REVIEW: TWO NEW BIG-BUDGET SCI-FI EXTRAVAGANZAS ON NETFLIX
There's a lot to like about the 10-part mindf*ck sci-fi action-thriller "Altered Carbon," but the show never slows down for even a second to let you actually take anything in. It undeniably opens with a tantalizing premise: a future world where all of your memories and personality are downloaded into a disc called a "stack." That means that anything can happen to your body, but as long as your stack is intact and can be removed, it can just be inserted into a NEW body (called a "sleeve") and you go right on living your life.
It's obvious that this concept can lead to a lot of potential observations and storylines. Having a stack makes you immortal, but you have to be pretty rich in order to keep affording new sleeves all the time. If a loved one suddenly showed up in a new body, would it effect the way you treat them or feel about them? It also has implications for law enforcement: how do you track someone who can keep changing bodies on you?
"Altered Carbon" does explore a lot of these ideas, but I think the main problem is that it also tries to explore about 10,000 other ideas. In addition to all the stack/sleeve stuff, it's also a future-noir murder mystery, about a fabulously wealthy man (James Purefoy) whose stack was destroyed. (He survived by uploading his brain data to a satellite once every 48 hours, but now wants to know who tried to kill him. Naturally.) PLUS it's a drama about a damaged ex-super soldier (Joel Kinnaman) who's placed in a new sleeve 250 years after he was killed, and has constant flashbacks to the guerilla leader who trained him. PLUS it's a police procedural about an investigation into a dead woman who mysteriously fell from the sky. PLUS it's a tragic drama about desperate father (Ato Essandoh) whose daughter - in stack form - is trapped in a virtual reality nightmare from which she can't awake. PLUS there's a ton of stuff about creepy artificially-intelligent hotels that stalk their guests.
It's not that any of these are BAD stories or dumb ideas. There's just way too many of them to properly service in any reasonable way, and there's CERTAINLY no time to explain all of these high-concept gimmicks AND develop interesting, three-dimensional characters, artificially intelligent or otherwise. Unfortunately, "Altered Carbon" tries anyway, and the result is a chaotic mish-mash that never coheres into a single, compelling narrative. The sheer amount of exposition each actor is forced to deliver made me genuinely depressed for them; many sequences play out like RPG video games, where Kinnaman's soldier wanders around a new setting and people randomly come up to him and explain facets of how this universe works. To US in the audience, this is a wild new way of seeing the world, but to the people in this reality, it's just their everyday life! Sometimes they'd talk about traffic, or how they're feeling that day, or sports or something.
Credit where it's due: future San Francisco (now known as "Bay City") looks stunning, and a lot of the details are thoughtful and clever. (Yeah, it owes a lot to "Blade Runner," but what dystopian noir-y sci-fi thriller doesn't?) The Golden Gate Bridge is now essentially a favela, covered in storage containers that people have converted into living spaces. The wealthiest, essentially immortal citizens live above the clouds, in Jetsons-like mega-skyscrapers, and have customized sleeves that secrete MDMA-like drugs when they are aroused. An AI simulation of Edgar Allen Poe conducts a ritual in a simulated pink bedroom within an urban VR nightmarescape.
Unfortunately, I never cared about anything that was happening, or any of the people involved, which makes the entire experience kind of a slog. Also, I should add, the show is shockingly, gruesomely violent. This makes a kind of sense - in a world where bodies were essentially disposable, you wouldn't treat them as quite so sacred, and seeing things like wounds or corpses would be more commonplace. But the fixation on the ways stack/sleeve tech could theoretically be used vivisect and torture is relentless and probably unnecessary to get the point across. "Altered Carbon" will likely be too much for more sensitive viewers. You've been warned.
THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX
As a big fan of the previous two "Cloverfield" films, it saddens me to say that this third entry - originally titled "The God Particle" - misses the mark. It makes intuitive sense, after seeing the film, that producer JJ Abrams and Paramount would shuffle this off to Netflix. It's one of those movies that starts out strong but just runs out of steam, and I feel like ticket purchasers would feel a bit burned by the experience.
As with "10 Cloverfield Lane," the movie intersects tangentially with the other films in the franchise, but essentially functions as a stand-alone sci-fi thriller. The premise: A group of astronauts has spent several years on an Earth-orbiting space station conducting a variety of potentially dangerous particle accelerator experiments, hoping to solve an energy crisis back home. But on their most recent attempt, they experience an anomaly that transports them to a mysterious alternate dimension, where normal rules of time and space apparently don't apply.
Pretty much every astronaut is played by a great actor who has been delightful in other projects, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw from the iconic "Black Mirror" episode "San Junipero"; David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King in "Selma"; Chris O'Dowd of "Bridesmaids" and "Get Shorty" and "Molly's Game"; Ziyi Zhang from "Crouching Tiger" and more. I WANTED to like these characters and get emotionally invested in their adventure, and what was happening to them, but the film just doesn't develop this story in interesting ways.
Essentially, it reverts to a conventional sci-fi horror movie formula (as the frequent social media comparisons to "Event Horizon" indicate): crazy inexplicable things happen, everyone freaks out, then someone comes up with a plan and yells a lot of jargon about what they need to do next. Repeat. It soon enough becomes clear that the movie has no interest in actually explaining itself, or why any of these baffling things are happening to this crew. It's just an inter-dimensional slasher movie, with "the fabric of space-time" in the role of Jason Voorhees.