BINGE-R #73: Altered Carbon + The Witch
ALTERED CARBON S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
“Your body is not who you are,” declares one of the several narrators who contribute to Netflix’s new science-fiction series, setting up a dystopian future where minds are transferable and bodies are just a physical workstation – here referred to as “sleeves” – that can be updated, replaced or recreated. Unfortunately, Altered Carbon has much the same outlook in regards to storytelling and performance: the details of Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 book, adapted by screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island), have been slipped into a familiar sci-fi realm of 23rd century action and 20th century dialogue. The cars might fly, but the series can’t get off the ground.
250 years after he died, the consciousness of Takeshi Kovacs is put into a new body (Joel Kinnaman) at the order of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the richest and one of the oldest people alive – 320 years and counting – on Earth. A “Meth”, short for Methuselah, Bancroft wants Kovacs to find out who physically killed him, having had his backed-up mind, short of the final 48 hours, put into a spare body. Haunted by his past as an Envoy, an off world super soldier seen in many flashbacks (played by Will Yun Lee) that aren’t wholly informative, Kovacs is the private eye sifting through the many willing suspects, including Bancroft’s diffident wife of the last 100 years, Miriam (Kristin Lehman).
Living in eyries above the cloud line, removed from ordinary people and seemingly their laws, the Meths are the ultimate 1%: “he’s into consensual death,” a sex (and death) worker says of Bancroft to Kovacs, which apparently doesn’t bother anyone because he’s generous with new bodies for his victims. With their gladiators and white outfits, the wealthy recall ancient Rome’s elite, and while the episodes are flecked with piquant details – Kovacs has a run-in with one of the Bancroft children, making judicious use of a spare Miriam sleeve – very little ties together. The peculiarities of Bay City (formerly San Francisco) run parallel to the hardboiled questioning and static action scenes; neither strand makes good use of the other.
Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish actor who’s been in both editions of The Killing, has the disdain down pat, but Kovacs is a formulaic character – he gives lip to those above, but when it matters his conscience kicks in. The more interesting character is Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), the hard charging Bay City police detective pursuing Bancroft who also has a connection to the previous inhabitant of Kovacs’ body. Her everyday life opens up some interesting ideas, but individual episodes tend to over compensate: the third episode is heavy on wisecracks, the fourth goes deep on ultraviolent torture. The final flaw is at least fitting: too often the street scenes in Bay City resemble the original Blade Runner. Clearly not every new identity is an upgrade on the past.
In Brief: AMERICAN VANDAL S1 (Netflix): Played with a sublimely straight face, this high school mockumentary is both a celebration of dick jokes and a canny satire of the true crime documentary. That it doesn’t just amuse, but actually works as a mystery you become invested in, is a credit to creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, who capture the sudden teenage turns between seriousness and stupidity in having two high school students dive into the expulsion of a meathead classmate found guilty of spray-painting dicks on 27 teachers’ cars. The framing shots, prosecutorial narration, detailed graphics and episodic cliff-hangers are note perfect, even as the budding investigators try to confirm the accuracy of a boy’s boast about a handjob or evaluate what the second y in a texted ‘heyy’ signifies (quite a lot, as it turns out). This is Beavis and Butt-Head meets Serial, and somehow that makes for a genuinely surprising comic success.
>> Other Reading: I wrote for The Monthly about the departures on and off screen for the latest season of one of the best streaming series, Stan’s Transparent. [full review here]
The Witch (Netflix, 2015, 92 minutes): Robert Eggers’ vivid horror film – a study of the paranoia that lurks within religious faith – befalls a family who have chosen to leave a Puritan settlement in New England circa 1630. Living on the edge of woods that could have sprung from a fairy-tale, the devout clan is fractured when the youngest child, a baby boy, goes missing while under the care of the oldest, his sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), while the fear of her latent sexual energy becomes the fuel that destroys both her father, William (Ralph Ineson), and mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie). As if bringing period testimony to life, with its fearful dedication and otherworldly fact, the movie holds to the uncomplicated, fearful outlook of its adults, who see the Devil’s temptation in the actions of their children. With a traditional aesthetic that functions as an incantation, The Witch is rich in seductive, satisfying dread.
New on Netflix: Primed with antagonistic energy and self-destructive deception, David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013, 138 minutes) is a compelling 1970s drama with Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and a heartrending Christian Bale; two Jake Gyllenhaal’s in the murky doppelganger psychological thriller Enemy (2013, 90 minutes) from the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049).
New on SBS On Demand: Taika Waititi’s warmly idiosyncratic chase film-meets-coming of age tale Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, 101 minutes); a masterpiece of the French cinema: Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959, 75 minutes), an austerely sharp study of obsession, faith and need.
New on Stan: Quentin Tarantino’s garrulous, bloody indoor western The Hateful Eight (2015, 168 minutes) runs too long for me, but his fans can feast on an ornery ensemble cast; true love and couples’ therapy get put through a delicious science-fiction blender as Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass headline The One I Love (2014, 92 minutes).
>> Want BINGE-R sent to your inbox? Click here for the weekly e-mail.