Altered Carbon: Resleeved
I came late to Altered Carbon on Netflix, only dipping into it a few months ago, shortly after the second season debuted. Having never read any of Richard K. Morgan’s novels, I found it to be an interesting experience: once you get beyond the repeated allusions to and inspirations from Blade Runner, it was an interesting universe to see stories in. It’s a franchise where the tropes and effects of gumshoe detective work are merged with topics as diverse as the moral degradation inherent with immortality and the intangibility of identity when you can change your face, body and gender as you please. In other words, it is proper sci-fi.
But of course, it isn’t without its flaws either, like a too common recourse to blood-soaked violence and hedonistic sexual scenes – or sometimes a good mix of the two – that crosses the boundary from appropriate accompaniment to vulgar titillation. Perhaps why I was in two minds when I decided to take in Netflix’s feature length anime accompaniment to the release of the second season. The genre of animation, the ability to go beyond the limits of what human principals can do, a desire to grab attention for what could be easily dismissed as a straight-to-video affair: I did think I might be settling in for the kind of film I would never want someone else to watch with me. Was Resleeved all that bad, or was it a suitable addition to the Altered Carbon canon?
Sometime before the opening of the Bancroft case, last envoy Takeshi Kovacs (Ray Chase) is granted a new body by a mysterious employer. His latest job is being the protection for Holly (Brittany Cox), a tattooist for the yakusa whose life is under threat from mysterious assassins. With the assistance of a deadly CTAC operative (Elizabeth Maxwell), Kovacs becomes enmeshed in the internal politics of the yakuza while trying to keep his charge alive.
Well, Resleeved has at least one thing going for it: if you asked me to make an 80 minute film that could briefly touch on Altered Carbon’s main themes, as well as showcasing an absolute mountain of bloody violence, then I would be hard-pressed to make something as both concise and encompassing as Resleeved. But that strength is also its weakness: Resleeved is a shallow diluted affair, that gives a glimpse at what Altered Carbon is all about, without ever threatening to become a vital part of the canon.
The set-up is essentially that of the first season (and the second: is there a bit of diminishing returns in terms of this franchise’s longevity already?): Takeshi Kovacs has an employer from among the “meth” class with a mysterious problem, a new body and a heap load of bad guys between him and a resolution. Throw in a femme fatale – emphasis very much on the “fatale” in this case -, an AI hotel to talk to and you have yourself an Altered Carbon plot. But where both seasons of the TV show had the time and space to let the set-up and the characters breath, Resleeved is struggling from the off to present anything other than a superficial facsimile of what the show pulls off.
The specific intrigue of Resleeved concerns itself with the yakuza of the future, which remains rooted in the past. The tradition is that when the boss decides to pack things in and leave things to his designated successor, he dies – as in “real death”, as the canon calls it, with no comeback with a new “stack” – and the new guy commits irreversibly to the same fate when his time comes. Stunningly, it turns out that the criminal empire is replete with people who may not be super into this, even as a matter of honour. It takes a while for the plot to really come into view – something not great about that, in a film that isn’t even 90 minutes – and the first act is largely concerned with the girl Holly and making mincemeat out of the people after her. The deeper exploration of how meaningful death is in a word where death has become easily avoidable never really comes into existence in Resleeved, more focused as it is on violence and the occasional glimpses of the logic behind that violence.
Kovacs, from being the big, impressive force of nature that he is on TV, is a mostly mute figure here. It’s down to the delivery of his lines, the static nature of the animation and the very obvious sense that he is just the audience’s eyes for the story who will occasionally throw a punch or fire a gun. Resleeved doesn’t do an adequate job in getting across the character that he is elsewhere: in place of development, it instead simply has Kovacs come across as mildly bored or irritated by the things that are happening around him. Holly, the tattooist, is the only character who has something resembling a journey, but the efforts to promote a father/daughter relationship between Kovacs and her isn’t executed properly.
There is an intriguing mystery in here somewhere. What does a yakuza tattooist have to do with their ancient traditions that has her in danger? Who do these Samurai cyborgs work for exactly? What role do tattoos have in the succession ceremony of the yakuza?Why does the interplanetary security force have an interest? And what is their operative hiding? These are all worthwhile questions, but Resleeved doesn’t do the requisite heavy lifting to make most of the answers that you will receive in anyway satisfying, especially in regards that CTAC officer, who should be the linchpin of the film’s plot, but fails to fulfill that role.
She’s here mostly for the cause of cutting people in half when she isn’t shooting them in the head, and any other semblance of a relationship between her and Kovacs goes largely by the wayside. This is especially strange considering a late-in-the-game plot twist that involves her that really should have mandated a better explored relationship between the two. But it is typical of Resleeved’s flaws that such things do not occur. You might be expecting things to get sexual between Kovacs and Gena, and from the way the animators focus on her ample bosom it certainly seems like she’s going to get naked eventually. But that’s not the nature of their interaction, but the hint of a more interesting path is all that you get.
The English voice-cast – I had to switch to the dub as the subtitles appeared so poorly-transcribed – isn’t really at the races either. You can always tell when a voice actor has a passion for the material and when they have just been hired to do a job: in Resleeved, they are here to do the job, quickly and with as little fuss as possible. That means that the only bits of emotion you are going to get are the loud and boisterous kind, be it ridiculous displays of shouted anger or the wailing of tears when something tragic goes wrong. For a film based on a TV show that is often at pains to show its characters as understated, it’s a bit of a hard thing to understand.
Resleeved still has a chance to stand out, and that is on the visual side of things. Taking plenty of cues from Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost In The Shell, it shows in its depiction of the environment that animation is a good avenue to go down for this kind of universe, with similar worlds of glittering skyscrapers and neon signs. That makes the deficiencies of Resleeved all the more glaring really. The animation is stocky and rigid in too many ways, with the characters moving in such a restrained way that they simply don’t appear human. The use of slow-mo and a sort of quasi-first person view only serve to briefly distract from this. There is a sort of video game feel to it, like you’re watching a let’s play of one of the more recent Street Fighter editions, or the Yakuza series.
A better distraction is the gore that piles up throughout the course of Resleeved, as people get blown away, chopped in half and otherwise torn to bits, in a variety of well-choreographed but ultimately kind of unsatisfying bloodbaths. There are a few notable set-pieces, like a hallway fight that looks like it might have taken a bit of inspiration from Oldboy, but Resleeved neither captures the neo-noir aesthetic of the TV show, or comes up with something suitably diverting of its own.
This effort to expand the Altered Carbon canon is a disappointment. There is essentially no part of it that excels: not its humdrum story that is derivative of what came before without improving on it at all, not its cast who seem like they do not fully understand the characters they have been asked to play, and not its animation, that is a forgettable example of the art. This really is direct-to-streaming territory in every negative sense of a term that is increasingly meaningless I suppose. I guess the quarantine had to give me a bad movie eventually, and here it is. Resleeved is one to avoid. Give the first season of Altered Carbon a re-watch instead, and don’t worry about missing out on anything here: this tie-in is pretty much superfluous, a stack not to be transferred. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).