Altered Carbon Is an Over-Stacked Cyberpunk Mess

The beautiful, boring world of Altered Carbon. Photo: Netflix

Altered Carbon is set in a future where a person’s consciousness can live forever. Which is why it’s ironic that watching this show frequently makes me feel dead inside.

The cyberpunk sci-fi series, which debuted Friday on Netflix, is ambitious, convoluted, violent, derivative, and somehow simultaneously grimy and glossy. It raises provocative questions about the social implications of turning people’s souls into transferable digital files, but piles so much exposition and so many story lines on top of everything that it collapses like an excessively tall tower built out of Philip K. Dick novels and CGI. There are some compelling scenes and moments in Altered Carbon, but at no point do any of them convince me to care about what happens to the main characters residing in Bay City, a San Francisco from decades hence that looks an awful lot like the hologram-ad-heavy Los Angeles from Blade Runner, with a few dashes of Total Recall mixed into the sauce.

Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan and adapted by Laeta Kalogridis, screenwriter of Shutter Island and co-writer of Terminator: Genisys, Altered Carbon introduces us to a world with its own vocabulary. Here, there are “stacks,” a set of digitized vertebrae that holds the core of a person’s identity, including their memories. A stack can be placed inside a new “sleeve,” which, in Altered Carbon–ese, is the human body that acts as a host to whichever stack has been placed inside of it. In the first of ten episodes, trained envoy Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee) is killed and wakes up 250 years later in the remarkably chiseled body of Elias Ryker (a heavy-lidded Joel Kinnaman), a former cop who quickly comes in contact with another police officer named Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda). Ortega keeps tabs on Ryker/Kovacs, even as he finds himself working for Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a so-called “Meth,” or Methuselah, who is one of the one-percenters that can afford to keep his stack in circulation from now until the end of time. (The less wealthy? Not surprisingly, they don’t have the means to get nine — or even two or three — lives.)

In a previous incarnation of himself, Bancroft was killed but the set of memories that would explain who did it have been zapped from his stack. So he hires Kovacs to figure out who killed him, which sets up Altered Carbon as a murder mystery, at first. But so many things happen from there that solving a homicide actually winds up being just one small part of what’s on this show’s agenda.

The idea that the protagonist is an Asian man hiding inside a white man’s body is a blatant form of whitewashing. The story is written that way in Morgan’s book and Kovacs isn’t necessarily the only character walking around in another racial or ethnic identity — one of the underlying points of Altered Carbon is that you should never make assumptions about someone based on what their skin looks like — but still, given all the conversations about Hollywood’s need for better representation, that part of the show feels especially off-putting.

What makes Altered Carbon most challenging, though, is how confusing is to keep track of what’s happening. The show deserves credit for not overexplaining the rules that govern its world, and just forging ahead on the assumption that viewers will keep up. But too often, this state-of-the-art, self-driving car speeds off before making sure that its passengers are comfortably inside the vehicle. Perhaps aware that all the exposition-heavy scenes and gun battles might leave some viewers cold, the series tries to turn up the heat with a fair amount of nudity — mostly, though not exclusively, female — and some explicit sex scenes. But those moments just seem like gratuitous attempts at seduction, rather than the necessary commentaries on skin-shedding they might have been.

The problems with Altered Carbon certainly aren’t due to laziness. Everything onscreen speaks to how much effort, not to mention money, was spent to color Bay City with credible and clever detail. Kovacs stays in an AI hotel called the Raven, a type of lodging that looks tangible but is completely imagined by its proprietor, a man named Poe (Chris Conner) who bears a strong resemblance to Edgar Allen. There are other delightful little surprises along the way, too, like hearing PJ Harvey’s “Wicked Tongue” during a fight scene or spotting sci-fi character actor Matt Frewer in the role of a glitchy-faced fight-club organizer. (The glitchiness is all the more amusing when you remember that Frewer used to portray Max Headroom.) The show also raises some genuinely interesting moral issues, particularly with regard to whether one chooses to give up his or her religious coding.

I suspect people with a particularly deep affection for this brand of noir sci-fi will enjoy Altered Carbon. But when I consider how I feel about this series, I keep coming back to a line in the voice-over narration from Kovacs’s mentor, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, in the very first episode. “Let experience wash over you,” she coos to him. “Absorb it like a sponge.” The visual candy and philosophical subtext of Altered Carbon may wash over me, but none of it gets absorbed in any lasting way.

Altered Carbon Is an Over-Stacked Cyberpunk Mess