Skip to main content

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon
Season One

(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).


Joel Kinnaman (playing revived terrorist Takeshi Kovacs), who resembles a long lost Carradine brother put in cold storage five decades ago, is technically a good actor, but I’m not sure he’s a very interesting one.  Martha Higareda (as cop Kristin Ortega) outright resembles a block of wood.


Eyebrows have already been raised at the recurrence of the whitewashing issue Ghost in the Shell fell foul of last year, through having an Asian character played by a white actor (sleeved in a new body), although this element at least follows Morgan’s novel. Ironically, Takeshi Kovacs is much more interesting as played by Will Yun Lee, inhabiting the character’s original body, in the seventh episode (Nora Inu), when also partnered with the more engaging Renée Elise Goldsberry as his mentor-cum-romantic interest Quell. The problem with that storyline is that it’s an entirely rote rebel plot, with Quell as a platitudinous Morpheus teaching her Neo progeny how to fight the Protectorate (it also highlights that the mythos surrounding the Envoys is rather broke-backed, given they were massacred before they achieved anything to make them legendary).


The hook of the season, however, of Takeshi revived to solve the murder of the previous sleeve of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), is an instantly arresting one, the sort of thing you could imagine Philip K Dick thinking up, but it arrives absent any of the fractured sense of reality that make Dick’s work so engrossing. Indeed, while there’s much potential in this world-building, it devolves into the hackneyed around the point that Bancroft’s killing is revealed as not very important after all. The season shifts focus and duly, and dully, becomes one of those stories where the main character is intrinsically linked to all epoch-changing events that have occurred, thus reducing the scope, scale and intrigue of the scenario. Takeshi turns out to be tied to the resistance (not all that much seems to have changed, tech-wise, in 250 years) and to the elite, or rather Meths (Methuselahs, because they have the money to swap from body to body uninterrupted – their own clones – whenever an old one runs out, so their stacks never go into storage; Laurens has been knocking around for 360 years).


Quell: The creation of stacks was a miracle and the beginning of the destruction of our species.

Meths don’t so much represent a metaphor for the current elite/one percent as they are those elite, making it rather nonsensical that Quell warns of “a new class so wealthy and powerful and cannot die”; that is, after all, a fairly precise description of the power wielded generationally by a ruling family. While their status is a convincingly decadent, there are holes, or at least gaps, in the premise elsewhere (unless I missed the explanations). There’s the question of resources (and potential population explosion); we don’t learn the percentage of people regularly resleeved aside from Meths, or even why the average joe is stacked at all. In whose interests is it, unless it’s a means for martialling and control? The solitary voice against the process (in 2384) comes from Neo-Catholics, who believe you should remain dead when you’re dead, and there’s a Proposition 653 due to be passed that allows Neo-Cs’ revivification in murder cases.


There is no other indication of the advantage of stacking all Protectorate citizens; surely, at bare minimum, the stack would include the tech to track everyone everywhere at all times (they’re inserted at one year of age), so there’d be no problem finding rebels, or murderers, or anyone in the vicinity of any crime? Which, wouldn’t, of course, make for a very easy means to fashion a murder mystery, but thems the breaks.


One wonders about other aspects here too, such as the fashioning of bionic limbs. Now, clearly they aren’t cheap, but given how powerful they are, wouldn’t any felon, or violently-minded individual worth their salt, favour the advantage they offer over the real thing? Particularly so in an arena such as the fight club, where enhancements are de rigueur. Failing that, wouldn’t the police just go around boosted sporting super-powerful tech attachments, to aid them in bringing criminals to justice? I have to admit, I liked the Robocop-esque advertising spiel as Kristin’s operation is in progress (asking if Takeshi wants to purchase an extended warranty).


The show is at its best prior to the reveal of Takeshi’s sister (Dichen Lachman, of Doll’s House; I’m guessing someone on Altered Carbon is a fan of the show, as Tahmoh Penikett also appears, while elsewhere, Adam Busch – murderous geek Warren from Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – is a tech geek on the force, so no typecasting there) as the Meth head behind most of the dodgy goings on, so the first six episodes (and it takes a couple of those to even get up and running). The red herring of Isaac using his father’s sleeve to execute a business deal is especially strong (caught in a “benevolent dependence trap”, never to succeed to head the family business, he is desperate to prove his worth).


Kovacs: Did I fucking stutter?
Poe: No, your speech was quite clear… if a trifle laden with obscenities.

And there are engaging incidentals throughout. The standout character is Poe (Chris Conner), or “Eddie”, the AI hotel manager, and he’s definitely the type you’d expect from a Joss Whedon show (the hotel setting – The Raven – as a base also put me in mind of Angel), allowed the kind of humour and personality the leads very much lack. His humanity in the face of the remoteness and brutality of actual humans is the closest Altered Carbon comes to a thematic echo of Blade Runner (“Whatever it means to be human, Eddie, you are”), and one can only hope that, should a second run come to pass, he will somehow be Mk II’d (I’d bank on it, actually).


Purefoy does a lot with Laurens, increasingly short-changed as the season progresses, and there’s an interesting scene in 1.5: The Wrong Man where he visits with generational victims of a contagion bomb, purposefully infecting himself as a symbol of compassion and solidarity (“This isn’t sacrifice, it’s theatre” scoffs Takeshi). Despite being a monstrous individual, the show offers Laurens the understanding of someone who convinces himself what he’s doing is acceptable and even commendable (and that he draws the line at where it counts).


Poe: Surely, true love triumphs over all?

There are several well-spun threads exploring the theme of cross-sleeving, such as Kristin’s grandma, who comes out of the stack to spend time with her family; that body later houses  murderous Midi; Matt Biedel is effective as both the doting grandparent and an unhinged psycho. Later, Ava, the wife of Takeshi’s entirely clichéd sidekick Vernon (Ato Essandoh) is cross-sleeved, and Vernon must adapt to her switch in gender (Cliff Chamberlain is hugely sympathetic). The idea of double sleeving oneself too, by which Midi has a duplicate of himself walking around who he calls his brother, is highly inventive. In contrast, I found Vernon and Ava's daughter Lizzie (Hayley Law), innocent trauma victim-cum-kick-ass assassin girl, a tired and overused trope. I could happily have seen more of Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer, as Carnage, owner of the fight club who, appropriately, favours analogue video as it cannot be traced.


But taken as a whole, Altered Carbon is too enamoured with the trappings of its own corporeality and materialism, ironic for a show about how these are no longer limitations. There are lashings of sex and violence throughout, but they’re rarely other than gratuitous. 1.4: Force of Evil is one long torture session, as Takeshi is subjected to VR interrogation that, at one point, includes having his legs burnt off. 1.8: Clash by Night might have been better titled Shooting Naked Women in the Head, Repeatedly; presumably the makers thought they could get away with this as Kristin’s doing the shooting.


Stylistically, the show’s so thoughtlessly derivative that, following Takeshi slaughtering the staff of the Wei Clinic, the cops arrive to find it bathed in darkness, for no other reason than the director felt it was time to break out the X-Files flashlights. Further mimicry of Blade Runner finds characters randomly slipping into multiple languages, but it comes across as an entirely unmotivated gimmick.


Depravity is a key part of the show, yet it’s squeamish about following the uses of this tech to their (un)natural conclusions. We focus on the profusion of new drugs (Stallion, Reaper) and diseases, but the activities of the Satellite of Sin (where Peter Woodward, of Crusade, can be found in a small role) are broached as if they’re an anomaly; in a world where the preservation of the body has no currency, surely the licence to feel that anything goes would be a stronger one. There is shocked reference to “snuff whores”, while Kristin (or rather, Reileen as Kristin) wonders “What kind of sick person uses the sleeve of a kid” as if that and worse wouldn’t be taking up a whole lot of police time. Particularly since, more than 250 years earlier, young Takeshi is told by CTEC “This time tomorrow, you’ll be in a man’s body” (and that’s the Protectorate speaking). A myriad of disturbing possibilities come with the technology, yet there’s little indication of the policing of how stacks and sleeves are utilised. Indeed, downloads appear to be wilfully disordered unless you have the funds to pick and choose. At one point, reference is made to a man being downloaded into a reptile; he was sent mad. That would surely be the tip of the iceberg.


Takeshi: There is no coming back from real death.

If Altered Carbon’s a soulless, somewhat pedestrian show, perhaps that’s partly because it’s a show that finds the soul a redundant, outmoded concept. Despite the lofty imagery of the title sequence and Takeshi’s tattoo – Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail as a symbol of eternity, the cycle – or trap – of endless material birth and death – suggesting, depending on where you’re coming from, that this is the natural order and that sleeving goes against it (“Natural order? You sound like one of those insane Neo-Catholics”), the series is coy about the ramifications, or lacks the imagination to explore them. The stack holds “Pure human mind, coded and stored as DHF: digital human freight”; there is no soul in Altered Carbon, no metaphysical debate, only your consciousness, which is rather perfunctorily the sum of your memories.


Aside from the Neo-Cs, never given a coherent voice, we learn that Abboud (Waleed Zuaiter) has a religious faith (“I’m a Muslim, not a monk”), but there’s no indication how stacking affects his beliefs. True, there are occasional nods towards an entirely materialistic outlook (“You think we should leave it up to God, do you?”), underscored by the fear of the finality of real death. But even if the show posits no possibility of the soul/spirit, it should surely recognise that groups would find loopholes in the science (be it suggesting those resleeved no longer have a soul, or that the soul cannot move on until consciousness itself is permanently laid to rest, assuming they are one and the same; this is exactly the kind of debate you’d expect the show to be having – that it invites –  but which has been studiously avoided).


Quell’s “We aren’t meant to live forever. It corrupts even the best of us” is taken as read as a
Star Trek-esque invocation to our being better through frailty and limitation, but the only justification for this is the idea that mankind, given unlimited lifespans, would devolve rather than aspire to better himself (again, this presumably rests on the Altered Carbon’s realisation that the physical is all, and that consciousness is merely a scientifically quantifiable, distillable element, piped from the brain itself).


Mister Leung: Their power is absolute and they never die. What else would you call them?
Takeshi: Has anyone ever told you you’re really fucked up in there?

There’s a nod to how beliefs might develop, but as expressed by Mister Leung (Trieu Tran), with his “Are you a believer?” mantra, it’s entirely unconvincing, so much so that it’s called out as soon as it is voiced (we’re given no reason to believe the average person wouldn’t entirely resent Meths, yet we see them regarded as benefactors or, in Leung’s case, worshipped, on the basis that they are equivalent to gods, but better than the old gods, as “All gods were silent”).


Other elements were left hanging, such that I wasn’t sure if they were holes or there was a genuine thought behind them; given how prosaic the show has been, I don’t have much hope for Season Two. Why did Rei save Quell, other than to provide Takeshi with some motivation next time? We’re told “Humanity spread to the stars”, which seems like a nod to Blade Runner’s off-world colonies in, but where’s the rationale in sticking around on Earth? Is life better elsewhere (it certainly can look nice, if Nora Inu is representative)? Who goes there? Is the Earth’s ecosystem permanently screwed? Is that why it rains almost all the time 350 years from now? And what was the throwaway line “Is it evolution, using the work of aliens to extend our own lives?” about? I wish I could say my interest was piqued for the next run, but the show went wrong as soon as it decided Takeshi was someone special, and even more so by involving him in a quest to overthrow the established order. His sister revealed as a hugely influential Meth was the nail in the coffin. If it had just accepted stacking and sleeving as the new status quo and gone from there, Altered Carbon might have found a much firmer footing and more distinctive voice.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire (2002) (SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-File s that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire . And then Elektra . And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.