As a genre, science fiction has never been smarter–especially as a more diverse array of characters have come to populate some of the most successful stories told onscreen. Last year’s Star Trek prequel cast a black woman as its lead, while the box office grosses of the new Star Wars films proved to studios that audiences are hungry to see female heroes like Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Before playing Rey’s companion Finn in those films, John Boyega broke out in Attack the Block, a movie that skewered class divisions in England as a group of teens defend their housing projects from an alien invasion. And last year’s X-Men film, Logan, served as a powerful allegory on immigration wrapped up in a slickly violent package. Netflix, which has earned accolades for its dystopian drama Black Mirror, had the opportunity to contribute to the genre’s evolution with a buzzy–and reportedly very expensive–new epic, Altered Carbon.
But despite its futuristic setting, the show’s treatment of race, gender and class feels downright retrograde. Altered Carbon, a hard-boiled-detective story with a stylized, Blade Runner-lite aesthetic, begins with an intriguing conceit plucked from a 2002 Richard K. Morgan book of the same name: in the year 2384, wealthy humans can transfer their consciousness to new bodies, or “sleeves,” every time their old body is killed. The gap between the haves and the have-nots–or rather, the immortal and the mortal–has widened significantly. The bored bourgeoisie occupy themselves with gruesome entertainment, like forcing a married couple to fight to the “skin death.”
Rather than explore the ethical implications of this technology, Altered Carbon focuses on a mystery. Someone has attempted to murder a wealthy man, Laurens Bancroft, by both destroying his sleeve and hacking the cloud system that backs up his consciousness. Bancroft wakes up the mind of an old soldier named Takeshi Kovacs to solve the crime, gifting him a new sleeve.
For viewers, the mystery may instead be why Takeshi’s sleeve takes the form of Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman (House of Cards) playing an Asian man living in a white guy’s body. That’s how it’s written in the book, but onscreen it’s especially problematic. The creators would have done well to instead cast an Asian actor as the reborn Takeshi, avoiding the same whitewashing controversy that plagued last year’s Ghost in the Shell. In that adaptation, Scarlett Johansson played an Asian woman’s consciousness inside a white android.
In typical noir style, Takeshi spends much of his investigation questioning women in strip clubs. And while there’s plenty of male nudity in the show–Kinnaman’s exposed rear should get its own screen credit–men in this world appear naked while in positions of power: a rich man showing off his expensive young “skin,” or a naked rebel engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The nude women in this show are bruised prostitutes, naked corpses dumped in the sea and femme fatales. A few generically kickass women, like a feisty rebel (Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry) and a foulmouthed cop (Martha Higareda), round out the cast, but their characters are thin. The show’s opening credits, backdropped by a snake slithering up a naked woman’s body, serve as a warning: this is a Bond-like pastiche that delivers the sex and violence of 007 without any of the style or substance.
Stick with Altered Carbon and viewers will eventually be rewarded with a more compelling story from Takeshi’s past. In flashbacks, Takeshi (now played by Will Yun Lee) and his sister join a group of rebels led by Goldsberry’s Quellcrist Falconer. The doomed rebel leader dreams of a more egalitarian future. She would have been disappointed by this one.
Altered Carbon will begin streaming on Netflix on Feb. 2
This appears in the February 12, 2018 issue of TIME.
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