While watching the cyberpunk-esque Altered Carbon, it bothered me that it felt nothing like Minority Report. It’s a random comparison, I know, but I wish it did. I still remember just how pimp everything felt in that 2002 movie: The creepy pupil-reciting advertisements, the weird insect-like robots, and the big ass, glove-powered touch-screen screen gizmo. And yes, I couldn’t recall the names of said gizmos, so I took out my BAAP (big-ass-Android-phone) and the epiphany hit: I’M ACTUALLY CARRYING A BIG ASS INTERACTIVE TOUCH-SCREEN GIZMO—nothing is new anymore.
But the truth is we’ve all felt this way. That moment when new concepts are suddenly faded with time. It’s the natural order of things. Minority Report’s shtick around future crime detections felt fresh in the moment. But “cyberpunk” as a genre, and in the case of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, shouldn’t feel like a convergence of past ideas when its whole identity is wrapped in the future.
In the case of this Netflix series , you get a story based around the “Takeshi Kovacs” series of books by Richard K. Morgan. Our main star is a biracial Japanese dude who lives in a distant future where human bodies (called sleeves) are reusable and habitable. Naturally, the human consciousness can be uploadable and downloadable to any purchasable sleeve in this economy. So for plot reasons, our man has to get killed over a dispute, revived into a white man (whole other issue), and needs to be thrown into some hard boiled crime plot to keep things interesting. It checks all the “cyberpunk” boxes comfortably. And critics have been giving it credit for its stylish cyberpunk-ness. And out of the same bucket of comparisons to the likes of Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell, the genre is beginning to lose what separated it from the rest.
Cyberpunk has always wanted to flaunt its new-ness. Just looking at how cyberpunk even came to be, we’d have to look to William Gibson (along with Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner and others), whose earlier writings were these near-future stories that explored the effects of tech and cybernetics on humanity. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner with its futuristic neon-orasmic aesthetic, established the Cyberpunk “look” on screen—a Shinjuku, Tokyo reimagining basically.
Flying cars replaced ground cars. Holographic ads replaced billboarded ads and all that good, megacorp, industrial stuff. Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime Akira in 88 followed suit by playing with similar visuals. Slightly more dirty, slightly more Japanese. Government interferences with human life stood as its core narrative. Society upheavals and classism were un-phased by imagined technological advancements. And it’s pretty much in these three visual takes, that ushered in the many copycats that felt comfortable enough to lean in to the aesthetic.
All in all, it was a collectively great and imaginatively dope time. The looks and ideas weren’t just picked from a petri-dish of established principles. These ideas (holographic imagery, cybernetic implants, transhumanism, cryogenetics) were in fact so damn out of the box, and so rebellious against a happy Jetsons future, that they were un-influenced by the ideas of what futurism used to be. They impacted our real-life technology (touch-screen gizmo). And in the same way “punk” came from a progression of earlier rock-n-roll music—an indictment against what felt tired, old and safe—cyberpunk was an indictment against the blossomy idea that the future was safe from the flaws of humanity.
Film and TV shows like Altered Carbon are nothing like that. A story about transhumanism and uploaded human consciousness isn’t so much a rebellion as it is compliance to what’s already been put out there. It’s the “Black Museum ” episode from Black Mirror. It’s Masaume Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, it’s Avatar, and to a lesser extent, The Matrix.
What used to be this hard, forward-thinking genre is now a microwave-friendly staple like the rest. A show/film like Altered Carbon will have the whole neon-lit, systematically brooding, flying cars around buildings thing working for it. It’ll have the crystal sheen finish, where metals gleam, screens glow, and street holograms gram all over thing going for it. Hell, it’ll even showcase a trenchcoat wearing, broody don’t-trust-no-cops-but-still-a-good-dude, mystery solving protagonist.
Much of the problem with the lack of new “punk” concepts stems from the fact that everyone is trying to get into this “original content” game. Networks (Netflix, Hulu, etc) in response rarely take expensive sci-fi leaps unless it translates into a series that’ll benefit from what the analytics claim to be working. Creating out-of-mind worlds, concepts and alien motifs take money, patience and time; the kryptonite of industry expectations. The future as a result no longer feels like a “future” but rather, some moment in fiction that’s still using the same damn recipe. It really makes one wonder if we’ve forgotten what tomorrow can still look like.
Star Trek for example was as much punk in spirit as any cyberpunk tale. It broke social taboos and made audiences face a post-nationalist, post-racial hereafter. It was damn risky, and took understandable time to build its ideology and core ideas seperate from the less-progressive 60s. Our current nostalgia culture isn’t about that same build or wait shit. Adaptations like Blade Runner 2049, and Altered Carbon only aggravate a sameness issue through their ease in building on-top of already built fandoms (The Trekkies, Blade Runner fans, and Cyberpunkers). It’s just easier to sprinkle different spices on leftovers, pop it in a microwave, and create something risk-averse.
What does tomorrow look like in a way that revolts against what we know. What’s the off the wall, industrial and visual equivalent to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in the Cyberpunk space. What’s so punk about a show like Altered Carbon that still holds onto binary ideas about identity (male to female, etc etc) and what’s the alternative to all that?
I’m not saying I have the creative chops to answer these questions. I’m also not saying that shows/films like Altered Carbon are bad for being what they are. I’m just making a damn observation. The futuristic ambition that once had me going “damn” and “wow” is only a fraction of what it used to be. As shows and films enjoy the spoilers of what came before it creatively, this industry can’t afford to forget what made these shows so worthy of their rebellious starts labels. Thinking beyond the norm is always a risk, but fresh food will always taste better than week old leftovers. It’s time the sci-fi industry starts cooking again.
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