The hero in storage
Now that we’ve got that pesky image of the all-powerful old white man out of our heads (though not out of our lives) it has become clear that what really needs to be reframed is our theory of what human beings are and can be. Sci-fi, poetry, and alternative lifestyles have been working on it ever since. Are we animals? Are we machines? Are we each other? Are we our own worst enemies? Are we the better angels of our souls?
Yes. Yes to everything.
I’ve been marathon watching “Altered Carbon” which I began because of a discussion of CGI environments in sci-fi about “Oblivion”, featuring Tom Cruise in an early knock-off of Bell bubble-cockpit helicopters. It sounds a little dumb, but it was interesting — even quite beautiful — and Morgan Freeman, who seems to be channeling the Angel Gabriel in most of his films, was under control. Of course, all the ruins are from Manhattan, because that’s the gateway to everything.
“Altered Carbon” uses the archetypal “Bladerunner” crowded streets where it always rains. Though we’ve gotten rid of God and angels, we still have the filthy rich and the out-of-control police. No Morgan Freeman, but a racial mix with an emphasis on the Pacific Rim. Actually, when you think about it, these are the “brown” people, a blending of Asians, Africans, and Americans — but not indigenous Americans, which is a grievous omission. (A red-headed Irishman shows up briefly among the rebels.)
This film is billed as “cyber-punk” which some reviewers contest, but to me it just looks like another CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) show. The CGI (Computer Generated Images) element on steroids really is remarkable, esp. in the beginning. The images of the city by night, obligatory in police procedurals, are gorgeous.
I was attracted by the Swedish actor, Joel Kinnaman, whom I got to know in “The Killing” where he played a sort of hip, semi-detached guy who said “snap.” Kinnaman has an almost Brando-esque density and impassiveness, even when being tortured and while fucking. He’s still a chain-smoker, but doesn’t break off the filters like the little banty rooster cop in “Trial and Retribution.” Inscrutability is characteristic of law enforcement roles, even when the enforcer is not a cop, like “Person of Interest”. In fact, cops I’ve known have cultivated this unreadability, this reserve of judgment. It's part of the craft.
There are exceptions. “Hawaii 5-0” plays against the stoic with emotional relationships, including family ties. (Among the acting pool, I was surprised to spot a younger Teilor Gruggs, who plays “Danny’s” daughter. And to glimpse McGarrett’s danceway lover.) In "T and R", David Hayman performs the irony of rage and indignation in a man too small to punch people. But the big-man style of leading man goes back as far as James Arness in “Gunsmoke”. It looks to me that Kinnamon has bulked up quite a bit since “The Killing.”
So the genre of “Altered Carbon”, besides the sci-fi category, is police procedural and the plot tropes follow those well-worn paths, which is fine since it means you can keep track of a rather convoluted rationale about minds and koans. The wise old guide is a Latino women, proposing a kind of California Zen. She preaches detachment, alternate realities, gaming jiu jitsu, dissociation, multiple selves. Reincarnation comes along for the ride. The Incan prop-man’s preoccupation with severed heads persists. So do coffee and the f-word.
By episode 7 we’re into Robin Hood, the Resistance, Underground, Guerrilas, Terrorists.
Most police procedurals and some sci-fi are focused on society, which at least one reviewer thought fell short in this example. But I think they were reaching for some kind of religious reconciliation among named institutional religious dogma: Christianity, Buddhism, and so on. Not Gaean nature-based constructs until the rebellion. Sci-fi necessarily has to be about a manufactured world. The advantage of “Game of Thrones” is that it reaches back to the formation of the big religious constructs.
The echoes of Trump et al are clear, probably not because they’re patterned after the individuals individually but because the pattern is so clear and becoming clearer every day. The economist Krugman says he recognized it clearly.