Altered Carbon

‘Altered Carbon’ Is a Mind-Bending, Futuristic Story of Film Noir and Cyberpunk

Based on the first book in Richard K. Morgan's 'Takeshi Kovacs' trilogy, 'Altered Carbon' gives viewers a somber science-fiction series to watch on Netflix.
February 14, 2018
7 mins read

Set 300 years in the future, the new Netflix series titled “Altered Carbon” shows that humans have discovered how to cheat death. Each person uploads their consciousness onto a disc, known as a “stack,” in the back of their necks.

As long as no one destroys the stack, the owner can insert the disc into a different body if needed. The stack-less bodies, which are called “sleeves,” are oddly used as bartering chips. The strange form of currency brings up a lot of social and ethical issues.

Technically, anyone can be immortal, but of course, the wealthiest citizens have access to the high-quality sleeves. The wealthy characters in the show are known as METHS — which is an acronym for the Biblical figure Methuselah — and have the first pick of the bodies they want to use to implant their stacks.

For those without money, they get government-sponsored bodies. For instance, in one eerie and heartbreaking scene, the parents of a teenager lose their daughter in a car accident, and she comes back in a middle-aged woman’s body. The event emphasizes the concept of wealth inequality as technology progresses.

Based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, “Altered Carbon” follows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a rebel soldier who has been reanimated into a new sleeve. Kovacs is hired by one of the wealthiest men on Earth, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), to solve Bancroft’s own murder.

If Kovacs can figure out who murdered Bancroft, he will become a free man. Meanwhile, Bancroft can back up his consciousness into a secure satellite server, which means even if someone destroys his stack, he can still live in another body.

One of the best parts of the “Altered Carbon” series is the incorporation of the darkly delightful proprietor of The Raven Hotel: Poe, named of course after the famous poet Edgar Allen Poe. The hotel is replete with tacky décor, and Poe (Chris Conner) is totally in character with his elegant, dusty black suit, his cravat and his huge, forlorn and wise eyes.

Poe loves humans and goes out of his way to understand and fulfill their questions and desires. He even begins to read famous 20th century detective stories to help Kovacs try to solve a real-life murder mystery. The homage to Poe is a delightful incorporation into the show.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote some of the most famous gothic novels and poems, but experts also credit him with being the father of the modern detective story. His most famous work of that genre is the short story titled “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Oddly, the Poe’s AI character appears the most human, even though he’s a hotel. Basically, he’s a refuge in this blood-soaked, dreary dystopian future of sex, neon, rain and flying body parts.

‘Altered Carbon’ has an impressive setting that truly captures the tone of the show (Image via Collider)

Also featured in the series is gratuitous sex and nudity; it’s everywhere, which can ultimately take away from the storyline’s flow. But according to Laeta Kalogridis (Avatar), this in-your-face sex and nudity serve a purpose.

She equates the imagery of human bodies to wasted natural resources. She says, “Our worst instincts as human beings have to do with our carelessness with natural resources. How will we treat it? Will we treat it with such indifference…that it becomes more like a very fancy car than a repository of the self?” Though she makes a good point, I’m not sure if most viewers will glean this message from watching the show, but let’s take her word for it.

The similarities between “Altered Carbon,” “Blade Runner” and “Blade Runner 2049” are undeniable. “Altered Carbon,” like both of its “Blade Runner” predecessors, is a world of neon, grim cityscapes, flying cars, sexy and deadly glowing-eyed beauties, ever-present rain and fog and an eccentric millionaire at the helm of all the characters’ fates.

As a result of the gloomy, innovative setting, one of the most impressive aspects of “Altered Carbon” is the spectacular visual displays. It’s clear that the production designers wanted to create a fearsome, futuristic landscape to go along with the show’s intense characters and sobering storyline. Netflix spared no expense with “Altered Carbon,” hiring Emmy-winning “Game of Thrones” director Miguel Sapochnik and reportedly topping out with the highest budget so far for any Netflix series or show.

It’s almost a shame that “Altered Carbon” won’t be shown on the big screen, so make sure you watch it on a really high-end TV and not on your phone or tablet. After all, the visual and special effects are truly something to behold and appreciate.

Though the producers crafted the ambiance impeccably, the show still stumbles in some parts, and it tends to ask questions that it can’t really answer. That said, it does cover themes that are tried and true by asking if are humans inherently violent and if humanity can ever evolve into a species not bent on destruction and greed.

Also, in case you were wondering, “Altered Carbon” does rely on the old bells and whistles of over-the-top action and sci-fi movies. In fact, it’s downright ridiculous at certain times.

It is, however, redeemed by its sleek and marvelous set production. Fortunately, “Altered Carbon” manages to avoid the pitfalls of CGI, and it’s reminiscent of the Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogies in its cinematic beauty and artistic execution.

Since Morgan’s  Takeshi Kovacs series is a trilogy that includes “Altered Carbon,” “Broken Angels” and “Woken Furies,” viewers are already wondering if there will be a second season of the new show. While nothing has been confirmed yet, the show’s star, Joel Kinnaman, says, “We have no idea what the second season would be, but my guess is that they would follow the two other books, and they are all on completely different planets, completely different worlds…and that it’s going to be sort of an anthology show.”

That said, it’s clear from the positive reviews on the first season that Netflix would likely be even more successful if it were to create more seasons involving the other two books. In the meantime, you can only hope they get re-sleeved.

Overall, “Altered Carbon” is a satisfying show that is definitely worthy binging. The performances by Joel Kinnaman, Will Yun Lee, Martha Higareda and James Purefoy are superb.

The major characters manifest intensity and malevolence, and at times, glaring pitfalls of being human. The compelling plot twists and rad characters, as well as the glorious special effects, will keep you hitting the “play next episode” button until you finish the series in record time.

Miranda Maples, University of Tennessee

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Miranda Maples

University of Tennessee Knoxville

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