What does it mean to be truly human? Lots of great stories have explored this idea and debate and the latest to come up to the table is Altered Carbon, Netflix’s cyberpunk murder mystery adapted from the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan. The setting here is 2384, the human conscious, its memories, life, its essence can be transferred via stacks from body to body, or sleeves as they are called. Full death is still possible and we enter the story with Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) being put into a new sleeve at the behest of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to help him solve his own murder and it all gets crazier from there.
While there are plenty of intriguing and fascinating ideas presented by the story itself, much of Altered Carbon feels like it was put into a new sleeve itself. Now I haven’t read the original novel, but I am quite interested since I don’t think the show is rather memorable, to be honest.
One of my main issues is lead Joel Kinnaman, who, well let’s say a wet paper bag might give a more convincing performance. He’s never quite seemed like a viable leading man ever since the 2014 remake of RoboCop. He’s not really dynamic enough to really capture your attention unlike his supporting role on House of Cards. The character of Takeshi Kovacs is a fascinating one, but only when played by original Kovacs sleeve, Will Yun Lee. He has exceptional range and depth that sucks you into the character that Kinnaman doesn’t. Kinnaman just feels hollow and bland overall as an actor that doesn’t quite scream leading man quality. There’s not enough emotion I feel coming from many of her performances and Lee is a sensational talent that can also more believably kick my ass far worse than Kinnaman. The gap between their talents is vastly noticeable and it hurts the show overall.
On the other side, there are some really fascinating characters in here as well. James Purefoy as Bancroft is actually my series MVP as he’s such a mystery of a human being. Purefoy has this aloof and free-spirited feel about him that makes for some of the most entertaining scenes throughout the 10-episode season. His status as a very wealthy man gives him this unchecked confidence that ultimately does become his undoing, but its a fascinating one to watch. Other standouts include Martha Higereda’s Kristin Ortega, a detective assigned to investigate Bancroft’s murder, but becomes obsessed once Kovacs becomes involved. Her determination and drive really invest you into the character the more you get to know about her life overall. Then there’s Chris Conner as Poe, the A.I. proprietor of the hotel Kovacs stays in who is endlessly charming, Ato Essandoh as Vernon Elliot, someone connected to the whole thing, and Dichen Lachman and Renée Elise Goldsberry in roles, I’ll get into further down the road. Sadly everyone else is either boring, uninteresting, or underutilized.
What also really hurts the series is its pacing as it slogs to get through the story thanks to the lengths each episode can go, well that and Kinnaman’s blandness. Each episode doesn’t seem to know when to really end a point at its natural conclusion and the runtime of 46-66 minutes per episode does not help either and often feels like its spinning its wheels. The cyberpunk look and feel, not to mention the themes of what it means to be really human and understand what it means to live, certainly does brings one’s mind to Blade Runner given its setting, look, and style. Its great, I do truly love it as Blade Runner itself and several similar works, but Altered Carbon is only different give its story and the unique mystery at the center of it. The show actually does look great and I do like the camera work when goes into virtual reality, but when it comes to exploring the deeper and greater thoughts of human life and philosophy, Altered Carbon barely manages to reach the ceiling really it feels like. So much of this feels recycled, that it’s just really only interesting thanks to the work of the other actors that aren’t Kinnaman, and I’m sorry to keep harping on that point, but he really did bring the whole show down to me. That and the sexualized violence.
Sexuality is a huge part of this show from the sex workers and intimacy among certain characters, but it feels like violence towards women is often a cause for almost all of the plot itself and not exploring something deeper than that. It’s mostly a plot device really and one done far too often. Look I know its a dystopia, but come on!
The fighting itself is rather cool in parts as the show does have great choreography and the thought of extended life via a new body is an extraordinary idea that feels like it warrants far better direction. Some of the ideas brought to the front are exciting but with the direction of this show, yet it just can’t reach a level of higher thought. It feels like its nearly there, but not quite. Though the mystery itself is pretty good. I’m a sucked for good pulp fiction like detective stories and in that department, the show delivers.
Overall, Altered Carbon is ambitious and daring with some really great production value that makes it look incredible, but thanks to an uninteresting leading man and some questionable plot decisions, I really can’t give this a full recommendation.
THIS IS SPOILER TERRITORY, LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU’RE NOT DONE OR HAVEN’T STARTED! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
The roles of Renée Elise Goldsberry and Dichen Lachman as Quell and Rei respectively where some finer highpoints. Quell being the love of Kovacs’ life is a good story as she’s the one who leads the uprising Kovacs became a part of and the thought of her stack still being active is an interesting setup for a season 2 plotline, but as evidenced above, I’m not so sure I’m sticking around for round two. The reveal of Rei as the puppet master is quite a good twist. The mystery of the show is a good one and this reveal serves as one of the finer moments in the show. Rei is a fantastic villain thanks to the marvelous acting Dichen Lachman who has a great look for a villainous character. She just seems to actually ooze evil, I dunno how that is possible, but hey I think it happened.
The reveal of Bancroft being the one killing himself via Rei and Miriam is creative since they did enough work setting up the rules and way of the universe, but it felt too convenient given the pretense of what was presented. I mean yeah it connected everything, but it felt too obvious from the start and I feel like that slightly hurt the show really.
Whatever you may think of Altered Carbon, it certainly is something else in terms of media. What did you think of the series? Good? Bad? Something else? Let us know in the comments!