By Michael Jack O’Brien
I’ll be the first to admit that cyberpunk is my guilty pleasure. The writing could be subpar, the actors could be boring, but god damn if you slap some neon lights and rain onto a setting, I’m instantly a fan. Of course, cyberpunk would be meaningless without its partner in crime, neo-noire; which gives framing for why everything is grey, gritty, and miserable. If, like it is for me, this setting is your perfect cup of tea, then I’m sure you’ll be pleased to learn that the new Netflix exclusive crime drama Altered Carbon is right up your alley.
Brought back to life after a century in stasis, Altered Carbon follows the adventures of Takeshi Kovacs: super soldier, master detective, and freedom fighter among other things who is charged with solving the murder of the wealthy Lawrence Bancroft in a futuristic hyper-developed San Francisco, now called Bay City. The catch to this story is, of course, that Lawrence Bancroft is still alive. In the world of Altered Carbon, human consciousness has been downloaded into “stacks” that can be moved from body to body. As a result, it’s quite hard to actually “die” as long as you can afford a new body.
While the world of Altered Carbon is colorful and interesting, it is by no means original. The show is not afraid to wear its inspirations on its sleeve and takes wholesale from the “generic cyberpunk playbook” without shame. Rain, neon lights, multiculturalism, and massive wealth disparity are all fair game. Even the setting, Bay City, is seemingly copied straight from Blade Runner. Of course, this is fine, and Altered Carbon is not pretending to be anything that it’s not with its setting, unoriginal as it is.
The main actors of the series, Joel Kinnaman as the protagonist Takeshi and Martha Higareda as the tough grizzled cop Kristen Ortega perform wonderfully, and have great on-screen chemistry. Be that as it may, the writing of Altered Carbon leaves something to be desired. For starters, the series has trouble picking a tone and sticking with it. While the story starts as a bleak, miserable noire detective story in the likes of, say it with me now, Blade Runner, the show quickly descends into a somewhat goofy crime action story, with gratuitous shootouts, fistfights, and one-liners galore. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but the juxtaposition of tone from scene to scene is jarring. In one moment a character could be having an existential breakdown about the futility of life because nobody can die. In another, they can be seen chumming it up with a turn of the century robot butler, drinking whiskey and playing poker as if they had completely forgotten about the immense psychological trauma they just experienced. This problem also extends to the protagonist, Takeshi. While on one hand he’s supposed to be a rough and tumble mercenary who only works for himself, willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wants, he also can’t seem to go five minutes without cracking some overly sarcastic one-liners or attempting to play buddy cop with his new friends and sometimes lovers. As a result, Altered Carbon markets itself as a “neo-noire” story full of angst and betrayal, but performs more in line with a cyberpunk Sherlock Holmes story, with a mystery plot so convoluted that only a hyper-aware detective genius would be able to uncover the true meanings behind the clues.
At this point, we need to address what I find is the biggest flaw in Altered Carbon. While the protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is certainly interesting, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he is ostensibly a Mary Sue, or maybe Larry Sue, as the character seems to check all the boxes of male wish fulfillment. Takeshi seems to be good at almost everything he does, with the plot explaining that he’s essentially a hyper-trained super soldier called an “envoy.” He’s basically invincible, and almost never loses a fight unless the odds are stacked absurdly against him. He’s a perfect detective who possesses a magical plot device called “envoy intuition” which means that he just happens to observe way more about situations than his companions. He’s funny, but also a complete asshole, and no matter how many bodies he leaves in his wake, his core group of compatriots never seem to leave his side. And moreover, he’s also ridiculously attractive and winds up seducing or being seduced by female cast members who for one reason or another want to get inside his pants. It’s not that he’s a bad character, but I can’t help to think about Altered Carbon’s contemporaries, mainly Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, both of which feature protagonists who are emphasized as not being “super detectives” and get beat down constantly over the course of their respective films.
Writing flaws aside, I still had fun with Altered Carbon, and I’m looking forward to a second season if it gets renewed. It’s not perfect by any means, but as I said before, cyber-punky neon lights can make me fawn over anything.