Hello everyone! It’s been ages since I actually blogged about a TV series, but recently my hubby and I just binged on this Netflix Original Series ALTERED CARBON. As we’re waiting for Westworld Season 2 to wrap (as we prefer to binge on a series than following it week by week), we’re in the mood for a mind-bending sci-fi.
Now, the first time we watched Altered Carbon, we weren’t wowed by it. In fact, we thought it was meh. Honestly, I’m not too keen on Joel Kinnaman as the lead. He seems like a generic tall, blond hunk that’s lacking any kind of charisma while the far-more-magnetic Will Yun Lee (who’s essentially playing the same character) is relegated to a small role in flashback scenes. So it’s not until about a week later that my hubby and I decided to give this show another shot (largely because I like James Purefoy!), and by the end of episode 2, we were hooked!
ALTERED CARBON is set in a future where consciousness is digitized and stored in cortical stacks implanted in the spine, allowing humans to survive physical death by having their memories and consciousness “re-sleeved” into new bodies. The story follows specially trained “Envoy” soldier Takeshi Kovacs, who is downloaded from an off-world prison and into a combat-ready sleeve at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, a highly influential aristocrat. Bancroft was killed, and the last automatic backup of his stack was made hours before his death, leaving him with no memory of who killed him and why. While police ruled it a suicide, Bancroft is convinced he was murdered and wants Kovacs to find out the truth.
If you’re a big sci-fi fan, this show is well worth a watch. The series is based on a novel by British science fiction and fantasy author Richard K. Morgan released in 2002. In 2003, the U.S. edition received the Philip K. Dick Award (so I wonder if ppl with a middle name starting w/ a ‘K’ might be good at writing sci-fi?). The film rights for the book sold for a reported figure of $1,000,000 to film producer Joel Silver (per Wikipedia). The Netflix series’ creator Laeta Kalogridis, is one of the executive producers of many sci-fi films Avatar and Terminator Genysis, as well as TV shows (Birds of Prey and Bionic Woman).
In Wiki, there’s a quote from Morgan that I found particularly interesting… “Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.”
That’s essentially is the world of Altered Carbon… set 300 years from now, in the 25th Century. It’s a rather bleak vision of our future, as well as our humanity. But my favorite sci-fi films are those that really made me think about what it really means to be human. Such as the sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner which I actually just re-watched 8 years ago and prompted me to write this post. Speaking of that film, when I first saw the pilot episode, I thought Altered Carbon is basically a rip-off of Blade Runner. But upon a second look, the story is actually very different, but just as thought provoking in that it also made you ponder what it truly means to be human.
I’m not going into details in this ‘review’ of sort, so I won’t be commenting on each episode but more about the series as a whole. Basically, I just want to talk about three aspects of the series… and what I think of the ending [obviously SPOILER territory).
I’m often intrigued to check out a brand new show because of the filmmaker or cast. But in the case of Altered Carbon, where there’s really no major stars in it, I was drawn by its premise. As I already mentioned above, I LOVE sci-fi films that analyze and explore our humanity in a creative way. I mentioned Blade Runner above which is about engineered droids that look and behave like humans that it’s tough to tell them apart. Altered Carbon deals with something just as eerie (if not more so), that is, digitizing the soul.
The show also has a procedural element that actually is a more typical whodunnit story, but it’s this mind-bending scifi concept that kept my interest. According to IMDb, this was originally going to be adapted as a film, but the original book’s 26th century universe was too dense to be contained into two hours. I think the story that’s wise as there are indeed SO many interesting to explore from the book that would get oversimplified (read: dumbed down) in a 2-hour film.
I find the very idea of storing one’s consciousness into a chip (stack) that can be placed into another body is extremely fascinating, unsettling and terrifying all at the same time. Does it mean one’s soul, one’s memories, basically everything about who we are as a human being, is no longer attached to our physical bodies? Many Christians have asked this question… when those who believe in Heaven die and enter God’s Kingdom, will they have a spirit body or a physical body? But in this futuristic world, there are two kinds of deaths… the sleeve death (when the fatal blow only affects the body but not the mind, so the stack still intact) and real death (when the body and stack is destroyed).
This is one of those shows where you need a cheat sheet to understand. I didn’t read it until after I finished season 1, but still helpful to read it after. Y’know the expression ‘walk a mile in her shoes’? Well, this goes many steps further that one can essentially live one’s life in an entirely different form. You could be an elderly white man in a body of a black female teen, or in the case of this show, a Hispanic grandma in a body of a big, bald, heavily-tattooed white man. It sounds cool of course, as how many of us haven’t dreamed of looking like someone else for a day? But on the show, if one is re-sleeved too many times, that person will go insane (the mind rebels, the personality gets fragmented). And that’s why the ultra rich (the Meths as they’re called on the show) would clone themselves many times so they can basically be immortal as their sleeve remains a certain age forever.
The reality in Altered Carbon universe is reminiscent of Blade Runner, even more so in the sequel, BR 2049. In the 25th century, supposedly there are pulsating 3D ads, prostitute holograms and super sleek flying cop cars. Heck even the police station looks state of the art, so obviously they get their funding from the Meths!
The visuals are quite stunning. Set in what’s formerly San Francisco, it’s all pops of neon lights and gritty streets, though they still look too ‘clean’ to me that it’s obviously a set. Shot in Vancouver, by cinematographer Neville Kidd, it looks properly futuristic noir.
It’s no surprise that Kidd was the cinematographer behind Benedict Cumberbatch’s gorgeous Sherlock as well as Outlander for Starz. I think he ups the ante in this scifi dystopia world and scifi geeks like me constantly gawk at the cool set pieces. I mean Bancroft’s mansion is magnificently opulent and the state-of-the-art Raven Hotel (with its hidden weaponry) is practically a character in itself.
In season 7 though, it’s nice to get a bit of respite from all that neon city to a lush forest where we get the backstory of Kovacs’ life with his Envoy group. There’s also a super cool looking interrogation room in that episode.
So yeah, this show is visually ambitious and one reviewer even said every shot seems to have been tailored for the One Perfect Shot Twitter account, ha!
I LOVE reading articles about the show that breaks down the terminology in Altered Carbon universe. My hubby sent me this one from Thrillist explores some of the questions posed by the show. I found this interview with a neuroscientist about consciousness, memory, and what makes us who we are. This comprehensive article clearly spells out who’s who on the show. Really fascinating stuff!
I also like how diverse the show is. Though it’s improved over the years, it’s still quite rare to see Asian actors in US shows these days. So I’m thrilled to see Korean-American actors Will Yun Lee in a prominent role, as well as Hong Kong-American actor Byron Mann whom I’ve seen in a bunch of shows. Nice to see a Latina actress playing a prominent part as well which celebrates her heritage. Given the nature of the ‘sleeves’ the color of one’s skin doesn’t really matter in this universe, which gives an opportunity for diverse casting and interracial relationships.
I have to say that despite how I initially feel about Joel Kinnaman, his character Takeshi Kovacs is captivating. I was thinking perhaps if we have someone like say, Tom Hardy, the show be a heck of a lot more watchable. But hey, Joel kinda grew on me the more I watched it and the concept of the character itself was enough to hook me. Having seen Joel in RoboCop and Suicide Squad, the Swedish actor seems to have been typecast of sort in sci-fi projects. He looked ultra ripped on this show, he’s basically shirtless 80% of the time here even when he’s not doing the sex scenes! I wish he had more range though, he’s basically just all morose and sulky though I have to admit he can be pretty tender in the romantic scenes.
Speaking of ripped, I really wish they had given more screen time to Will Yun Lee who not only looked amazing physically, but he’s also got this quiet grace and soulful charisma. I’m glad he’s basically the lead in episode 7 as it plays out in flashbacks of his life as an elite soldier (called the Envoy). I like the relationship between Kovacs and the fierce Envoy leader Quell Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), which is supposed to be the heart and soul of the show but it left me wanting more. Also, it’d have been cool to see the two ‘lives’ of the protagonist and contrast the two. [SPOILER: highlight to read] Given its trippy nature, why not have the two Kovacs (the original AND the new sleeve) intersect more somehow or maybe have Joel and Will meet and even fight each other?? That’d have been so trippy cool!
James Purefoy is nicely cast as Laurens Bancroft, perhaps the wealthiest of the Meths, who are so powerful they can afford endless backups and self cloning to live forever. The character is a reference to Methuselah, a biblical patriarch and a figure in Judaism and Christianity who’ve lived the longest of everyone in the Hebrew Bible at the age of 969.
The whole Bancroft storyline and their relationship with Kovacs held some interest at first, but after a while it gets less and less intriguing. I didn’t care for the affair between Kovacs and Bancroft’s seductive wife (Kristin Lehman). Even the gratuitous sex scene was ho-hum, and the father/son bit in this dysfunctional ‘family’ (they had 21 children!!) is meh as well. Laurens is an intriguing character on paper, and there’s a particular scene with a big crowd that utilizes Purefoy’s acting talent, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near his best role. He’s much more captivating in HBO’s ROME and fans of Mr. Purefoy would be happy to see he sort of um, re-enacted his famous nude scene from that show 😉
I have to say that one of my favorite character is Poe! A centuries old, highly evolved AI who is currently inhabiting the psyche of Edgar Allan Poe and runs the luxury, well-equipped hotel The Raven (natch!) which Kovacs often hangs out at. I was certain the actor who played him is a Brit (I usually have a good hunch about this) but Chris Conner is actually from New Mexico! I enjoy all the scenes with Poe in it, he’s kind of like Q in Bond movies but with a more biting wit and distinguished sense of style.
Like Kinnaman, it took me a while to warm up to Martha Higareda who played Detective Kristin Ortega. She seems to overact a bit in the pilot in the way she abhorred Kovacs. But I love that the show explored her Mexican heritage in her character, there’s even an extensive scene of her celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with her very-Catholic family. Her mother is especially devout and opposes the re-sleeving after the original sleeve/body dies. I thought that the whole discussion around the dinner table reveals the core message of the show’s concept and discusses what it means to ‘play God’ and messing with the nature of humanity. As the show progresses, Ortega’s character trajectory gets more interesting and we find out just why she despises Kovacs. It’s kind of predictable but there’s one particular scene between them that tugs my heart strings.
The last character that’s worth talking about is Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman). I can’t talk about it without going into SPOILER territory however… so highlight to read: I was quite flabbergasted to learn Reileen is Kovacs’ sister but I guess the show has sort of hinted at it with the scenes of the two Asian siblings. At first I thought it was brilliant but it quickly descend into sentimental melodrama mixed with absolutely preposterous and hyper violent fight scenes!
I had seen Dichen in the indie drama Too Late a few years ago and the Australian actress sure is talented. Hope she gets her own show one day, maybe together with Will Yun Lee? 😉
I have to mention briefly about Ortega’s mentor Samir Abboud (Waleed Zuaiter) who didn’t have much screen time but still memorable.
The rest of the characters aren’t all that memorable. I think my least favorite character is Lizzie Elliot, whose subplot is the most boring and has least consequence to the whole story. I was amused by her mom Ava, a Black woman sleeved in a pale, redhead white male.
How about that ending?
While the show already suffered too many plots in a single season, the finale is even more egregious in trying to solve too many puzzles in a single episode! I really think the formulaic whodunnit of ‘who killed Bancroft’ plot could’ve been resolved in the episode before that, so we could focus more on Kovacs’ story and his relationships. They’re treating it like the ‘who killed JR?’ in Dallas when in fact it’s lacking any emotional resonance. Honestly, I don’t really care who killed him as he’s not that sympathetic, nor interesting, character. SPOILER – highlight to read: I honestly couldn’t care less about the father/daughter story of Vernon and Lizzie. It’s just boring and even silly at times, which makes Lizzie’s appearance as the ‘unlikely hero’ in the end even more pointless and irritating.
I don’t know what the budget of the show is but I bet a lot of it goes to the Head in the Cloud (aka flying brothel) set. But again, the ending veers into too much melodrama even with the intense fight scenes. SPOILER – highlight to read: The slo-mo of the entire floating house crashing down is so operatic but lacking any emotional gravitas. At this point I was also worn out by the brother & sister love/hate relationship. I feel like the show doesn’t know what to make of Reileen, the Puppet Master. Yes she seems to truly love her brother and she desperately wants to find him. But at what cost? One take away I get from Takeshi and Rei is that some people just don’t know how to love.
The parting of Kovacs and Ortega could’ve a more emotional depth, but it felt too abrupt to me. I do like the final shot of the original Kovacs with the love of his life Quell, which again, is the heart of the film for me.
A more focused plot with less balls in the air would’ve made a more arresting finale.
It’s also one of the most violent and sexually explicit show I’ve seen. Yes granted I haven’t seen Game of Thrones yet, but a colleague who’s seen both actually said Altered Carbon is often more violent and sexually vulgar than that show! I mentioned how Joel Kinnaman is practically shirtless 80% of the time but the women had it worse. I also have issues with how much violence are directed at women here which is disappointing since it’s show-runner is a woman. In fact, this could’ve been the most expensive show done by a female creator, perhaps even more than Westworld which has a woman as its co-creator.
At times the nudity becomes almost cartoonish and all out ludicrous. From violent aerial fight-to-the-death, MMA style, Kung Fu, to nude sword fights, there’s every kind of intense fight scenes under the sun on this show. The fight scenes are well-choreographed but definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. I had to look away during most of the fight scenes, but especially the torture scenes in episode 4. It’s virtual torture but still tough to watch.
Overall though, I’m glad I gave this cyberpunk series another shot and it’s one I actually still think about, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered with this extensive post! But the series’ biggest weakness is the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach, cramming way too many plots in a single season. After every episode, I feel dizzy with information overload as the plot gets more and more unnecessarily convoluted. Some of the subplots are less interesting than others, in fact, some are quite irritating as they don’t seem to tie in well with the storyline we actually care about.
Will there be Season 2? I haven’t heard news about that yet but I’m only tentatively interested. Maybe if Will Yun Lee is back then I’ll be more enthused. We shall see, but I’m not clamoring for it at this point.
Well, have you seen Altered Carbon? I’d love to hear what YOU think!