4 April 2018

REVIEW: Altered Carbon, the show that breaks the Sci-Fi stereo-type


I had seen a couple of articles about Altered Carbon but I hadn't read into it at all until my good friend Rosie asked me about it- I binge-watched it all within a few days and was frantically texting my thoughts and feelings to her after every episode. It's like nothing I have seen before.

 Altered Carbon is a 10-part Netflix Sci-Fi drama about a future Society in which the human consciousness has been entwined with technology, enabling it to be downloaded, stored, and moved from one body or 'sleeve' to another. AC depicts a world in which Death has lost it's meaning and Life has lost it's value. A world where Gender, Sex and skin colour are of little importance.
Sci-Fi films and TV shows have a habit of focusing solely on the use of special effets and big action sequences, giving little or no value to it's characters. Altered Carbon breaks this stereotype by producing well-crafted character arcs and clever story-lines, making sufficient use of the special effects to establish this futuristic urban megalopolis. No need to worry about any over-the-top flying car chases or too many massive explosions. There are no filler-episode-plots-which-have-no-value-in-the-overall-story-and-leave-continuation-issues-and-plot-holes either so you can rest easy knowing you can sit back and enjoy this wonderful piece of Cinema. That's right, Altered Carbon is on the high-end of the television spectrum, placing it alongside other shows with more of a cinematic feel.
Why is Altered Carbon so unique? The themes of the show alone are enough to draw the attention of the viewers.




1. Themes

a. Mind, Body, Identity, Religion

One of the most interesting themes of the show is that of the connection between mind and body. The new sleeves (bodies in which a human consciousness can be placed in) can be coded to possess certain physical traits and abilities and the stacks (small discs at the back of the neck in which are stored the human consciousness) are vulnerable to hacking and unauthorized data coding. Therefore it's not a perfect system, far from it. This technological advance has both pros and cons. Pros include being able to 'come back to life' if you die in an accident or by murder, as long as your stack is unharmed after death of course. This whole concept presents so many questions on both an ethical and moral level and that is something which is illustrated in the show.
What about the human soul? Some humans in AC have 'Religious Coding' and believe that when their time comes, they should die a real death. This act of breaking the natural cycle can be very divisive in the futuristic society as it is so closely tied to religious beliefs which have existed over centuries.
How much does this society value their physical body? When your consciousness is placed in another body, how much does that impact your personal identity? I couldn't help but think about all the things you experience in your own body which make your body unique: scars, broken bones, tattoos or piercings! All these little details which contribute to your personal identity can be put into question. Moreover, how can you connect with a person who has been re-sleeved when their body is not the one you originally associated with them? But consider the eyes, the facial expressions, body language - those alone are enough to illustrate a person's behavior and personality so does it really matter what face you wear? You could truly discuss this topic for hours!

Value is given to the mind and consciousness above all, so that must have had a large impact on how society views men and women. The stacks can be uploaded to whatever sleeve is available (unless you're rich of course, we'll come to that later): a young girl may be re-sleeved into the body of a 50 year old woman, or a young woman can be re-sleeved into the body of a young man. There are no walls or barriers. It's such an interesting concept. This is one of the central plots of the show: the protagonist Takeshi is placed into a new sleeve 250 years after his death.

b. Life, Death, Immortality, Class

In Altered Carbon there is 'sleeve death' and then there is 'real death', the unspeakable true end of one's life. Humans have grown used to the idea that if their physical body has failed them, they can simply be put into a new skin. What impact does this have on the human mind? How does it change how the mind deals with Fear and Danger? The characters in the show rarely experience 'real death' and when they do they struggle to wrap their minds around it. It completely alters how humans experience life, and sure enough it makes the fear of the unknown all the more powerful.

Despite an equality of the sexes and race, society is still divided by Class in Altered Carbon. The rich live above the clouds and they have more tech at their disposal, allowing them to live on forever if they wish. Humans were never meant to be immortal. Our minds today can be affected by illness but what would happen if they weren't and they weren't subject to the survival of the body? This topic is also one of the main plots of season 1. We have a character who has lived for a very long time with a certain goal in mind, and we get to see how over time that goal has warped their personality and their morals. Think about how a traumatic event can impact someone's entire life if they refuse to move on, and imagine how that could impact an immortal.
You could also question how a human's mind develops over the centuries as they acquire more and more experiences and information: boredom, selfishness, insatisfaction. These are things we can only debate over, and that is one of the reasons why this show so compelling. The what-if factor. The mystery of the unknown.



2. Sci-Fi vs Character Arcs

As I said at the beginning of the review, we tend to get little character depth when it comes to the Sci-Fi genre. I know there are exceptions, but I have been disappointed with the lack of depth more times than I can count which sucks considering just how amazing Sci-Fi films can be when they're done right. I think too many films get carried away with the action/heavy CGI sequences to the point where they actually has very little value and the viewer's attention falters after a few minutes- there's only so much we can take. As for TV shows, the majority explore too many story-lines and cram in too much action over the seasons which often ends in bit of a 'messy patchwork' bit of television.

I always gravitate back towards this subject when I write reviews. It's down to what I value in Cinema as a film graduate: I value good story-telling and well crafted character arcs. Give me all the little moments which help establish the characters and when necessary, give me a good action sequence, or a good bit of CGI. In my opinion several small bursts of action/CGI work better than 1 large sequence.
Altered Carbon was such a successful sci-fi show because of how they balanced out this use of CGI/action sequences. They used it for establishing shots of the futuristic megalopolis Bay City: a flying car here, A.I characters there, a bit of Virtual Reality- all elements which help establish this world without being over-whelming or a little ridiculous. Quality over quantity!
As well as this satisfying use of CGI, AC was successful because of this character-based approach. The focus was on the character's journeys, and that means that we get to see well developed character arcs over the span of 10 episodes. The show also made good use of flashbacks which enabled the viewers to understand the character's behaviour due to past events.

Honestly I enjoyed this show much more than I thought I would. It has bit of a Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld feel, and as I said it is a well rounded bit of escapism. The quality is consistant and it takes off from the very first episode. The characters were very well written and there are multiple female characters (always worth pointing out!).
I should also mention that the fight scenes are so well choreographed and the cinematography and colour grading was beautiful, there are some lovely shots in there.
As for the characters, I only mentioned the protagonist in this review (briefly) as I really didn't want to give anything away- I knew nothing about the characters beforehand and it was so great discovering who they were and what their goals and motives were, I would want anyone else to have the same experience I did which is why I kept this review spoiler free.

Let's hope Season 2 will be confirmed shortly, it would be such a shame to stop it here. There really is so much yet to explore as season 1 only scratched the surface.

Holly x

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