On Netflix's "Altered Carbon"
6 Episodes in I am pretty conflicted with how to feel about Netflix's "Altered Carbon", I am really enjoying large parts of it, but there are a few problematic flaws that are distracting from the fun. Disclosure, I have not read the books so this is a look at only what is in the show. -Minor Spoilers-
It's beautiful! The visuals are stunning and a great representation of that "Blade Runner" cyber-punk neon light style of cinema. It's dirty, gritty, but colourful and alive. The world they've built feels very real visually. The costuming and some of the cinematography make it feel like a graphic novel at times (in a great way). Kovacs size, violence, bulk, and anger being juxtaposed by his small pink backpack feels like the best parts of a Sin City comic. While the plot and set piece moments make it feel like a video game (again, a good thing.) I can see how this would play out in a Deus Ex game, it's fun.
The casting is spot on, everyone is great. Joel Kinnaman carries the violence, power, and noir-cool detective persona of Kovacs perfectly. James Purefoy is EVIL as Bancroft. Waleed Zuaiter is a great father figure in Abboud. Martha Higareda is strong, fierce, and driven as Ortega. The list goes on and on, there are no weak links. The only tragedy is that Will Yun Lee isn't the star of this show... even though its a show about him (but we'll get to that later).
The story, although I am only half way through, is fun- there are all of these seemingly unconnected threads that are slowly coming together and i'm excited to find out how it all plays out. It's a great noir-detective murder mystery so far.
Finally, a very smart decision in my mind has been to have a lot of the ultra violence off-screen. There are some great teases right before something horrible will happen, then they cut away to the detectives showing up at the scene and trying to piece it together. I love this style of storytelling! It's like a horror movie, the less you show of the monster the better, the viewers imagination will ALWAYS be better than the real thing. But don't worry, there is still a lot of awesome fight scenes and gun battles to keep you entertained.
Altered Carbon is so close to fantastic that it's frustrating it's not! It falls down when it re-treads old, outdated, and un-interesting tropes. It presents the air of progressiveness with a (great) very diverse cast and some male sexuality (one dong shown once), but misses the point as to what it actually means.
The most egregious and blatant miss-step is the White Washing of Takeshi Kovacs. It is probably the most literal version I've ever seen in film or TV. An Asian man is in the body of a white man. It's just unnecessary and only takes away from the show. The main crux is that yes, this is what the novel did, and it was for "reasons", but you can say that about anything, it doesn't make it any less of a problem. You can also use "reasons" to NOT do it. It's a double shame in this case as well because, as I mentioned before, Will Yun Lee as Kovacs is fantastic in the scenes he is in. This also isn't a dig with Joel's performance, he is also awesome as Kovacs, but in today's world, it makes no sense to have a white man play an Asian man and only takes away from the narrative.
Next the violence and sexualization of women. There is a lot of violence on (and off) screen, it's fun and visceral, men and women fighting, killing, etc. The problem is the choice to have 2 sub plots revolve around the rape, or sexualized torture of women sex workers. Women in the sex trade in this world are abused, used, and thrown out. There is a whole plot based around a man who serial beats sex workers to death only to buy them a new body. That's fine right?! Wrong. Stop using women being raped as a plot device so that YOU can enjoy watching the character or someone else get revenge for the rape. Or, if you are trying to show the heinousness of this world the un-justness of the poor, show me an equal amount of men as sex workers being abused. There are 2 male sex workers shown in the whole show compared to 30+ women without tops on. It's frustrating and frankly un-realistic for a show set in the far future, where men and women can live forever. It's like the age old argument: But our fantasy novel/game/movie has to show women being beaten, abused, downtrodden, not in the army, and weak because that's how it was in those days! Really? Because I don't remember there being Dragons in those days, which no one seems to have a problem with the historical accuracy around that...
In the end
I'm still really enjoying "Altered Carbon", it's OK. I'm just really frustrated because there are some very small, and easy fixes that could have made it great- a champion for diversity instead of one with problems. There's a great scene where a Muslim man speaks in Arabic to his girlfriend and she responds in Spanish, it's small moments like this that show how great the show could have been. It also brings up another thought, it is OK to enjoy something that is problematic, as long as you recognize the problems instead of apologizing for them. So that when you go to make something, you don't fall into the same traps.