Altered Carbon and Looking Back at Cyberpunk’s Heyday

Copyright © 2018 by Netflix

It’s never been a secret that one of my favorite genres is cyberpunk. It’s the best of two worlds: film noir and science fiction. It’s holographic adverts overloading giant, rain-drenched skyscrapers, where private eyes go chasing androids and console cowboys get shanghaied into unraveling megacorporate conspiracies in virtual reality zones. And while I regret never getting into the original books by Richard K. Morgan, I was excited to learn that his first Takeshi Kovacs story, Altered Carbon, was being brought onto Netflix.

The year is 2384. Takeshi Kovacs, a former terrorist, is revived in a new body 250 years after his arrest. His new client, the ultra-rich Laurens Bancroft, has a job for him: solve the murder of Bancroft’s last body. Now stuck in far-future San Francisco, Kovacs has to contend with mercenaries, possessive AI hotel owners, femme fatales, and the relentless police lieutenant Kristin Ortega. Every new encounter is another opportunity for Kovacs to come to terms with the crimes he’s committed in the distant past, to put his elite skills as an Envoy to use, and to dig deeper into the labyrinthe world of “Meths” (as in, Methuselahs). As his onetime mentor Quell keeps reminding him, “Nothing is what it seems.

It’s interesting to have the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, played by both an Asian actor (Will Yun Lee) in flashbacks and a white actor (Joel Kinnaman) in the present. On the one hand, it’s a neat trick of showing off our multicultural future, even race is something to be changed with a simple “resleeve.” On the other hand, I kind of would’ve liked to have seen Lee stay in the lead role, but Kinnaman does the job well enough as our typical hardboiled detective with elite combat skills and a supernatural attention to detail.

Now, as a fan of all things cyberpunk, I love the visuals (and as someone who wants to make cyberpunk fiction, I’m jealous I didn’t get to do this first). Bay City is a beautiful mess of heavy rainfall, omnipresent holographic ads, flying cars, cybernetic neck and eye implants, and massive skyscrapers reaching into the clouds. It’s like we’re getting to see the Sprawl that Gibson envisioned back in ’84, since that’s basically the archetype that Richard K. Morgan and Laeta Kalogridis are using in this series. This is the sci-fi world I want to see: not just “What happens if we only changed one thing, like not dying?” but the world of “What if we changed everything in society, on every level? What would humanity even look like?”

I will admit, though, that the first 8 minutes from the first episode did leave me a little too lacking in context. Much as I love how works like Neuromancer and The Diamond Age throw their readers right into the deep end, I did feel a little impatient with the fast editing of images between one version of Kovacs (pre-death) and the other (waking up in a new body), with no real sense of what I was seeing or why I should even care about what’s happening. As fun as that can be in a book, I think TV is something audiences a little more leeway before getting tossed into a random world.

I’m also not a huge fan of the way exposition is sometimes dropped clunkily into the middle of conversations. Even if Kovacs is still adapting to the new world, the way charaters like Ortega suddenly have to rattle off banal facts about AI hotels and other commonplace lore is a bit jarring.

This felt most egregious in the first episode, where Kovacs and Ortega have a drink and a chat inside a strip club. Their rattled-off exposition is taking place right next to a mostly nude dancing girl on the stage. It’s a little hard not to want to make a “sexposition” joke straight out of the first season of Games of Thrones. As much as Netflix gets to play with sex and violence in a way that network TV can’t, I do think that sometimes there’s a little too much emphasis on sex for titillation’s sake, especially if it’s trying to keep the audience engaged for learning key plot points.

Even with some of the bumpy nature of the show’s pacing, I do enjoy it overall. It’s colorful and gritty, it has plenty of film noir throwbacks, and there’s a real sense of the search for identity and meaning in a world that seemingly cares about neither.

Altered Carbon is currently available for viewing on Netflix.


Bibliography: Altered Carbon (series). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. Produced by John G. Lenic. Perf. Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Connor, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, and Renee Elise Goldberry. Virago Productions; Mythology Entertainment; Phoenix Pictures; Skydance Television. Netflix (distributor). Original broadcast: February 2, 2018 – present.

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