The Culture Tsar was very excited about Netflix’s Altered Carbon. Coming on the heels of Blade Runner 2049, it seemed like Altered Carbon might well usher in a revival of the cyberpunk genre on the big screen. If you want to be charitable, you could even include last year’s live action version of Ghost in the Shell in that equation (setting aside the “white-washing” controversy and the fact the movie just isn’t that great, Ghost in the Shell at least looked cool as a cyberpunk movie). The Culture Tsar hasn’t quite finished watching the entire season, but after about seven episodes, he feels like he has enough thoughts worth sharing.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The show looks great. Great production values, pretty good direction (thanks to some veteran Game of Thrones directors at the helm), and mostly good performances form the cast. While I wouldn’t call the show’s setting groundbreaking in any way, there are a lot of really cool ideas that are well executed (the AI trade union is a particularly inspired idea). There’s a gritty noir element to the series, which is a common feature of classic cyberpunk fiction.
Something just doesn’t feel right with this show. The Culture Tsar can’t shake the feeling that it has more in common with a B grade SyFy Channel series than a prestige genre show like HBO’s Game of Thrones. It even feels a step below Netflix’s other big ticket genre show, Stranger Things. Altered Carbon has all the trappings of an A list show, but at the end of the day, it’s a fairly conventional murder mystery/conspiracy procedural that goes down easy but isn’t very filling. There are some interesting philosophical questions scattered throughout the show, but it doesn’t really grapple with them in any meaningful way because it’s too busy getting to the next action sequence or sex scene. Altered Carbon looks good enough to make you think it’s playing in the same league as HBO’s Westworld when in reality the better comparison is with a more predictable network/cable show like FOX’s Almost Human.
Again, it’s not a bad show. Not even close. Like most things, however, you just have to know what you’re getting into. Altered Carbon is an enjoyable show, but it’s not going to go down as one of history’s great sci-fi shows. It will be fondly remembered in the same strata as shows like Farscape and Stargate SG-1 (albeit with much better production values). The Culture Tsar is glad shows like Altered Carbon exist because not every film or television series needs to be a critically acclaimed, award winning artistic achievement. There’s something to be said for a conventional story being competently told. If there is indeed a market for shows like this, then producers will make more of them, which is great news for those of us who enjoy genre fiction.
The Culture Tsar must admit, however, that watching Altered Carbon does make him think that the time and money spent making it would have been better served on adapting William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy for the screen. Neuromancer, which essentially created the cyberpunk genre, has been stuck in some measure of Hollywood developmental hell for decades. It’s more than a little crazy that with all the film adaptations made over the last thirty years, the only Gibson adaptation to see the light of day was 1995’s terrible Johnny Mnemonic. Hopefully the success of Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon will help Gibson’s work get the cinematic attention it richly deserves.