Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Altered Carbon (TV 2018, Review)

I read Altered Carbon, the book by Richard Morgan, several years ago and enjoyed it a lot. Detective or Noir is not my favorite genre, but Morgan's future has a new twist that makes the slog for clues a bit more interesting than usual. The twist is, in the future, everyone is fitted with a recorder in the back of their neck, a 'stack' that encodes sufficient information that if they're killed, the stack can be used to reboot them with all their memories intact in a new body, called a 'sleeve'.

There's a few rules about resleeving. It's a long time since I read the book, but in the series these include the fairly obvious rule that if the death involves blunt trauma to the back of the neck and the stack is damaged, you're really dead. If your religion is on file as not permitting resleeving, you're dead (even if you are a witness to a murder). No coming back. Also if you're really rich, you can have your information beamed to a remote storage site at intervals, and in that case, even if your stack is damaged during your death, you can be rebooted with your memory current up to the time of the last back-up. It's not stated why every person on earth and beyond can have a stack but only a few billionaires can have a back-up. But, moving briskly along, there are also rules about sleeves, such as how you obtain a vacant body to be resleeved in.

A combination of these rules gives us Takeshi Kovacs, our hero, who was a freedom fighter in a doomed revolution and was sentenced to being shelved for hundreds of years, suddenly and confusedly rebooted in a sleeve that has a history - and though the history is unknown to him, it causes him plenty problems. Another combination of rules means that an ultra-rich guy who was killed and restored to a clone sleeve from a back-up is motivated find out who did it. The death was just before his routine back-up, meaning he has a 23 hour gap in his rebooted memory. It was he, Bancroft, who had Kovacs resleeved to solve this mystery, and he knows Kovacs will agree to work for him, because otherwise Kovacs will have to go back into storage to live out his sentence. (I never found out what was so bad about this sort of death sentence, since ultimately it seems quite likely you'll be resleeved and in theory you don't suffer in the meantime.)

There I'll cut it short, not because I'm avoiding spoilers but because the series really, really Netflix long and you have to give up typing sometime.

It's a bit of a curate's egg. I'll come to some good parts in a minute, but first the problems. It's very derivative. The visuals are so close to Blade Runner that you expect Taffey Lewis or the electron micrograph lady to pop up at any moment. To me this was more familiar than grating, but jeez, get your own crapsack future in future, Netflix. Some other parts are eye-rollingly cliche. The detective-Kovacs gets his clues from the part of town I've always called The Zone. You know The Zone, it's in 90% of SF movies. It's the bustling part of town where the Whores With Hearts of Gold live, along with dealers in drugs called things like Ice and Spice, everyone who is on the run, The Boss, strippers, the people who run Cage Fight arenas, with added gang members Quant. Suff. to make up the rest of the crowd. (The Zone is always crowded.) Kovacs is also dogged by a loud, Hispanic, female police officer who ends up being his love interest, and her loud, happy, gregarious ethnic family. Both of these pegged the cliche meter every time they were on screen. Acting was very good, mind. It was just the writing.

All of the segments suffered from something that to me suggests careless or cheap film-making. There's a convention in film where the camera does a close-up on a person who is speaking to a second person, and after the line is finished there's a cut where the two conversationalists are seen in the same shot, so you can see the second person's reaction to the speech without getting confused about what's just happened. In a well-shot movie the speaking person's pose and facial expression as they finish their line is absolutely identical to their pose and expression as the two-shot begins because this is the way a movie signals 'no time has passed since the end of the line'. If the director is in a hurry the close-up expression and the two-shot expression don't quite match. This happened time and time again in Altered Carbon.

And then the sexual violence. Oh my FSM, the sexual violence. The directors must have decided that since they don't actually die, as in become non-existent (with exceptions), then showing naked women dying, as in being cut-up, torn apart, raped and so forth, but not actually shuffling off the mortal coil, is absolutely OK television. The vast majority of this is with naked or partly-clothed women, though in the interests of variety there's a scene where a heterosexual couple fight to the death in a cage match and an approximately fifteen hour sequence where Kovacs's consciousness is uploaded somewhere that's not against the rules for some reason I didn't catch, and Kovacs's consciousness in its imaginary but evidently pain-equipped virtual body is tortured to death over and over again. If you've always wanted to see a movie where the spy/detective is actually dismembered and burned to death by the bad guy, you've come to the right place. Oh, and just when you think you've got out of The Zone, there's a new round of even more repulsive violence against women. (Two kids who are murdered earlier are not shown on screen, so I guess Netflix does have a Standards & Practices Dept. keeping an eye on things somewhere.)

What Altered Carbon got right: The story. It's fast paced and enthralling. Maybe even a bit too fast paced and enthralling, judging by the way they felt it necessary to info-dump at the end. The AI hotel was very well done. The hotel himself, Poe, was a wonderful character and one I was really invested in. I enjoyed meeting his other AI buddies for the short time they were on screen as well. I also liked the bad guy, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). He managed to manifest the spirit of the more crazy Roman Emperors, without ever chewing the scenery. (His son (Antonio Marziale) did a good impression of a meek and damaged Emperor's son, as well.) Another well-done aspect was the blithe acceptance of the sleeving process. In one case, a married couple who have been separated for years are lovingly and joyfully reunited when Kovacs purchases a new sleeve for the wife's stack. But Kovacs could only find a male sleeve in the time he had available. The husband's reaction, a very short oh-so-this-is-what-you-look-like-now followed by unequivocal love, and the male-bodied-wife's continuation of what must have been her previous mannerisms and speech patterns is perfectly acted. What to our eyes is a very strange occurrence is just another Tuesday to the people of the time.

This brings me to the dealie that caused the biggest stir on social media prior to the premiere - the 'whitewashing' of Takeshi Kovacs. When I first heard that Kovacs was to be played by a white man, I was completely unmoved, as this is what happens in the book. In the event, young Kovacs is played by Will Yun Lee (not very Japanese - he's Korean) and the resurrected Kovacs is played by Joel Kinnaman (even more not very Japanese, and in my opinion a bit large, hairy and Caucasian for the role). It doesn't cosmically-speaking matter, however. It's the future, and Kovacs is from a non-earth planet with names from two very different origin cultures. It did prove to be a bit more whitewashy than in the book, though, as in text media the character can think his way through the confusion due to his new body on the page where you can feel it. In film, all you can see is the skin, and Kinnaman is pretty white. No conflict or dilemma over his new identity is visible. But I loved it when the married couple got back together and by transference, I'm going to love it that Kovacs is alive again even if the sleeve isn't to his liking.

Oh, and Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) does a glorious bit part.


Anonymous said...

I'm up to episode 6 and I'm enjoying it quite a bit so far. However my girlfriend bailed out after the second episode. I concur with most of your observations.


Lyle Hopwood said...

Episode 6 is about where I had to start taking notes to keep up. If you haven't been taking notes, there's a scene-to-scene episode-by-episode recap here that might help if you get lost.


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