ALTERED CARBON [Series Review]: Harbinger War.
Seeing how I never dived into (or, sadly, never even heard of) Richard K. Morgan‘s 2002 sci-fi novel up until now, I really had no idea what to expect going into Netflix’s latest venture, Altered Carbon. But what I binge-watched over this past Super Bowl weekend was a visually attractive 10-hours that stimulated the mind as much as the eyes…
It, too, can’t hurt that I found Altered Carbon having many–purely incedental–parallels to the Valiant Universe. Valiant, for those of the “comically” inclined, is a critically acclaimed comic book publisher that’s been around since 1989, and announced only 3-years ago that its widely-cherished IPs (X-O Manowar, Shadowman) would finally see the mainstream media day of light via Sony Pictures. While that progress is pretty unknown at this point, Valiant Entertainment was also recently bought out by media conglomerate DMG. The point? Altered Carbon is the best “Valiant Universe” series you’re going to see in the time being, thrown in with callbacks to Blade Runner, Minority Report and The Matrix.
As the 200-year layers rapidly peel off the cyberpunk’d Carbon with each eye-popping reveal and unforced plot twist, viewers will discover many topical subjects sprinkled throughout such as immortality, nobility, individuality, and inequality. It may seem like a lot to take in, but at only 10 one-hour episodes, AC moves at an abrupt pace; action scenes are plentiful, as well as original and colorful, without feeling forced or announced. There are no episodes staging that something big is about to happen. It just does.
Moreover, it’s impressive how big of a budget execs threw at Altered Carbon seeing how Joel Kinnaman (who I’m told, reflects a touch of a 6’2 yours truly since he finally decided to shave off that hindrance of a goatee) is the series’ only real recognizable star. Everything appears immaculately framed and staged, with a cyber-tech production design and CGI that’s far better than just about anything we’ve seen from the DCEU. It’s hypnotic to see, and thankfully the many ensemble performances match Carbon’s intense visual plateau. I’d argue that this is also the Swede actor’s coming out party following mixed reviews of AMC’s The Killing (which I gave up on after one season), the never-shoulda-happened of Robocrap, and his partaking as a forgettable Rick Flag on a very forgettable Suicide Squad.
As Takeshi Kovacs, a once special-ops soldier survived into the body of a shamed cop via digital consciousness (a.k.a. a man on the search of his own identity), Kinnaman has a very comfortable, enjoyably quippy presence in the most uncomfortable of places — a future that allows humans to survive death via the storing of these conscious memories into new bodies (a.k.a. re-sleeving). Some of the instances you’ll see later in the season are both humorous and horrifying. Most certainly, the series’ many directors and writers, led by showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island), deserve kudos for keeping Altered Carbon under a sharp, singular tone despite the series’ crepusclar subject matter, surprising number of epic fights and super “geek out” moments. If you read Valiant, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Every environment and landscape clashes between bright neon, high-tech and dark space; every fight, feels like the end of eternity. Kovacs could easily have the physical and mental make-up of both Colin King (Ninjak! With his martial arts history, stoic confidence and cocky, slick-haired, babe-bedding persona) and Raymond Garrison (Bloodshot! As the broodingly vengeant, regenerating/meta-morphing former soldier).
If you think that’s a stretch, just wait until you meet the rest of the cast who perform like the redheaded stepchild of the famed comic line; Kovacs’ own Watson to his Sherlock, or Poe (the showstealing Chris Conner) to his “Edgar Allen”, is a hotel owner-turned-sidekick who plays the perfect Woody to the far more grave Vernon Elliot’s Quantum. It’s arguable that Elliot (Ato Essandoh) also has a ton more on his plate than anyone else here; his personal story is and winds up, nonetheless, fucked — even with its somewhat happy ending (of his daughter winding up as a “Livewire” of sorts).
It should be noted that all the many character subplots help push the plot and don’t feel like time-fillers; everything here, especially the powerful backstory between siblings, Kovacs of the past (The Wolverine‘s Will Yun Lee, who has a very suitable performance and plenty of screen-time) and Rei (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s Dichen Lachman), who’s name is almost too similar to that of Valiant’s own ninja spirit guardian…Rai. Speaking to which, the women of Altered Carbon kick a TON of ass and look amazing doing it. Martha Higareda is terrific as take-no-shit detective Kristin Ortega, and she’s given as much screentime as Joel. Just a note for the more sensitive, however: you might not enjoy all the show’s sex, nudity and violence; but I do, since none of it feels cheap/unnecessary for Morgan’s depiction of a sick-and-twisted eternal world centered on property flesh (see: Westworld).
Of course no good sci-fi goes without its share of good villains, and what we have here is one of the series biggest questions: who is it? For the first few episodes, one may even consider Kovacs, the accused terrorist in charge of detecting the whodunit for a very powerful aristocrat, the antagonist. His boss without a memory, Laurens Bancroft (Rome‘s James Purefoy) — a “Toyo Harada” without the physicality — is quite the prepared sleezebag to boot, with an even more manipulating wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman); these Meths, otherwise known as the rich who use their own seemingly infinite wealth to stay forever sexy and youthful, invite folks over for a round of “altered carbon” cage fighting in their own place of residence. And just when you’re deciding exactly who’s the more evil-fuck of the twisted two, here come an assortment of vivid baddies to give Kovacs and company the time of their life.
In order to introduce the narrative’s proper villain, it takes 50% of the journey to get there. Perhaps that’s the only weakness of Altered Carbon, in that things don’t really get into “holy fuck” high gear (minus the pilot) until Episode 5 and 6, when all of Kovacs’ — and, more importantly, his surprise arch-enemy‘s — machinations all start to form shape. It’s also around the time when you realize that each of the previous antagonists were no more than a slew of shiny/spicy plot devices, a minor nuisance thanks to the eye-pleasing art design of Carbon‘s wondrous sci-fi noir universe and intriguing characters that inhabit its ever enigmatic moral ground. 4/5 Bibles.
You can marathon the shit out of Altered Carbon on Netflix.