Altered Carbon 2018), the 10-episode Netflix series based on Richard K. Morgan’s book by the same title, is slick and sadistic. Critics have rightly parsed its Bladerunner aesthetic, but I see more than Ridley Scott in its strategically plotted mise-en-scène. I see the Manichaean politics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the struggle over resource extraction and the revolutionary resistance of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the ethical quandaries of advanced A.I. technology’s of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the digital feats of Gibson’s Neuromancer. If you have read and watched twentieth-century science fiction, then producer Laeta Kalogridis and the episode directors of Altered Carbon want you to feel the familiarity, the correctness, of this humanoid future. This is your world, it seems to say; settle down and soak it up.
Evidently, I did soak it up, since I couldn’t stop watching the show, but I have to confess that I watched it with my hands over my eyes, peeking out from the gaps between my fingers. The series is relentlessly violent: sexual violence, lethally violent sexual fantasies, suicide, murder on the streets, fighters paid to kill or be killed for audience entertainment, “virtual” torture in realistic “constructs” that enable torturers gruesomely to “kill” a victim over and over and over, psychopathic revengeful murder of an entire family (including the children, whose bodies, oddly–considering all of this unapologetic gore–are discreetly tucked behind a sofa and showing only their bloodied calves and shoes). I am sure there’s more. The violence is over the top.
The optics of this violence both shock and dull the viewer, and channel that weird attraction-repulsion humans have to gore. It also comports to the inert unimportance of a body’s matter. Bodies, in Altered Carbon, are mere “sleeves;” they are as inessential to a person’s thinking and being as a piece of clothing. In general, humans rely on clothes for temperature regulation, social propriety, and as a limited means of marking affiliation, status, and proclivities. But humans are born naked and we first express ourselves with a naked cry. In Altered Carbon bodies are precisely like clothes: they regulate movement, skill sets, and social propriety and status, but the essence of a self is a “cortical stack”, a small disk inserted at the top of the spinal cord. Rich humans can pay to back-up their stacks and clone their sleeves (indicating an unnecessary but affectively convincing attachment to a body and not just any body). Murder victims can be “spun up” and asked what happened–if that is, the victims are not newly religious and therefore refuse to pursue more than one life, that is, more than one “sleeve.”
All of this is difficult for this ardent phenomenologist and Foucaultian to swallow. Humans are not our brains; it’s closer to the truth to say that our brains are our bodies, with all of the history and feeling that lie in them. The premise of Altered Carbon seems a cold and even sinister revenge of Descartes’s mind-body dualism, rendered here in a masculinist guise that promises the living out of every horrifically violent sexual fantasy without any bothersome culpability because, after all, the body you have just tortured and fucked to death can be discarded, a new sleeve swung down from the inventory and the “stack” newly implanted. “If you’ve got the money, honey, we’ve got the disease” –but without the dis-ease, and without fear of legal redress.
There is much more to say about all that, but I want to move on. Unsurprisingly, the series’ premised advances in human technology are not oriented toward reducing poverty and alleviating suffering, but rather ensure the rich can get richer, trample the poor flatter, and preen and purchase their way out of accountability. (The ending, which I won’t spoil here, might suggest otherwise, but I don’t believe it for an instant.) The rich live off-world in ethereal, gleaming towers. They keep rooms of clones in frosted pods, and oodles of back-ups to their “stacks.” In other words, the series posits the ultimate sublation of religion and capitalism: the rich are immortal and virtually omnipotent–just like the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim deity of old. Is it irony or only banality to note that the only thing these immortals can think to do with their immortality is to indulge in bodily pleasure, turning from the fleshpots of their making only long enough to think through and ensure the continuance of their wealth. “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in” money.
The sentimental fulcrum of all of this is the male protagonist’s, Takeshi’s (Joel Kinnemann), flashbacks to his troubled childhood and the memory of saving his sister, Rei (Dichen Lachman) from an abusive father. Much is promised in this fold of the plot. I am drawn to it by how memory of a particular embodiedness sustains a desire to feel and be that body again. I sense in this plotline an alternate ontology: implications about what it is to be human that revolve around shared stories, shared struggle, shared meals, shared friends and enemies. You know, all that stuff of human history and human literature.
It rings false and hollow, then, that Rei morphs into something more like a harpy than a fellow-traveler. I don’t understand the affectscape of the ending of Season 1, the emotions Rei declares and executes. I have wracked my brain to remember an apt evocation of Greek myth. Perhaps, after living so many centuries, Rei really has become something like Takeshi’s mother (Jocasta?) or wife (Medea?).
Or perhaps the critics of Laeta Kalogridis’s Bionic Woman were on to something. The shortcomings of Rei’s characters are of a piece with the inability of this series to portray women convincingly as anything other than lovesick or sexually available.