Netflix’s gritty ten-episode cyperpunk series Altered Carbon depicts a world in which humanity is all but immortal because the human consciousness–and maybe even its soul–can be digitized and downloaded into devices called Stacks, embedded in their spinal columns since age one. It stars Joel Kinnaman, Martha Higareda, James Purefoy, Ato Essandoh, Dichen Lachman, and Chris Conner, with Laeta Kalogridis showrunning.
Based on Richard K. Morgan’s book of the same name, Altered Carbon follows Takeshi Kovacs, a former terrorist and murderer, through multiple different timelines in his life. In the present day, it’s 2384, and Kovacs has been re-sleeved (his Stack has been placed into a new body–Joel Kinnaman’s) after 250 years on ice. He’s been revived to help one of the ultra-wealthy “Meths” (short for Methuselah–you know, the guy in the Bible who lived for 969 years) solve his murder. This Meth, Laurens Bancroft (James Purfoy), was killed, but his Stack survived. The problem is, he was killed just before he backed himself up, so his murderer remains at large.
At its heart, this is a noir detective story, couched within a tale of immortality and existentialism. It’s got all the trademarks, from voiceovers to sharp camera angles to femme fatale upon femme fatale. Kovacs is promised the ultimate reward upon providing Bancroft with his solution: infinite wealth, a pardon for all his past crimes, and a new sleeve with a new life in any city or planet he desires. Or he can go back on ice indefinitely. Kovacs is ostensibly a man with no attachments, with nothing to lose. He states and restates this throughout the series, but as he moves forward it’s clear he doesn’t feel this way. He goes out of his way to help those around him, to inspire followers with his own brand of cynical, near-nihilistic justice, and with a dogged penchant to discover the truth, regardless of the consequences.
Truth be told, I’m condensing an immensely complex storyline into just a paragraph, but the revelations as we dig deeper beyond Takashi’s surface layers and into his past are unpredictable and shocking at times. We follow him as a young boy (Morgan Gao) and an adult, pre-Kinnaman-sleeving (Will Yun Lee), learning more about what makes this hardened terrorist tick. And he’s surprisingly relatable and believable. What’s more, despite the shallow-thinking critics who dismiss Kinnaman’s casting as more Great Wall-esque whitewashing, the story is about that conflict. It’s about the insanity of re-sleeving. We even have gender-swapped re-sleeving. Before people get up in arms, they should really think about the content, because there’s a point being made here, and it’s a deep one. More than just a murder mystery, Altered Carbon begins to unpack the philosophical implications of humanity having immortality at its fingertips.
One understandable criticism that many have levelled at Altered Carbon is the nudity. And there is a good deal of that. My answer to those critics: look at Westworld. The reasoning behind the nudity in Altered Carbon is precisely the same as that in HBO’s brilliant critical darling. What’s more, I believe that Altered Carbon is generally more pure in that aim. Westworld boasts a shocking amount of nudity, most of which (not counting the stupid, titillation-only orgy toward the end of the first season) is present with the aim at demonstrating the dehumanizing effect that such a place would have. Moreover, when the Westworld technicians are working on the androids, the nudity is almost clinical. In general–in general–this is true for Altered Carbon as well, but even more.
Altered Carbon aims at exposing the dark heart of humanity’s search for immortality. Those rich enough to re-sleeve themselves are going to push for technological advancements for their sleeves. They’ll stop seeing the human body as anything but, as they even call it, a sleeve. All shame goes out the window, all notions of morality are sublimated to furthering your own pleasure. After all, why not just have people fight to the death when death isn’t an actual risk? Why not brutally kill prostitutes or the random street urchin when death is merely an option or an inconvenience? Why not step on anyone and everyone for your own whims and desires? There are some critics who have looked merely at the first couple of episodes of Altered Carbon and dismissed it as a sleek piece of television–but they’ve missed the message at its heart. Humanity cannot simply be dismissed or suppressed for the pleasure of a few.
Netflix has outdone itself with the production value of Altered Carbon. It’s a beautiful piece of art with firm roots in Blade Runner. The future is dark and gritty, with a blend of English, Spanish, and Mandarin spread throughout it. Every episode is shot with care and precision. It’s really a sight to behold.
In the end, Altered Carbon is a piece of art with some solid depth. The writing is solid, with existential and ethical commentaries abounding, along with great, memorable performances, particularly from Joel Kinnamon, Dichen Lachman, Chris Conner (as a sardonic, AI-Edgar Allan Poe). There are some pacing issues, with some episodes pressing us forward into the noirish mystery and others maybe digging too much into the backstory of Takashi Kovacs–though he does have a compelling background. What impresses me more than anything else is that you could look at just about any scene and unpack it into a series of its own. A prequel would be great–not even following Kovacs, but about the development of the Stacks, or about the colonization of other worlds, or about the Bay City Police Department. The potential for an anthology series is enticing and shouldn’t be ignored!
You should certainly watch this series, but be warned: it is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. It’s raw and brutal, but with a deep heart and real meaning at its core.