It’s somewhat ironic that the basic premise of Netflick’s futuristic mystery-drama, Altered Carbon, hangs on the idea of human minds being electronically copied and downloaded into new bodies, since the show itself is a copy of almost every Bladerunner-inspired movie or television programme produced over the last forty years. There is little in the ten-part series that genre fans will not have seen or read somewhere else. And often to better effect. While this can be blamed to some extent on the source material, an enjoyable if derivative 2002 novel of the same name by the British author Richard K. Morgan, there is no escaping the creative staleness which hangs over much of the production.
The dystopian drama takes place on the western coast of North America during the year 2384 CE, in a space-faring civilisation governed by the United Nations Interstellar Protectorate. This society is shaped by its use of “cortical stacks”, small transferable devices grafted to the spinal columns of most citizens during infancy to record or backup their personalities. Consequently, when a body or “sleeve” dies through accident or illness the old “stack” can be inserted into a new one or stored indefinitely in a type of standby mode. In theory this gives humanity a form of technological immortality, though in practice only the super-rich can afford to be “resleeved” in cloned or otherwise appropriated bodies, creating an ever-living overclass known as the “Meths” (a rather unlikely derivative of the Biblical name, Methuselah).
The story itself begins with the revival of a long-term disembodied prisoner named Takeshi Kovacs in the stackless “sleeve” of a dead policeman, Elias Ryker, almost 250 years after his violent death. Previously found guilty of terrorist crimes against the authoritarian Protectorate, the one-time revolutionary is offered the chance of a permanent parole. However this freedom comes at a price. He must solve the possible murder of his affluent sponsor, Laurens Bancroft, one of the near-immortals who survived his own supposed suicide and stack destruction using a back-up copy of his consciousness. If you remember Sylvester Stallone in the role of the frozen anti-hero John Spartan in 1993’s enjoyable sci-fi caper, Demolition Man, you get the idea (though in this case, the whole thing is played with a great deal of seriousness). This segue introduces us to Bay City, a 25th century version of San Francisco which unashamedly apes director Ridley Scott’s cinematic vision of 21st century Los Angeles. Putting the upgraded special-effects to one side, the fictional conurbations are pretty much identical, right down to the grimy neon lights, perpetual rain showers and flying air-cars.
Here, as in so many other areas of the show, plausibility is stretched to breaking point as Kovacs re-enters a world which has hardly changed since his own distant lifetime. Consequently he finds it relatively easy to interact with everything around him, encountering nothing particularly new or incongruous or startling in terms of technologies or societal developments. In fact, the future looks remarkably – and disappointingly – familiar to our own present, right down to the conventional suits and ties worn by office workers. Eventually, the reluctant investigator is forced to cooperate with a police detective named Kristin Ortega (a more kick-ass version of Sandra Bullock’s law woman in Demolition Man), solving the case after a series of twists and turns, and unsurprising revelations. The ending is more or less signposted from episode six, and thereafter you are along for the ride rather than the arrival at the final destination.
Though it has its moments, Altered Carbon‘s reliance on clunky exposition and repetitive scenes, coupled with the primacy of its cyberpunk setting over actual plot development, detracts from what could have been an otherwise interesting philosophical exploration of what it means to be a human being. Or any living entity. After all, the story’s basic conceit concerns the ubiquitous downloading of digitised minds into different bodies through the medium of cybernetic backups. Can a computerised personality maintain continuity of personhood with its biological beginnings? Like the use of the teleporter technology in the Star Trek franchise, where arguably the process of teleportation results in a new creation, should a stack mind be regarded as separate consciousness in its own right? No matter how great the science (and in this case, it is recovered alien science), a copy remains a copy. Which would make the claims of immortality a self-decieving illusion.
The poor portrayal of female figures in the show, with the casual use of violence and rather pointless nudity, is a little disappointing. One would expect more nuance in this area given contemporary concerns, especially in the US entertainment industry. However, it seems that the writers of the dramatisation expect gender roles to barely progress in the next four centuries. While some of this outlook is derived from the story’s literary inspiration, which itself was of debatable value, when given visual form the sexual exploitation and bloodshed is more problematic.
Some of the less-than-stellar acting is notable. The troubled lead is played by the Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman and he is apparently doing a genre homage of his own: to the thespian skills of Sam J. Jones in the high-camp classic, Flash Gordon. Wooden doesn’t begin to describe the dead-eyed vacuity that the Scandinavian heartthrob brings to the role, displaying all the emotional range of a pine tree. Others are not so bad, though some opt for the Jack Palance school of acting via the dire British fantasy film, Hawk the Slayer. That said, there is a nice if brief appearance by Matt Frewer of one-time Max Headroom fame, working as an exploitative artificial intelligence or AI.
Talking of which, one of the most underused and fascinating characters in the entire series is an AI, a self-conscious computer entity known as Poe, and the manager of the mysterious Raven Hotel (which actually serves as both its business and the physical embodiment of its computer systems). Tellingly, this figure is considerably altered from its original presentation in the 2002 book, which indicates that the writers could have taken far greater creative liberties with their adaptation. (Poe’s hotel reminded me, for some odd reason, of the autonomous establishment in NBC’s 1992 supernatural misfire, Nitemare Café. I would gladly watch an entire series devoted to it.)
Finally, the CGI effects, as you would expect for a multi-million dollar presentation, are seriously top-notch. But then again, the production teams had no other task than to capture and modernise the dark mise-en-scène of the 1982 film and its numerous illegitimate offspring (though watching the show in 4K on a 60 inch screen, as always, adds that weird impression of viewing slightly unreal imagery from a PC or console game rather than something more cinematic in nature).
While Altered Carbon will certainly hold your interest across all ten parts, it’s unlikely to make any great impression on your memory. The show is too uninventive, the story and characters too weak, to have a lasting shelf life of its own. That said, by all accounts the series has become another mix-reaction hit for Netflix, like the critically panned but viewer-admired urban fantasy movie, Bright. A sequel is already rumoured to be in the offing, taking the second book in Richard K. Morgan’s trilogy, the significantly better Broken Angels, as its basis. Hopefully, like the full sequence of novels featuring Takeshi Kovacs, the television series will improve as it goes on.
Meanwhile I’m dreading Amazon’s forthcoming dramatisation of Iain M Banks’ 1984 science-fiction debut, Consider Phlebas, the first in his hugely influential Culture series of novels and short stories. The omens do not look good.