop by shady aristocrat Laurens Bancroft, whose previous sleeve was murdered, destroying his stack in the process. While this would normally mean real death, he’s rich enough to have a back-up. However, it’s missing 48 hours of memories, so he has no idea who wanted him dead. That’s what Kovacs is there to discover.
This had the ingredients to be an effective commentary on people and technology, but throwing the murder mystery into the mix overcomplicates things. Although the set-up is intriguing, writer Laeta Kalogridis struggles to balance the two threads alongside several other sub-plots, including historical uprisings, underground tech modification and a painfully predictable romance. There’s just too much going on.
It’s not even particularly original — Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost In The Shell are two similar examples from just last year. For everything it throws at you, you’d think something would feel unique, but the majority just feels run-of-the-mill, or even disagreeable. While the narrative is true to Morgan’s literature, it feels a little uncomfortable watching a character with Japanese heritage become “trapped” in the body of a white man.
There are hopeful moments. Kovacs’ past is explored via flashbacks, where we’re introduced to his sister and former mentor-slash-lover. Both women are strong and charismatic; the reasons behind Kovacs joining the resistance against re-sleeving. His relationships with them provide some heart — but such moments are rare. Instead, Altered Carbon doubles down on characters’ anger and deplorability. For the first few instalments, it seems all they care about is “getting laid and getting fucked up”, which hardly has you eagerly pressing “next episode’”.
It doesn’t help that Kinnaman and fellow lead Martha Higareda have zero chemistry and fail to add depth to their characters. Then again, it’s hard to know whether their woodenness stems from them or the soulless script.
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