‘Devs’ and ‘Altered Carbon’ Bring Back the Cyberpunk

The spirit of the 90s is alive in 2020

Everything old is new again, and 90’s trends are now roaring back to life not only in fashion (or so my wife tells me), but also on our screens. We might have to wait until next year for Matrix 4. But in the meantime, late 20th century sci-fi fans who appreciate not just kung-fu mayhem and bullet-time gunplay but also some good old-fashioned mindfuckery will have plenty to chew on during self-quarantine with a new crop of shows joining the fray, particularly the second season of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and a new TV offering, Devs, by sci-fi master Alex Garland, now airing on FX/Hulu.

Altered States

Like many, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the second season of Altered Carbon since the first season debuted two years ago. Surely, I thought, twenty-four months would be plenty of time for the writers and showrunner to conjure a suitable follow-up to a show that paid homage to Richard K. Morgan’s popular Takeshi Kovacs novels and then some. It was pretty much everything fans of the books could hope for, a suitably hard-boiled futuristic detective story with a twisty mystery, beautifully dark visuals, a premise rife with metaphysical rabbit holes, a smirking sense of levity, and, naturally, oodles of sex and violence.

In the future, its conceit goes, people can upload their consciousness to digital “stacks,” which can then be reimplanted into another body should the first one meet an untimely demise. But despite a complicated premise, it rarely felt overwrought or confusing. Could the second season live up to such a stylish, sexy, ultimately thrilling debut?

Altered Carbon

 

Season two of Altered Carbon takes place thirty years after the first, in which we find our antihero Takeshi Kovacs masquerading in the body of a female Asian lounge singer. It was a nice reveal, and a reminder that in this world, rarely are people who they appear. That soon changes with a bullet to the back courtesy of a new character, a bounty hunter named Trepp, who dusts Kovac’s lady sleeve to digitally bring him into a meeting with one of the future’s uber-rich 1%, here known as “meths.” (After Methuselah, because of their longevity. It’s corny, I know.)

As in season one, the meth patron has a job suitable only for ultimate badass Kovacs, and a spiffy new sleeve as well, in the form of MCU-swole Anthony Mackie, which of course has plenty of sweet cybernetic upgrades. Should he take the gig, Kovacs stands to learn the whereabouts of the love of his life, scientist/revolutionary Quellchrist Falconer. Problem is, when Kovacs spins up into this jacked new body, he finds that everyone in the room, including his benefactor, is extremely dead.

With that, the game is afoot, and at the outset it appears to be a grand start. Kovacs has a new mystery to solve, and quickly assembles alliances both old and new. There’s the bounty hunter Trepp, whose cybernetic coils prove useful, as well as our old friend Poe, the artificial intelligence played so wonderfully in season one by Chris Connor. Sadly, Poe isn’t in great shape since we last saw a zealot mercilessly disintegrating himat the end of last season. He’s taken to the odd programming glitch from time to time in addition to his default mode of existential ennui.

Luckily for Poe, he finds a new friend in another A.I., a plucky “archeolog” program known as Dig 301. The rag-tag crew soon finds itself in the crosshairs of Danica Harlan, current leader of their planet Harlan’s World, and a transparently unctuous, power-hungry political type, as well as the Protectorate’s ur-stormtrooper, Carrera, who we later learn to be Jaeger, the baddie from last season who first trained Kovacs for the Protectorate. Just as before, he’s all glowering menace and misanthropy, but now he also has wolf DNA for some reason. Don’t ask questions, just go with it.

As the plot unfolds, we learn that somebody is melting the brains right out of meths, deleting their consciousness backups in the process, which isn’t a very popular notion with the upper crust. It’s also unpopular with Kovacs when he learns that the person responsible is none other than his own beloved Quellcrist Falconer. So now we have Kovacs trying to figure out why Falconer is murdering the elite, and the elite government and military types go on the hunt for Kovacs and Falconer with a few ulterior motives stuffed in their moneybags.

Too Much
Anthony Mackie in Altered Carbon, Season 2
Anthony Mackie in Altered Carbon, Season 2

That’s about as straightforward as one can begin to describe the plot of this season before things get so complex that a quick and dirty review can’t describe them with a sense of alacrity without sounding utterly bananas. And this, sadly, is where Altered Carbon starts to run into trouble. Where season one was a fairly straightforward sci-fi detective noir in the vein of Blade Runner with a little Wachowski action chucked in, season two doubles down on the body switching, memory delving, time-hopping, artificial construct exploring and consciousness shenanigans so fast that it’s almost immediately disorienting.

By episode three I felt I needed a refresher course in who was who, when was when, who was in what body at what time, and how all the constantly moving pieces fit together. I figured it out, but I also remembered that it didn’t take quite as much effort the first time around.

Despite the dense, confusing plot, the season has plenty to sink your teeth into, if you’re willing to let some irksome and nonsensical stuff slide. About halfway through the run, we get a return of Will Yun Lee as “Kovacs Prime,” ie. a version of Takeshi spun up in his original body with a consciousness that dates to his time before joining up with Falconer, back when he was just a good ole’ bloodthirsty CTAC goon. This “double sleeving” is a highly illegal and problematic thing in the world of Altered Carbon, and it’s easy to see why. Having to put up with a younger version of oneself has to be about the most unbearable thing in this universe next to a round or two of virtual torture or being trapped in a “trauma loop.”

It makes for a surprisingly evocative scene when the two Takeshis get a little space to catch up and argue with himself/themselves, something albeit done much better by multiple Paul Rudds recently in Living With Yourself, less so in Will Smith’s Gemini Man.

To be fair, season two is full of action, and the fight choreography is appropriately slick, but it lacks the narrative and emotional urgency of similar scenes in season one. Similarly lacking this time around is that sense of sarcasm and winky irony played so perfectly in Kovacs by the role’s previous inhabitant, Joel Kinnaman. Nowhere in this second season is a moment nearly as funny as in season one, when we’re treated to Detective Ortega’s kindly abuela being spun up into the body of a hulking, tattooed thug for Dia de los Muertos. There’s plenty of moody brooding, though. This season has lots of that.

As we finally get to the end of the season and unspool all the plot threads to find the center of this gloomy labyrinth, it turns out the true villain of the story is…aliens? That look like dragons? And can also possess people, liquify brains and telepathically reign down terror with superweapons? Oy. You can almost hear the bong water rippling in the writers’ room.

At the end, most of the pitfalls that Altered Carbon’s first season deftly leapt over come roaring back with a vengeance here, and we seem to find ourselves dropping into nearly all of them. It’s still fun, no doubt, but not nearly as compelling or cool as season one, which is a shame. The show has so much potential and a large following, the only hope is that they’ll learn from their mistakes if and when we get a season three. Should that happen, I pray the writers take my last note here: More cyberpunk detective noir, fewer alien dragons.

The Secret of Devs
Devs
Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman star in “Devs”.

On the complete opposite end of the sci-fi spectrum, we have Alex Garland’s gorgeously creepy new show Devs, the first two episodes of which dropped last week. While Devs might lack in leather trench coats, fully automatic space rifles and bullet time face kicks, it wholly makes up for in an ambitious premise, a haunting score, artful direction, and a weird haircut for star Nick Offerman.

Devs is the kind of “thinky” science fiction that has more in line with low budget cerebral genre classics like Solaris, Pi, and Primer than with action-filled blockbusters in which everything explodes constantly and the body count is in the trillions. An enigmatic tech billionaire named Forest, here played by a taciturn, rheumy-eyed Offerman, looking like a mid-career Brian Wilson after going off all his meds, is at the core of the story. Forest is the head of a giant tech company, Amaya, that has something to do with quantum computing, and a Google-style Silicon Valley campus centered around an seriously creepy giant statue of Forest’s dead daughter.

And at the center of the center is a clandestine program shrouded in secrecy called “Devs.” What is it? Nobody knows, not even the Russians, and it turns out they’re trying pretty hard to find out.

After first dialing the mood to “beautiful but unsettling” with some seemingly unrelated life scenes and mood music a la Koyaanisqatsi, the series begins as we follow Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman), both smart young employees at Amaya. Sergei has a big presentation to make to the company’s grand poobah, and Lily wishes him luck. Sounds fairly straightforward, until we get to the big meeting, in which Sergei demonstrates an AI that can predict the precise movements of a worm thirty seconds into the future, and Offerman’s Forest takes a keen interest while shoving what appears to be raw salad into his mouth with his hands. We get it: the man is a genius but lacks certain social graces. Nerds be like that, right?

Forest approves of Sergei’s work, albeit dismayed the program only works for thirty seconds. We get a hint into the nature of both Forest and Devs when he asks Sergei to theorize what went wrong, and Sergei chalks it up to a bifurcation in multiverse, a theory we find Forest is definitely not a fan of, and we soon learn why. Still, he offers the promising young programmer a position at Devs, which Sergei gladly accepts.

Pay No Attention to the Devs Behind the Curtain

Here, we get our first glimpse behind the curtain at this super-secret gazillion-dollar project. After passing through a literal forest, we find, in essence, a giant golden machine. What does it do? Forest plays coy, plopping Sergei in front of a monitor filled with code in the heart of the gold cube and asking him to figure it out. Not only does he do just that, he decides to capture some of the gold code on his spy wristwatch, because–surprise!–Sergei is a Russian agent who’s been playing the long game to get some sweet corporate espionage.

Before he’s able to spirit the info back to his handlers, though, the jig is swiftly up for Sergei. The following confrontation between Sergei and Offerman is our first hint at what’s really going on at Amaya. “The universe,” says Forest cryptically, “is deterministic. It’s godless and neutral, and defined only by physical laws…An effect is always the result of a prior cause. The life we lead, in all its apparent chaos, is actually a life on tram lines. Prescribed. Undeviating. Deterministic.” And then, unceremoniously, Forest has his chief of security Kenton (Zach Grenier) suffocate the young Russian spook with a plastic bag, and we watch in terror as Sergei struggles for breath like a trout on the deck of a fishing boat. It’s appropriately horrifying.

So, what’s up with Forest’s spiel? Is it the kind of pseudo-philosophical hooey that writers use to make themselves sound smart? The answer is yes and no, but mostly no. To his credit, the premise that Garland chooses here is a sound one, and an old one that I spent the better part of two years exploring for my thesis as a philosophy studentt: causal determinism and free will.

If the universe is a closed deterministic system, the theory goes, then the future is as set in stone and irrevocable as the past, and free will is simply a very convincing illusion. The idea here is that Forest has created a machine that can quantify prior data (causes) to extrapolate future effects (events). It is, in essence, a quantum I Ching that can predict the future, although you can’t do anything to change it. In fact, anything you do in attempt to change things still results in them turning out as predicted. Pretty cool idea, really. But the implications are even cooler, and scarier, and more depressing.

Freed from the burden of free will, and hence any conventional sense of morality, things can get dark fast. Lily is understandably upset with Sergei’s disappearance, and it’s not long before Devs treats us to video of her boyfriend casually immolating himself with a can of gasoline, as calm and collected as a protesting Buddhist monk. Now wracked with grief, she goes on the hunt to find out who killed her boyfriend, while Forest and his right hand man go about covering their tracks. This leads to the involvement of the Russians, but of course the Devs are one step ahead of the game, seeing that they have a cyber Delphic oracle at their disposal.

At the end of episode two, we get another gruesome bit of violence as Kenton has a tete-a-tete with Sergei’s Russian handler, ending in a jarring neck snap for the latter and a stabbing for the former. The violence in Devs doesn’t appear often, but when it does, it’s alarmingly brutal and realistic, which somehow makes it more effective and difficult to watch than Takeshi Kovacs mowing down an entire room full of faceless Protectorate soldiers in ten seconds.

With the rest of Devs’s first season to unfold, we have yet to find out if the premise will hold, or if the show will disappear up its own philosophical rear end. I find it safe to say that it’s definitely off to a good start. Garland’s prowess as a writer and director, as evidenced in his films Ex Machina and the woefully underappreciated Annihilation, not only translate well to the television medium, but also give us a TV show unlike anything around right now. It has that moody, unsettling, thought-provoking feel only Alex Garland can evoke.

The sound design is particularly effective, lending a discomfort to the scenes that keeps us constantly on edge. Episode two gives us a little more of the other Devs as they explore the capabilities and moral implications of the machine, and it should be interesting to see how those characters develop, including one programmer played with unnerving detachment by Alison Pill.

As for the show’s premise of deterministic tram lines, I’m crossing my fingers that Garland uses it to further the story and deepen the mystery. When sci-fi movies, books and TV shows get too self-involved with their philosophical musings and less concerned with plot and character, they soon find themselves losing touch with the thing that made them so appealing in the first place, all too evidenced in the second season of Altered Carbon. Should that happen here, it would surely and sadly put Devs in the one place it really doesn’t want to be:

Off the rails.

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Scott Gold

Scott Gold is the author of The Shameless Carnivore: A Manifesto for Meat Lovers, a selection of which was excerpted in Best Food Writing 2008. His writing has appeared in numerous publications both in print and online, including Gourmet, Edible Brooklyn, Thrillist, Eater, Tasting Table, Time Out, and OffBeat, and he has served as a feature food writer and photographer for The New Orleans Advocate, restaurant critic and dining writer for Gambit, and resident “food pornographer” for the New Orleans arts and culture website NolaVie.com. In 2016, Gold served as the "national bacon critic" for Extra Crispy. His radio essays have also been featured on “Louisiana Eats!” with Poppy Tooker, and as a correspondent for WWNO’s “All Things New Orleans.

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