Altered Carbon review: Netflix’s big-budget Blade Runner clone is their most epic misfire since Iron Fist
Cast - Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, James Purefoy, Will Yun Lee
Rating - 2.5/5
It’s shows like Altered Carbon that make you wonder about the subtle differences between a homage and a rip-off. How far can an original story go in its reverence to an established classic without going too far? How many visual cues are enough to remind the viewer of something they’ve known and loved before they inevitably start comparing the two with one another? The differences between paying loving tribute and blatantly stealing ideas might seem drastic, yes, but really, they’re separated by the finest of lines.
The one thing Altered Carbon has going in its favour is that it at least tries to do its own thing, initially. Once you get over the obvious similarities to several anime shows, cyberpunk video games, hard-boiled detective fiction, and most overtly, Blade Runner, you begin to appreciate the core of what the show is about – and the ideas are, despite feeling very familiar, rather intriguing.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the show’s biggest inspiration is – they’ve all taken and given with equal charity – but in order to focus this discussion, let’s just call it what it is: A Blade Runner clone, a replicant with no sense of individuality, blindly following the rules that have been programmed into its hard drive.
It’s set in a distant future in which human bodies – physical flesh and bone – have become obsolete. People exist, but their consciousness has been uploaded into hardware colloquially known as ‘stacks’. These stacks can be planted in synthetic bodies known as ‘sleeves’. There is an interesting point in there about the actual worth of a human body (some studies peg the value of your organs to be as high as $45 million) – it’s a metaphor that works on many levels, considering especially how the poor in the show are treated, and how their bodies have been made worthless through the course of human history; and how the rich and the powerful have treated slaves and migrants and young women.
Had Altered Carbon not been so dead set in its stubbornness to appear cool then perhaps it could’ve found the time to develop these ideas. Instead, it settles for cool neon visuals and cool quips and an even cooler central character – Takeshi Kovacs, who is, for lack of a better description, Rick Deckard meets Sam Spade.
He’s played by Joel Kinnaman, who has consistently proven himself to be a splendid supporting actor, but not someone who can carry a movie, or in this case, 10 episodes of a dense TV show. He is also, in case you haven’t connected the dots yet, a white man. A hulking, Swedish white man. Not exactly someone you’d expect to be called Takeshi. But there you have it, a neat hack that sort of excuses the whitewashing, and helps it avoid those uncomfortable Ghost in the Shell controversies. Again, there are probably intelligent points to be made about robbing an Asian man of his body and imprisoning his consciousness in the ‘sleeve’ of a rich white man, but Altered Carbon doesn’t make them.
It also makes sense that the future in which these characters live is, like most visions of Philip K Dick-inspired dystopia, a potpourri of cultures. So the police might travel in expensive flying cars, but the slogans painted on them are in Hindi. There is grimy underbelly to this world – the ground level – in which the riffraff operates. It’s a world filled with too many tattoo parlours and strip joints. But above them, in lavish mansions that float among the clouds – like Neill Blomkamp’s underrated film, Elysium – there are the homes of the rich.
One of those rich men hires Takeshi to solve a very particular mystery – a murder. The victim? The rich man himself, or more precisely, his former ‘sleeve’. At the risk of sounding repetitive, that’s a knockout premise. Think about it. In a future where human bodies have lost all worth, people can – provided they have the necessary means – live forever. There exist in this world rich people as old as 300 years, while the poor are left in their dumps, questioning the existence of God at a time in human evolution that His services have been rendered – like the men and women He created in His image – rather worthless.
Having thought this through, and having checked and double-checked certain definitions, I’ve come to a conclusion: It doesn’t matter if Altered Carbon is a homage of a rip-off. The only thing that matters is that regardless of what it wants to be perceived as, it fails at the two key things: Being thought provoking and entertaining.
Watch the Altered Carbon trailer here
Altered Carbon will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, 2nd February.