Netflix’s TV adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk story Altered Carbon made quite the impression on its debut in 2018. Set in the year 2384, within a society where consciousness is digitised and stored via alien tech, death has been rendered an inconvenience rather than a full stop. Carked it? No bother. For the right price, you can be “spun up” into a new clone, or “sleeve”, as they’re called in the show.
Season one raised a host of big questions about religion, ethics and corruption – and it looked astonishing. The series allegedly boasted a budget bigger than the first three seasons of Game Of Thrones. Such was its otherworldly aesthetic that if the credits had listed Ridley Scott – director of Blade Runner – you wouldn’t have looked to the Internet for confirmation.
Sure, the show wore its influences proudly on its, um, sleeve, but at its heart lay a thrillingly original murder mystery. In season one, Joel Kinnaman (Robocop) played principal protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, a prisoner returned to life who must solve a mind-bending homicide in order to win his freedom. Yes, sometimes the script felt like it was written in crayon. Yes, by the end, it had reached such levels of batshittery you wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow if the killer was revealed to be a tap-dancing unicorn. But such vision. So many ideas. What a trip.
Altered Carbon season 2 starts off promisingly. It also features a new lead – Anthony Mackie, nobody’s favourite Avenger, Falcon – in the role of Takeshi, this time searching for his lost love/mentor, Quellcrist Falconer (the returning Nadia Makita). The uprising against the new tech – only explored in flashbacks during season one – is dug into further (though disappointingly, and without the religious implications that were so intriguing last time out). But after a fiery first few episodes, the show becomes some of the most banal viewing you’ll see on Netflix this year.
Part of the problem is the recasting of Takeshi. Mackie – an actor who often confuses frowning for acting – isn’t up to scratch; and the chemistry that fizzed between Makita and Kinnaman is no longer present. Mackie’s Takeshi seems so disinterested in his former lover’s company, you wonder why he’s been searching for her at all.
Elsewhere, the show has lost much of its magic. In moving the locale from Bay City to Takeshi’s home of Harlan’s World, a large amount of the season – this time eight slender episodes, not 10 fat ones – is set in underground caves or forests. Gone are the neck breaking tower blocks; the drizzly, neon drenched markets; the dystopian advertising boards that light up the sky. This new batch of episodes might as well be set in the New Forest.
Everything is just a little bit duller. The fight scenes aren’t as thrilling, the scripts are somehow even more stupid, and the violence – admittedly, as brutal as ever – now appears to be solely directed towards women. There comes a point, after we’ve seen a female character tortured, her teeth torn from her bloody mouth, then tied to a soon-to-be-launched rocket, where you have to ask yourself: is this really entertainment?
And yet it’s not all bad. Star of season one, Takeshi’s adorable AI companion Poe (Chris Conner) returns to steal every scene he’s in. The character is one of the sci-fi genre’s greatest ever creations and without him the show would have no light and little heart. But it’s mostly bad otherwise. Season one of Altered Carbon asked the viewer to think hard about existence, humanity, morality and more. Season two will leave you wondering how this mess ever got off the ground in the first place. For intriguing sci-fi action, stick with that strong first season. For the big questions, fellow Netflix original The Good Place is just a few short clicks away.