Altered Carbon Season 2 review: An uneven sci-fi sequel
Ned Newberry | On 27, Feb 2020
Sleeves, Stacks, Meths and lots of swearing – it can only be Altered Carbon, which returns to Netflix for a second season. Based on the books by Richard K. Morgan, viewers can once again return to a world where humankind has shed the surly bonds of Earth and now lives among the stars. So far so sci-fi, the difference here being that the human race has appropriated alien technology to live forever by containing their essence in spine-mounted disks called “Stacks”. This enables people to change bodies or “Sleeves”, potentially living forever – or, through a process known as “Needle Casting”, travel great distances by transferring to a new Stack.
Altered Carbon Season 2 brings back the high production values shown off in the first season, however it also brings back its myriad lore, so it’s essential to have seen the first before getting into this one. One of this season’s biggest issues is the information overload that goes hand in hand with the plot. Watching the first season once may not be sufficient to follow a narrative that has a higher thread count than John Lewis bed sheets.
In a relatively large nutshell, Altered Carbon’s second season sees Takeshi Kovacs – the last envoy” and all-round angry investigator – being given a job by a “Meth” (a rich person who can afford to re-sleeve many times). With his new job, Takeshi gets a new body, or Sleeve, in the form of Anthony Mackie. While this is certainly better than getting a new LinkedIn contact, Kovacs’s new job comes with complications and a new mystery to solve.
Casting Mackie as Kovacs is an improvement for the show. Previously played by Joel Kinnerman, Kovacs gets a little more nuance as a character with Mackie, who is able to emulate Kinnerman’s portrayal. Considering Kinnerman really only had one setting – chiselled and angry – Mackie’s performance is fairly consistent throughout and he brings a relentless physicality to the role.
Special mention should also go to Simone Missick, another Marvel alum (from the Netflix shows), she plays bounty-hunter-with-a-conscience Trepp. Aside from new villains and a few ancillary characters, the only other significant cast member is Poe, Kovacs’ AI companion, played by Chris Conner. Poe is written and presented as if he were a fan favourite – perhaps he is, but there’s not a lot of evidence as to why. He should be the comic relief but he is not; he’s quite a tragic character. In fact, there is little to no levity here whatsoever. For this and so many other reasons, Altered Carbon doesn’t feel like a typical Netflix property. The production values are there but the writing and mythos are absolutely not. The way the narrative is paced, particularly when it comes to the overplayed twists and turns, a lot of the reveals, stakes and other significant moments feel unearned.
The first scene really plays on what an interesting world Altered Carbon offers, but much like an open mic night, confidence begins to wane as it goes on. The action slowly sags into the tattered armchair that is the convoluted plot and lukewarm characters, which seem to be a wasted opportunity given the high-tech setting and the fact that characters can swap bodies.
There are multiple action scenes that are perfectly serviceable but feel like they should be more. There is one particular incident where two equally matched opponents have a by-the-numbers fist fight in a forest clearing, which, compared to the anti-gravity fight or final battle from the previous season, feels positively tame.
While there are some strong visuals here, at times the lighting is so poorly implemented that it is hard to see what is happening. The antagonists are also two-dimensional, to the point where some moustache-twirling and maniacal laughing would not go amiss.
Altered Carbon’s second season is, by no means, an unqualified success. There are some enjoyable moments, but they’re too few and far between for Season 2 to feel innovative; instead, it feels like an iteration of a formula. Altered Carbon Season 2 relies too much on its audience’s ability to recall the first season and to be heavily invested in characters who have all the depth of a paddling pool. To use parlance from the show, it may be time for Netflix to spin down Altered Carbon.
Altered Carbon: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.