Modern day cinema should be a window into a world of marvels. Special effects are better than they’ve ever been, allowing us to depict anything we can imagine. Take the trio of “The Lord of the Rings” movies. Gorgeous, stirring, and while not perfect, they’re so damn good it’s astounding. Then, at the other end of the scale, we have Altered Carbon.
Netflix’s new Cyberpunk-Noir series (because what Cyberpunk needed was even MORE cynicism and venality), based on the 2002 book of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, is ten hours of the worst humanity has to offer. Literally. The very worst. The series is more violent, uglier, and more all-around depraved than HBO’s A Game of Thrones. Watching it leaves you feeling filthy inside, like your soul itself needs a good, hot shower.
In Altered Carbon, discovery of a reverse-engineered alien device—the “stack”—allows minds to be backed up and stored, like any given data you care to name. The digitized brains can be slotted into new bodies—”sleeves”—allowing people to move from body to body, using each up in turn, achieving complete immortality, if you can afford the insane prices (and if your stack doesn’t get destroyed).
Most people can’t afford the insane prices, meaning they’re limited to good, old-fashioned, 80-years-and-you’re-gone mortality. On the other hand, the super-rich—the pretty-pretty people and their hangers-on—can afford “resleeving”, and so can live forever, enjoying their riches for millennia. With the money and connections to afford immortality, comes the ability and drive to indulge in any perversion they wish, free of legal consequences. After centuries of high living without the danger of death, coupled with flaws in the technology, the Meths (“Methuselahs”) are pretty close to, or far over the line of, sociopathy.
They can pay for anything they want… and what they lust for is ever more transgressive experiences. Even as their society collapses into degeneracy, they are obsessed with, driven towards, devising and wallowing in vileness and perversity.
There are combat sleeves. Fair enough, when a body is a disposable asset, why not use a cloned corpus in battle? So long as your stack doesn’t get hit, death is just an annoyance, and you can return to the battlefield as soon as another sleeve can be provided for you.
Gladiatorial combats to the death. Okay. Again, death is meaningless, so who cares if you chop up some meat? It’s not like the person really dies. Suffers, sure, but then they get paid handsomely for their time and agony.
Gladiatorial combats where the loser gets a crappier sleeve, and the winner gets a sharp upgrade? Ah, now we’ve added some spice to the mix. You’re not just betting this life, but your future lives and career as well, a career that can last centuries. Finally the Meths are interested.
Gladiatorial combat to the death, with an upgraded sleeve as the ante, between husband and wife? NOW we’re talking. What could be more exciting than watching two people who’ve shared centuries of life and love, chopping each other up with blades? The blood, the passion, the DEATH. The Meths all applaud.
As perverse as that scenario is—and it is in the series, exactly as I’ve described—it’s kinda mild compared to some of the other activities the show depicts. I truly believe the depths of potential human depravity are essentially endless, and this show dives deep, presenting quite a lot of repugnant activities (situations both violent and sexual) in explicit detail. (Which means pervasive nudity, just so you know.)
Setting the degeneracy aside, there is truly little to recommend the series. The central mystery—a man hires a convicted criminal to discover who murdered him yesterday—is forgotten for long stretches, and generally plods along.
[As an aside, true Noir movies never plodded. They clicked along at a good pace, pulling the audience along with them. Even the “slow scenes” of people talking featured witty banter, veiled threats, or subtle innuendoes, as the characters sparred with each other, trading lies and truths, each trying to outmaneuver the other. They’re GENIUS. (Start with The Big Sleep. Trust me, you’ll love it.)]
This show is not genius. It’s got some stellar performances—especially the hotelier A.I. Edgar Allen Poe—and incredible special effects, but all that talent is put in service to an ugly and revolting story.
Do I regret having seen this show? Yes. There were no new ideas (Freejack, 1992, did it before AC did, and GURPS had braintaping back in the ‘80’s), a mound of cliches (Rich peoples are evil! The future is dark and depressing! The Revolution is oh so needed but doomed to failure!), and generally listless dialogue burdened with too much exposition. Even the impressive visuals are heavily derivative of (of course) 1982’s Blade Runner.
See that image up there? The series is exactly as groundbreaking and imaginative as this picture would lead you to expect. There is nothing new or insightful about this show, nothing stirring or moving or valiant. It’s ten hours of nihilism, ugliness, and grime.
In an age where we can imagine nearly anything, then turn around and depict it on the screen, we choose this? It’s as if our imaginations and souls have shriveled precisely to the same extent our technology has bloomed.
Kinda like the Meths.