The Netflix sci-fi series Altered Carbon is a cyberpunk story that feels all-too-familiar, mainly because its neon-drenched cityscapes look like they might share a universe with Blade Runner. And now, the reviews worry that the action-packed and compelling first season is burdened with another case of Ghost in the Shell whitewashing.
Released Friday, Altered Carbon takes place in a far-future where the human body is reduced to a commodity called a “sleeve.” Because the consciousness can be downloaded to a computer chip planted at the base of the skull, a certain kind of immortality is achievable. The wealthy live forever in their own clones. The poor transplant into whatever bodies they can get. The Christians just die.
Joel Kinnaman plays the “re-sleeved” Takeshi Kovacs, who is a special kind of supersoldier that died centuries earlier fighting against the very regime that owns the world in the present.
Forced to live in a strange body and work for the richest man in the world, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), Kovacs has to solve the murder of Bancroft’s former body.
Along the way, we get incredible action sequences, but as many reviews point out, the drama feels lacking when Kovacs himself doesn’t have much of an interest in his new life. Many also point out whitewashing concerns, seemingly proving that nobody learned from the mistakes of Ghost in the Shell.
Writing for Wired, Julie Mincy essentially calls Altered Carbon little more than a flashy spectacle that doesn’t do much to provoke thoughts in the way that other cyberpunk sci-fi might, saying “too often, Altered Carbon doesn’t have much of anything to say at all.”
Kovacs as a relic living in a future he might hate sounds great, but Mincy calls him a “deeply uninteresting hero” wandering through a “detective story” rather than exploring the implications of an otherwise really compelling universe.
Joel Kinnaman as the present-day Kovacs is great, particularly in the subtle way he conveys a vague sense of discomfort with his own skin. It’s almost a detriment to the series as a whole how engaging actor Wil Yun Lee in the flashback scenes he plays the former version of Kovacs.
Mike Hale’s review for New York Times somewhat accurately calls Altered Carbon “Netflix’s Blade Runner Replicant” noting that it looks an awful lot like an above-average show that might to appear on Syfy.
He mercilessly continues, calling it a “low-rent Blade Runner knockoff with basic-cable production values and premium-cable nudity.” For a lot of viewers, that might be a good thing and a great source of entertainment.
The presence of shrink-wrapped human bodies in Altered Carbon does offer an obvious ode to Blade Runner. After all, you might remember this gem of a scene from Blade Runner 2049:
At Entertainment Weekly, Darren Franich echoed similar thoughts: “It’s a neon-grim cyberpunk noir, a subgenre we could just call “Blade Runner-ish.”
Despite having a body-swapping universe where questions of identity could be explored in a compelling way, Altered Carbon fails a bit. Franich writes, “This show tackles race, gender, and class with all the subtlety of a blowtorch.”
For Metro, Adam Starkey perhaps gets what Altered Carbon is going for. He notes the potential for whitewashing concerns, but calls Kinnaman’s casting a “masterstroke.” He points to a sequence in the first episode that captures the very essence of the show:
“Through the sci-fi grandeur and complex questions around humanity, Altered Carbon never forgets to have fun. A spectacular closing sequence in the first episode blends brutal mini-gun blasts to swinging jazz – orchestrated by A.I. hotel manager, Poe, who feels stripped from Wes Anderson’s kookiest pages.”
Inverse’s own sentiments regarding Altered Carbon mirrored that of Starkey. Sci-fi fans going into the series looking for dense, heady cyberpunk mired in melodrama would do better re-watching Blade Runner, because what you get in Altered Carbon is a thrill-ride that cares more about its astounding action sequences than anything else.
Sometimes in sci-fi, that’s all you need.
Altered Carbon is now streaming on Netflix.