Netflix’s Altered Carbon is a Snooze, Literally

Netflix’s Altered Carbon combines Blade Runner, Demolition Man, and True Detective.  Add it up and you get a boring sci-fi-action-thriller-noir detective series, whatever that is.

Altered Carbon has a story to tell. Too bad it’s buried under layers of various genre trappings. At first glance, this original series is a dystopian sci-fi movie set in the year 2384. Scientists extend life by saving people’s minds on chips called a “cortical stacks.” These stacks can be placed in any body or “sleeve.” This concept raises many ethical questions and would make great storytelling. Too bad Altered Carbon ruins that by devolving into an action-thriller-noir-detective movie.

You have to admit that the Altered Carbon trailer makes this Netflix series look amazing:

The Basic Plot of Altered Carbon

After 250 years, terrorist and badass Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakens in a new body.  He’s given the choice of returning to prison for his crimes, or helping solve a murder.  The man who was killed is the wealthy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy).  Bancroft is still alive, though.  Someone killed his old sleeve, but his mind was downloaded and recovered.  Bancroft has no idea who killed him. (But he still keeps the bloodstain of his old body on the wall.)  After meeting with Bancroft, and thwarting an assassination attempt, Kovacs takes the case.  (Of course.)

What Happened When I Watched Altered Carbon

I fell asleep!  Yup, you read that correctly.  I actually dozed off during an action-packed fight scene near the end of the first episode, Out of the Past.  When I woke up, I noticed that Mrs. Buckler was fast asleep beside me.  While she continued to snooze, I watched what I missed and quickly regretted wasting a great nap.  Altered Carbon just failed to impress, though I didn’t know why then.  (I was still too groggy.)  Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I know exactly why I didn’t like Altered Carbon.

This Netflix original series bills itself as a dystopian sci-fi action thriller.  Unfortunately, the creators added a noir detective overlay to this strange world.  Apparently, rich people in the year 2384 have a penchant for 1940s art deco everything.  To hang out with them means stepping into an old Philip Marlowe, Private Eye movie.  For the record, I love classic film noir and neo-noir, but only when it’s done right.  Altered Carbon comes off a parody, and not a good one at that.  It’s addition probably started out with someone saying, “Would it be cool if..”  Guess what, Altered Carbon creators? It’s not cool; not at all.

Here are some of the things about Altered Carbon that I found annoying:

  1. It’s high-action fight scenes are supposed to be a strength.  Too bad it was done first, and better, in The Matrix and every Jackie Chan movie ever.
  2. The dirty, crowded, and looming city tries to hide its ugliness behind a veneer of high technology.  This is so Blade Runner, and not in a good way.
  3. The concept of bringing someone out of some sort of cryo-freeze to fight crime was taken straight out of Demolition Man.  I wasn’t a fan of that Sylvester Stallone vehicle, so I see any need to rehash it.
  4. The vast disparity between rich and poor in this brave new world might appeal to social justice warriors, but it’s very surface level.  I’m hoping this will be explored in future episodes, though I probably won’t bother to watch them.
  5. The first episode begins with a female voiceover narration explaining the rules of this brave new world.  Halfway through the episode, this narrative ends with no explanation who that person was and what she had to do with the story.  If you’re going to use a voiceover narrator, it must be consistent.  (This is a huge pet peeve of mine.)

Who Should Watch Altered Carbon

This series is perfect for just two types of people. The first are hardcore sci-fi fans, like my colleague, Stuart Sweet. (I think even he would turn his nose up at it halfway through the first episode.) The other group who should see this is the #FOMO crowd, i.e., those who have a real “fear of missing out.” The Altered Carbon hype train makes it look like the can’t-miss series of 2018. Despite its failings, there will always be those people who have to be a part of everything that’s popular. (There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way.) If you’re someone who doesn’t like missing out on the latest fad, then cue up the first episode and enjoy. I hope that the series is everything you hope it will be.

Maybe Netflix’s Mute Will be Better

Another high-concept sci-fi thriller is coming to the big red streaming service provider. It’s called Mute, and it’s set to premiere on February 23. Set in Berlin 2052, Mute is billed as a missing-person case set in cyberpunk Berlin.  It has German subtitles, but we’re used to that from Dark, right?  After watching the trailer, I could say that Mute plays heavily on the Blade Runner aesthetic.  It’s probably better to reserve my judgment until I actually see it. Look for my review of Mute in the February 24, 2018 edition of Streaming Saturday. Until then, here’s a look at the its trailer: