Friday, February 2, 2018

Altered Carbon: Episode 1

Title: Altered Carbon, Episode 1
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Network: Netflix

The Basics

Based on the Richard K Morgan book of the same name.

Revolutionary idealist and guerrilla/rebel-turned-mercenary Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) gets cornered and killed by government enforcers on an alien planet. Luckily, he and everyone else has a digitized backup of his brain (which makes zero sense), so 250 years later he is downloaded into the body of a 38-year-old Swedish-American actor who starred in the RoboCop reboot and Suicide Squad. Nice work if you can get it.

Turns out he's been sprung from digital prison by the richest man in the world and the best thing in HBO's "Rome" (Laurens Bancroft and James Purefoy, respectively) to solve the man's own murder. In return, he's offered a full pardon and (Dr Evil pose) ONE MILLION DOLLARS. Being a good revolutionary, he tells Mr 0.1% to go stuff himself, until he gets ambushed at his hotel by a posse of hitmen (see video). 

Also along for the ride is the detective assigned to the Bancroft case, Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) and a whole lot of boobies. 

Fist Impressions (sic)

It's so deliriously over the top in everything it does--like it's been adapted by a bunch of 16 year olds--that it's easy to forgive the clunky exposition and wooden acting.

Definitely the show seems to believe that more is more. For example, the above scene in the book involves just two hitmen, who get taken out by a single Gatling gun. Here, there's half a dozen who get blown to pieces in an extended bloodbath by TWO machine guns, plus the hotel AI bartender has a shotgun (which is obviously needed when you have two sentry guns firing 100 rounds a second each), plus Kovacs does a bunch of punching and kicking in the middle of the bulletstorm.

Same with the prologue. In the book, Kovacs gets ambushed by a couple of paramilitaries, who gun him down on the spot. In the show, there is an extended gun battle replete with people hiding from assault rifle bullets behind that byword for armor plating, a kitchen counter.

The sleazy sexiness is also in full Showgirls mode, with a surprisingly high number of tits on the screen at any given moment. Detective Ortega takes Kovacs for an expository drink at  a strip club, so if anyone asks why I was there, I'll tell them it's because I was solving JFK's murder.

Dialogue is clunky, as people stand around declaiming the backstory. Kinnaman is fine in the action scenes, but I wish the directors wouldn't ask him to do anything more complicated than punch things. He isn't quite nasty enough to pull off the go-fuck-yourself attitude of his lines, nor does he put enough menace into Kovacs' threats.

The Sights and Sound of Music

The music is loud and proud too, with some sudden & intrusive outbursts of pop songs throughout the episode. One erupts over scenes of Kovacs going on a bender (that was ironically one of the tamer scenes: drugs in Altered Carbon come in eyedroppers stolen from Looper, and Kinnaman plays "high" with a roundeyed dazed expression) where it fits, the second time over a cityscape scene where the saccharine tone was just out of place. 

It doesn't quite pull off the claustrophobic crowdedness or Escher-esque geometries of a cyberpunk city, and everything is way, way too clean -- partly due to budget I guess, but partly because the camera tends to switch from medium shot to close-up, never really pulling back to give us a sense of space, until it pulls aaaall the way out and the cityscape looks like a Christmas ornament. There's one or two scenes at the start of Kovacs' drug-fuelled adventure that get a little of the sense of scope... but there hasn't been anything too neato yet.

Finally, the politics of the book seem more or less present. The mega-rich "own everything now," including our bodies, and in Kovacs' case, even our souls. Indeed, it looks like this part is going to be played up even more than it was in the book, with Kovacs changed from follower of quasi-Mao/Ho Chih Minh figure Quellcrist Falconer, to an associate/contemporary. A few other changes from page to screen also reflect this new focus--Kovacs has changed from government enforcer gone rogue to out-and-out revolutionary.

Despite that, I'd actually say the politics of the show has been one of the more subtly done things, which isn't saying much for an episode that opens with a lesbian shower scene, letting you figure out for yourself the implications of economic inequality.

Anyway, I love to complain, but on balance it's shlocky good fun, that unlike Bright actually has some ideas in the background.


That's the episode, now it's time to rant.

Before this came out there was the utterly predictable criticism of "whitewashing" the semi-Japanese main character, despite the fact that (A) said character's surname is Kovacs, and (B) the entire point of the series is that digitizing consciousness means what you look like is disconnected from who you are. But now that I've seen it, I must agree I am deeply disappointed in the choice of casting: You see, two actors play Kovacs' earlier (Asian) incarnations, Leonardo Nam and Will Yun Lee. His sister is played by Dichen Lachman. None of them are Japanese.

Joel Kinnaman playing a white guy I buy. But hiring Koreans and Nepalese to play the roles of Japanese characters smacks of the worst kind of racism: Do all Asians look the same? 

I'm not being facetious: every Japanese person I've ever talked to has been fine with Hollywood actors playing Asian roles, but incensed when Chinese are hired to play Japanese. It's all a matter of perspective. 

Now, that's a totally over the top overreaction, but illustrates the point: once you start insisting people of the correct ethnicity play every role, where does it stop? At some arbitrary line the actual people involved don't care about. 

I hate the creeping sensation that I'm becoming a get-off-my-lawn style old man, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that each generation is just as bigoted as the next, just about different things. Sigh. The perils of allowing the Internet to mediate your relationship with your own culture, I guess.

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