Netflix is of the firm belief that if you buy enough lottery tickets, one of them will hit; that’s why the company is slapping down $8 billion on content this year.
Admittedly, that’s the same strategy that gave us Stranger Things, an unheralded passion-project from two first-time showrunners that received little fanfare from the streamer before it turned television Upside Down. But as an overall approach, flooding the market with content is going to sometimes leave viewers drowning in a bad show.
Now downloading Altered Carbon, Netflix’s shiny, big-budget sci-fi genre grab (arriving February 2), which so badly wants to be Blade Runner that audiences will be forgiven if they confuse the series for a buggy early model replicant still in the beta phase.
Based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel of the same name, Altered Carbon invested a Tyrell Corporation-sized budget to transport viewers to a neon-hued noir complete with cyberpunk current and other-worldly visuals. Similar to The Crown (which we loved), it’s readily apparent where all that money went when you’re staring wide-eyed at an explicitly detailed city landscape, colorful futuristic tech and lavish set pieces that get torn to shreds in one of the show’s many impressive action sequences.
But at its core, Altered Carbon is as empty as the “sleeves”—human shells that can be uploaded with a person’s consciousness, or “stacks”—that populate its 250-plus years in the future setting.
The show follows former rebel soldier/general badass of the stars Takeshi Kovacs, an Asian military man fighting against the new world order who is “resurrected” in Joel Kinnaman’s body hundreds of years after his death to solve a murder.
Right off the bat, that’s a whitewashing red flag.
We do get ample flashbacks with actor Will Yun Lee in the role, but it seems, at best, like a wasted opportunity by showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (Alita: Battle Angel, Avatar) not to use it to offer up commentary on people, culture and technology. At worst, it’s another example of a long-running and misguided trend in Hollywood. Kinnaman is always handsome on screen yet often misused, as is the case here. And while Kalogridis does develop fuller female characters than Morgan did in his book, the show’s attention is ultimately too divided to capitalize on its immense potential.
Altered Carbon has a great initial hook, but after the bait is devoured, there’s little else keeping us on the line.
Kudos to Kalogridis for never getting too bogged down in world-building, letting the viewer figure things out for themselves. But the intriguing set-ups begin to get lost as the story diverges into multiple sub-plots that don’t exactly feed back into the show’s hard drive.
Sure, everybody is kung fu fighting and walking around buck naked at times, but remind me again why historical rebellions, black market technology and full frontal nudity matter? What’s that? I can’t hear you over the hail of gunfire that keeps missing Kovacs as he mope-snarks from scene to scene.
Altered Carbon‘s innards are all ones and zeroes, though the gratuitous fight scenes do add some very impressive color to the binary programming.
There’s something to be said about fancy filmmaking that captures flying kicks, magazine-emptying gun battles and all sorts of creative smashmouth action; flashbacks to Kovacs’ previous life give the show a very cool Halo on-the-ground feeling. Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) plays Kovacs’ former mentor/love interest with ferocity, even if she’s forced to regurgitate vague thesis statements (“You have to beat the player, not the game”). The directing, especially from Game of Thrones alum Miguel Sapochnik, is often creative and alluring, and the back half of the season is pleasantly action-packed.
Yet for all of its bells and whistles, nothing about Altered Carbon feels very different or new or bold. Its code is simple and consistent: exposition, declarations, fisticuffs and sex. It’s stitched together with the DNA of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and other cyberpunk sci-fi, but imitation and duplication are two very different things.
I admire Netflix’s willingness to reinvest into its product and provide customers with a growing library of expensive original content. But now that the company has sewn up its market-leading position with huge expectations-beating growth, perhaps its time to trim the fat and focus on dropping consecutive hits like it did with 2013’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black.
The quantity over quality approach is no longer needed now that the Netflix brand is synonymous with the latter worldwide.
Maybe they should have just left this particular sleeve empty.