Hatewatching: Altered Carbon Review
Hatewatching is a series in which I apply my film theory degree to shows and movies that failed in some way to the point of making it difficult to watch. I don’t know why I’m doing this either. Also, spoilers.
Against the advice of several critics and friends, I watched one of Netflix’s latest original sci-fi shows in their “throw money at everything but the kitchen sink and Mo’Nique” lineup.
Altered Carbon (AC) combines aesthetics and themes from Blade Runner and The Matrix with Black Mirror tech, Cloud Atlas aspirations, and a dusting of Firefly’s post-war angst and comedic timing. It also sets itself up pretty quickly for some Westworld/Humans comparisons with its “sleeves,” but doesn’t bite off more that it can chew there. All-in-all, there are two possible takeaways: AC is derivative AF or it’s a post-modernist construction of what we love about science fiction.
The first major annoyance of this show is that we’re presented with another futuristic world where we have an allegory about race that doesn’t address racism. The typical “rich people get all the perks without any consequences, fuck them” vibe is meant to be enough to unite viewers of all backgrounds. By actually creating a fairly diverse cast, however, AC shoots itself in the foot and exposes its flawed representations.
It seems that hundreds of years of taking whatever sleeve you could get has eradicated racism (?).
In an exciting opener, we’re led to believe that our protagonist is Takeshi Kovacs, an Envoy soldier. Almost immediately, Takeshi is re-sleeved into a white guy (who will now be referred to as Kovacs, to avoid confusion) who isn’t even the second most attractive white guy in the show. This could be an interesting way to show how racism bubbles up to the surface when you’re perceived as being part of the majority, but instead it seems that hundreds of years of taking whatever sleeve you could get has eradicated racism (?).
Though Envoys could apparently jump into any sleeve, flashbacks always show Kovacs in Stronghold Takeshi’s sleeve (another Asian actor plays the Takeshi we see at the beginning of the first episode. He’s credited as O.G. Takeshi, but that sleeve is actually the mid-ground of Takeshi’s sleeve transformations as we know them), but we don’t get voice-overs in that Takeshi’s voice.
Interestingly, everyone seems to speak and understand multiple languages, but that tech/evolution isn’t really explained.
Our main detective, Lieutenant Ortega manages not to be an over-sexualized Latina, but is loaded with unbridled, fiery passion that frequently puts her job at risk. By making her career-focused and sexually cold for most of the season, there’s a running notion in her inner circle that getting laid/settling down would level her out. Can she have it all? Not in this universe, apparently.
Her brief dinner with her mom manages to get the show to pass the Bechdel test and expose something smart about AC’s world building: how religion and technology intersect.
Popular sci-fi often makes allegories to multiple religions, but rarely ventures into how religion adapts (or doesn’t) to the changing times. Religious demonstrators condemning re-sleeving and the Catholic Church having its own coding to forbid re-sleeving means there’s a whole segment of the population that has a much more intimate relationship with death.
As for black people, we have the presumed dead leader of the Envoys, Quellcrist Falconer. At first she serves up some mystical negro tropes while guiding Kovacs via hallucinations and having hot, flashback sex with Takeshi. But then, we get longer flashbacks full of the most chill revolution training ever and you slowly start wishing the show was about her. Well, as long as she doesn’t tell anymore long-winded fairy tales.
There’s a whole segment of the population that has a much more intimate relationship with death.
Then, we have our lawyer, Ms. Prescott, giving us Rock n’Rolla Thandie Newton blasé and laid edges for days, but not much else. There’s some Uncle Tom elements here, but since racism apparently doesn’t exist in the future, her existence as a pawn without any real agency doesn’t get enough time to breathe.
Finally, we have our wronged family. Vernon Elliot is an ex-marine, trying to save his mixed-race daughter, Lizzie. Lizzie, a pay-to-play booth girl and favorite of our main antagonist Laurens Bancroft, was mysteriously killed (well, her sleeve was). Even in the future, society is shitty to sex workers, especially non-white ones.
Ava, Lizzie’s mom, is a badass hacker who gets cross-sleeved (dropped into another gender’s body) after having her consciousness and sleeve put on ice for some big hacking crime. This cross-sleeving phenomenon, which also happens briefly to Ortega’s grandmother, could be a great place to start talking about how sleeves affect sexuality and transgenderism in this world. What ends up happening is the beginning of sentence that never
Meths: The 1 percent milk. Rich, bored, immortal, overwhelmingly white people.
Envoys: Bad-ass, black-ops rebels. Somehow, not at all made clear by the basic flashbacks we see, these people can zip into whatever body and be combat ready. They can also do so hundreds of times without going insane. Somehow.
Protectorate Soldiers: Basically stormtroopers. We get to see one of these asshats’ faces a few times and it even croaks out some exposition, but who cares?
Sleeves: Disposable body suits. This transforms the way people think about death, but not enough attention is paid to life. People still seem to be able to have kids, but one would assume these are from the genetics of the body you were born into, that of a dead person’s body, or a synthetic body with unknown procreation abilities.
AI: Guilt-free slaves. These beings are clearly sentient, can touch and hold real matter, can also be holograms, and are relegated to hospitality industries which seem to (at best) creep people out.
We get farther than we do in the Blade Runner movies when it comes to other planets. Not only are they mentioned, but we get see vague glimpses of them. Whether its Takeshi and Rei’s childhood home, or the rebel camp shot in what is almost certainly Canada, these other worlds are tangible and accessible.
Speaking of Rei, what would a modern show be without some incestuous overtones? Every woman in the show is either emotional, ineffectual, or cold and calculating, and Rei becomes all three once she gets her brother off ice.
- Her massive shadow empire of pseudo-criminal activity is suddenly exposed, largely through her own recklessness once Kovacs starts sniffing around.
- She takes on Ortega’s sleeve in time for Kovacs to give her a bath and waits a very long time to reveal herself.
- She has a pattern of jealousy and destructive behaviour (re: mass murder) when it comes to Takeshi’s love interests.
Takeshi Kovacs is our line into this world, so we don’t see what happens to her when they’re separated as kids. Clearly, it was catastrophic, but it was necessary for us to see it in order to begin to understand her character at all.
For no clear reason whatsoever, I am intrigued by what the second season might hold. There’s a lot of room to grow, and I’m hopeful that some of these gaps might get filled in.