Altered Carbon: Ep. 1.1

New (and exclusive) to Netflix this month, the new SciFi series Altered Carbon (developed from the series of novels by Richard K. Morgan) offers up a visually slick pilot episode with high production values and the potential for deep world-building, but little thus far signifying future character depth.

As Friday-night viewing to accompany too-tired-to-cook lo mein, it was diverting enough, but as I found myself saying, a couple acts in, to my viewing partner, “I’m not sure I understand the camera work in this video game.” There are plenty of graphic gunfights with explosive gore–not a trend I’m overly fond of–but so far, none of the characters have been given the opportunity to rise above the non-player varietal in personality or depth.

Carbon mines a theme increasingly covered of late: the philosophical and ethical implications of the mind no longer being tethered exclusively to one mortal body. In this particular series, bodies are referred to as “sleeves”, and the quality and duration of one’s access to sleeves is entirely dependent on connections and money, as consciousness is stored continuously to transferrable hard drives. It’s a premise that offers fertile ground for philosophical musing and narrative exploration, and the series had some good pre-release buzz.

I have a rule when considering pilots–they traditionally are asked to do too much heavy lifting, in terms of exposition and world-building to be very effective at compelling storytelling–that no series will be judged solely on the basis of its pilot (with rare exceptions). Series need time to settle in, before they can be judged on their full range of potential. So here critique will be limited to the elements offered up so far: the production design, world-building, and hint at narrative scope to come.

The money was spent well on the visuals of this pilot, with good lighting, good cinematography, and effects that look polished but don’t overreach their paygrade to deleterious effects. I haven’t read the books, but as a scholar of Genre, I’m wondering where the Blade Runner redux aesthetic entered the proceedings–at the level of the page, or upon bringing it to the screen. It looks a little tired here: not poorly executed, but rather that cyber-noir is done and done to the point that these familiar visuals place an extra onus upon the narrative to do something unexpected. Another over-extended trope in play is futuristic strippers and sexbots presented as wallpaper for extended ogling, these ones no doubt defensible as some arch commentary on how commodified all bodies are in this universe, but playing as more tedious voyeurism. Yes. Naked female bodies, being stared at, conveniently also by us.

The invasiveness of the visual world, with ads that seem to hack your brain as hallucinations, and AI hotels that cater to your every need in subtly alarming fashion (this makes for easily the best sequence in the pilot), shows promise for more sophisticated development, and there are other world-building elements that display potential, including how unlimited body-swapping would play out in terms of class and religion. These elements transcend the sort of boilerplate beginnings present in the narrative (Anti-hero? check. Dark and mysterious past? check. Past doled out in flashbacks with tragic lost love? check.) and make me curious to see if the novels are as richly textured as this hints. By the end of the first episode, it was still confusing as to why the characters were switching between English and other languages for entire sentences while speaking to each other. It was thoroughly unclear if this signifies the workings of some sort of universal translator or some immense cultural shift from how anyone speaks anything on our present Earth, but perhaps this will become clearer.

We’ll give this one the usual three episodes to shake out, and this willingness is further enhanced by the presence of Dichen Lachman and Renée Elise Goldsberry as series regulars: both actresses deserve much higher profiles. I also have a soft spot for Canadian man-mountain Tamoh Penikett, and was glad to see him make an appearance late in the episode.

What did you think of the Altered Carbon pilot? Have you already binged the whole thing? Read the books? Share in the comments!

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