We watched Altered Carbon on Netflix and honestly, it’s hitting all my buttons.
What can I say, I’m a cheap date.
A lot of the criticisms I’ve been seeing of it are pretty valid in terms of how the visuals are, at times, drawing away from the narrative, although my counter to that would primarily be in that, being a very by-the-books noir mystery (again, my jam), the story’s sorta wild and thin by default. Chandler stories aren’t the most linear and he’s the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. There’s also the criticism of the sexualized violence as well, though for that I tend to default and defer to this essay that talks about similar things in TV’s GAME OF THRONES, on the sad inevitability of sexual violence in settings that are built upon patriarchal structures.
I will concur that there’s a huge untapped field to play with in a critical and narrative sense around the story’s usage of body-swapping in both a dysmorphic and racial way, because so much of Altered Carbon is touching on the hell that capitalist posthumanism has ultimately created. It’s not the wild fantasy elements of sci-fi, but rather the mind-numbing mundanity of it as your reality, another standardized but (for many) out-of-reach-financially aspect of everyday life. Ghost In the Shell in its various incarnations (barring the recent live-action movie, which I refuse to watch) does a great job with this, personally. I wish Altered Carbon did more with the elements we’re seeing here in terms of how people adjust to and struggle with their new and/or unfamiliar bodies, sometimes when put there seemingly against their will.
Ultimately, a lot of the sci-fi falls away in this in favor of the murder-mystery aspects and the overall attempts at noir, which works in a variety of ways;
- It’s really messy. I love older classic murder-mystery stuff but the narratives tend to be secondary to the storytelling/language, which means that you end up with scattered and messy stories. Altered Carbon embraces this with a completley-ramshakle and bonkers story that ties a minute thread from the beginning of the story to the ending as a lichpin to the whole thing, in a way I’m still thinking about. I feel like I have to go back through the story to make sure I got it all, because the symbolism (albeit heavy-handed at times) replicates the written language, forming an aesthetic and impressions rather than a tight linear narrative.
- The violence and casual prejudice is awful, subversive, and entirely necessary. The big complaint I’ve seen about the show is how it treats women, with most of the victims of violence in this story being female and/or sex workers. However, a big element of cyberpunk/sci-fi that I find important to maitnaining the genre’s definitions is to highlight the cornball but necessary “the more things change, the more things stay the same” trope. No matter what, and especially moreso in a Westernized world where physical is secondary, arbitrary cruelness to women will be inevitable, if not moreso magnified.
It’s not perfect, by any means. A lot is missing that could have further fleshed out some interesting points about the “post-racial” implications of a world where bodies can be swapped, and there’s the quest of the AI hotel to understand humanity and to make actual deep connections, something that “Poe” seems to struggle with but doesn’t quite get why until right to the end, tragically. I’d have loved to see more of the AIs considering the immense implications of their existence and their seemingly-ultimate dismissal as a fad in the face of physical immortality.
I’m also a little fascinated at the implications of the “Meths” as being characters right out of a Dan Simmons novel, post-humans on the edge of godhood and the implications of that. Still, as a down-n-dirty cyberpunk story that hits a lot of William Gibson buttons in my brain, I really enjoyed it. It’s one end of the cyberpunk spectrum in fully throwing itself into the visual aesthetic that’s rooted heavily in posthumanism, issues regarding authoritarianism and violence, and how little the world seems to change no matter how far forward we go, which to me is an important element of cyberpunk and science fiction.
And then…there’s Blade Runner 2049.
I haven’t watched the original Blade Runner in a very long time. I first saw it after I’d read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the novellas that inspired the film, albeit-loosely, back in high school at some point. However, going into this I vaguely knew that there was no real need for that, because (in this weird case sort of ironically) the film uses cyberpunk in the same way that the original one did, an arguably unique lens that’s at an intensely-far spectrum spot;
Blade Runner 2049‘s cyberpunk dystopia, similar to the one of the original, posits not an overrun and exaggerated version of our present world (the model a lot of cyberpunk borrows from in taking basic surface pointers from William Gibson’s early work) but rather, a dying one. The world of 2049 is a dying one, and human beings are simply going through the motions of a former “golden age” (if anything like that ever exist for them), the planet inexorably crawling towards death. It’s highlighted a lot more in the original book, but the obvious implications are that the Earth is unsaveable and that colony/extra-solar life is the only way that the species can sustain itself long-term. While the neon of the signs is just as bright, rather than act as a smokescreen, it’s a glaringly-obvious reminder of the frailty and futility of pretty much anything.
Altered Carbon, for better or worse, is noir-ish through andt hrough, but Blade Runner 2049, to me, hinges less on that and more on an understanding that it’s a film about a conversation relatedt o existence. Existential dread is arguably a more Lovecraftian struggle, but science fiction has a great viewpoint to examine the fears and ideas that consume us when we aren’t even certain of our own selves. K, in BR2049, exists in a constant state of the razor’s edge over his own physical existence and ownership of self, because (and I didn’t know this going into the film) he’s a replicant that hunts and kills other replicants. He lives in a state of actively knowing how limited his life is, conscious of the blocks and barriers that keep him from actively lying, as well as the overall state of how precarious his existence is due other humans (and also in comparison to what seems like the touch of power that other replicants have brushed against as either rebels with higher senses of purpose…or as the brute-physical manifestation of the will of the humans who are after the hybrid. When the challenges form cracks in his odd state of not-quite-dread (something the film depicts well, a sense of sadness but also, in the beginning, nihilistic acceptance), it’s ground-shaking.
Nihilism being challenged by existential questions are the root of the story and atmosphere of BR2029, which is why even though it’s just as (arguably moreso) cyberpunk than Altered Carbon, people felt more comfortable in the familiar embrace of future-version-of-mystery that AC offered, compared to the honest and deep er questions about the judgement of living beings as nonhuman, the usage of them as workforce against their own “kind,” and whether acknowledging they’re a “kind” and not a “tool” can make us guilty of forcing a people (replicants) to have to grapple with our own existential weight as we allow our surrender to slow extinction to taint us.