In 1982 the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott brought to audiences a new genre of movies – the neo-noir science fiction thriller that paved the way for many to follow its style. In 2017 the sequel Blade Runner 2049 by Denis Villeneuve was heralded a successful return to that, bringing a blend of a dystopian dirty future full of technology but being manipulated by much larger corporations for their own wealth. Fans of those films will then be very keen to feast upon Altered Carbon, the new Netflix sci-fi series based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.
Altered Carbon is set in the future, where human consciousness has been converted and stored digitally into “stacks” that can then be downloaded into new bodies which they now call “sleeves” allowing them to survive physical death. Think of the human body as a meat suit, and your personality and memories being on a USB stick that you can then plug ‘n; play. Now obviously this being an anti-utopian future you have your obvious class issues, where the rich (dubbed “meths” after the Old Testament long lived Methuselah) can afford to theoretically live forever by buying “newer” or “better” sleeves, whilst the poor get the scrappy used leftovers. All of this makes for a pretty twisted time period where not everything is quite as it seems.
We are introduced to Takeshi Kovacs (predominantly played by Joel Kinnaman), a former rebel and super soldier Envoy who has been revived and recruited by meth billionaire Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to investigate a murder …. Bancroft’s own.
The main story follows the mystery of what happened to Bancroft, however it also delves into piecing together Takeshi Kovacs and who he was. We are introduced to Quell (Renee Elise Goldsberry) a mysterious leader of a rebellion long since passed and Reileen (Dichen Lachman), Kovacs’ sister, both of these women are key figures in his past. Whilst in his present predicament he ends up uncomfortably partnering with no-bullshit detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) to try to solve the crime.
As the show progresses, Kovacs must dredge deeper into Bancroft’s life and the last 48 hours before he died but along the way he will discover the sleeve he’s wearing comes with its own troublesome past that he needs to uncover too.
The series may share a lot of style similarities to Blade Runner or Dark City, however by its very tv nature prefers to probe into a variety of issues. Identity of self and existentialism. If your “soul” is simply digitised memories, how much of your physical body plays into your identity? Kovacs initially struggles and fights against his new physical identity, as someone born Asian he ends up in a Caucasian body. This of course also plays into some arguments surrounding the whitewashing of the character which show creator Laeta Kalogridis addressed by also casting two separate Asian actors, Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann, to play other versions of Kovacs in the past. It’s certainly not as affronting as what was done in the 2017 Ghost In The Shell film that garnered some backlash. Particularly since the source material itself even addresses this as a theme unto itself.
Another prickly topic, that of religion and faith, Catholics in this alternate world refuse to be re-sleeved believing their soul to go to Heaven making them targets for murder so their bodies can be recycled. The police want to be able to “spin them up” so they can testify, but then that goes against their religious freedoms. The rich, the poor and the ever widening social class divide are more of a problem than looming manipulative corporations. The fact that longevity and immortality (or near enough to it) is what has destabilised this society is a surprising twist on our fascination for the fountain of youth. The rich decadently feast upon tiger meat, while prostitutes are being murdered. It might sound like a lot to take in but the show does a brilliant job examining these topics by subjecting our characters to these and framing their responses. As you can probably guess, it’s not all fun and games in this future, blood is spilt a lot.
For those not familiar with the source material, it can be a little jarring to wrap your head around, “sleeves”, “meths”, “stacks”, but once you get acclimated to this it becomes fairly straight forward to follow along. Visually the series does a great job of dumping you into this world, it’s grimy, it’s dirty, it’s bleak despite all the neon lights, and there’s a distinct feeling that for all the technological advances, humanity is still struggling to survive. The show also doesn’t shy away from its graphically violent and sexual origins either, on occasion it can make you a little squeamish but this is cyberpunk after all. The casting choices in the show are surprising but excellent, Joel Kinnaman finally gets to sink his teeth into a role with more layers than an onion and he’s arresting to watch. It’s phenomenal to see three tenacious women playing significant roles too, Higareda, Lachman and Goldsberry all get their share of physical action and intriguing character arcs. And the other notable performances by Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Hayley Law, Waleed Zuaiter, Tahmoh Penikett, and Hiro Kanagawa, whilst Chris Conner playing Poe the artificially intelligent concierge of The Hotel Raven was a personal favourite. The future may be bleak but at least here it’s full of all racial colours, creeds, genders and sexualities represented on screen.
Altered Carbon is a nuanced and detailed look into a future that on the outside might look shiny and promising, but on the inside is tortured and twisted. It challenges our hopes for a promising future by asking if we were given a second chance, would we, could we use it wisely? Even though this is a small screen take on the cyberpunk noir crime thriller, it’s no less diminished by being a television series, in fact it’s elevated because of its ability to dive deep into its genre where a film may have only settled on the surface.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Altered Carbon Season One will be available globally to stream on Netflix from 2nd February 2018.