Death isn’t as life-changing as it once used to be in the cyberpunk world of Altered Carbon. You can die but you now have the option to resurrect with your memories intact in a brand new body – and it doesn’t even have to be your own.
It’s based on the novel by Richard Morgan which tells the story of Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun and Byron Mann) who is of Japanese and Central-European descent. Kovacs is resurrected after a couple of centuries of being ‘dead’ to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the ultra rich elites.
Each person has what is called a ‘stack’ which records all your memories and can be transferred to another ‘sleeve’ when the body expires. If the stack is destroyed, the person experiences ‘real death’ (RD) but the ultra rich have managed to circumvent that by creating a system in which their ‘consciousness’ is uploaded to a central system. They can then download themselves into a new stack any time they wish.
It does take a seasoned sci-fi fan to navigate the world of Altered Carbon effectively as it throws you into the deep end right from the get go. You’re inundated with cyberpunk jargon and technical concepts that feel more at home in a role playing game manual than a televisions series, so don’t be alarmed if you have a ton of questions at the end of the first hyper-stylised 60 minutes.
The premise is simple enough. A ‘Meth’ (an upper elite immortal) is murdered and he hires our protagonist to solve his murder. It has all the trappings of your typical whodunnit plot where the reluctant anti-hero has to decide if he will follow the case through or be put back on ‘ice’.
The idea of marrying this with cyberpunk is reminiscent of some of the 90’s wave of PC games like Beneath a Steel Sky, Syndicate and Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon.
If films like Blade Runner, Strange Days and, yes even Johnny Mnemonic, left you wanting more from that seductive dystopian world, Altered Carbon has you covered.
The beauty of television is that is allows a much larger canvas to paint your cyberpunk world in vivid detail. What I really loved is that they actually created a believable immersive world that this is fully functional. Heck, I wouldn’t mind checking into an AI hotel for a couple days.
Action sequences have been a hallmark of many Netflix series but Altered Carbon raises the bar a notch on set pieces and fight scenes. They are frenetic and slick, which is a testament to the standard that they have achieved with series like Daredevil and The Punisher.
Stunt coordinators actually developed different fighting styles for each of the characters – Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) was more fisticuffs and brawling, while Takeshi (Joel Kinnaman) had more fluid kicks and punches.
I was pleasantly surprised that the showrunners took the time to develop and pepper their characters with quirks and random details which don’t exactly further the plot but makes for much more rounded personalities.
Take Kovacs, played by the very likeable Joel Kinnaman. It’s construed from the flashbacks that his father was abusive to both him and his sister. He still retains his surname while his sister Reileen Kawahara adopts her mother’s maiden name instead.
Even Ortega, a hardboiled, profanity-laced Mexican cop who appears in the beginning as terribly one-dimensional, is able to grow through the ten episodes to become one of the most layered characters in the series.
And this was the case for even the supporting characters like Poe (Chris Conner), Reileen (Dichen Lachman) and Quell (Renée Elise Goldsberry) which gives them a lot more depth and layers which actually makes you want to know more about them. The hallmark of a well developed character is when the audience walks away wanting to know more about them.
The God question + nudity
“Are you a believer?” is the catchphrases of one of the main villains. In a world where death is just an inconvenience, where does that leave God?
These are just some of the weighty questions at hand, all wrapped up in the moral conflict that is reflected in the characters who grapple with these issues in their daily lives. The world has changed since Death has been defeated and Altered Carbon shows us what it might just be like to live in a world like that.
There is a lot of both male and female nudity in this series which plays into the premise of being to inhabit different bodies at any one time. There is a lot of sex as well and a general inhibition that comes with being able to live forever (if you can afford it).
I have to hand it to the producers, who managed to create visually arresting fight sequences like that pivotal fight scene which takes place in the nude.
You could throw out the cyberpunk dressing and even the action sequences, and what you are still left with is a solid story told to precision. The television format allows for us to grow with the characters, which makes us a lot more invested.
Good science fiction should always challenge the human condition and be introspective. It should posis all the what-ifs that inspire us to understand our own humanity a little better. Altered Carbon is one of the first television series I’ve encountered which does all that while still making it appealing to the general audience.
I would rank this on the same level as The Expanse, although the treatment is rather different. But they both challenge what it means to be human in a smart and intellectual way.
That and Takeshi’s “Hello Unicorn” backpack…
Altered Carbon is streaming on Netflix now.