Altered Carbon Review – Netflix strikes out with a Hardboiled Cyberpunk Marvel
Altered Carbon Review
Netflix’s new show Altered Carbon is one I have been looking forward for some time. The show is an adaptation of the novel with the same from author Richard K. Morgan. Altered Carbon’s best description is as a ‘hardboiled’ cyberpunk story. Show creator Laeta Kalogridis has created what in essence is Blade Runner for the small screen. A worthy successor to a little known TV show from the 90s called Total Recall 2070. In fact, comparing Altered Carbon with either of those would underplay the terrifying depiction of a dystopian world, the special effects, storylines and sardonic humor.
Despite ticking every box the show managed to also surprise me. Altered Carbon is a cyberpunk thriller that is so rare you might well call it a Unicorn. For the first episode there is still much that overwhelms: references to drugs, technologies and events the viewer is unfamiliar with. But Altered Carbon moves on and just like Game Of Thrones or Star Trek Discovery you will quickly learn to understand.
From the opening credit onwards you have the feeling you looking at a quality high-concept show. In a future world set in the year 2384 death is a thing of the past – mostly. A person’s consciousness is stored on a chip like storage device implanted at the base of the neck. When people die their last available consciousness is ‘resleeved’ into a new body. Takeshi Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman, is a mercenary who 250 years after being killed is given a new body. Kovacs is given a choice: solve a murder or go back on ice.
Now the ‘murder’ Kovacs needs to solve is interesting. The viewer gets the first good handle onto the plot of Altered Carbon. All of the scenes beforehand are flashbacks and ‘mostly’ confusing dialogue. Instead Kovacs meets with the murder victim, the richest and oldest man in the world, Laurens Bancroft (played by James Purefoy). You see, Bancroft was also ‘resleeved’ upon his own death. But as the killer destroyed the Bancroft’s ‘stack’ an older version of his consciousness is used. The version does not know the last 48 hours before the murder. Bancroft was shot with his own weapon in a closed study. Thus the show opens with a proverbial ‘locked room’ murder mystery.
Old partners and lovers
Kovacs is hesitant to accept the case. After all – ‘Why would he?’ He used to be a violent murdering mercenary, not a police detective. The threat of being put back on ice does not dissuade him from walking away from the case – initially. Altered Carbon could have gone anywhere it wanted to, but it remains a hard-boiled police story: like Blade Runner and Total Recall 2070. And so we are introduced to the larger story with detective Kristin Ortega’s (played by Martha Higareda) investigation of the Bancroft ‘apparently-not-murder’. Before long she teams up with Kovacs – who by the way – was resleeved in her old partners/lover’s body. Along the way they are confronted by criminals, hackers, police corruption and religious zeal. Frankly too much to describe here.
Each episode is just under an hour long, and so watching the 10 episodes took me 2 binge watch sessions. My first impression after viewing is that the first half is better. I suppose when the mystery is slowly resolves the tension evaporates. But during the second half of the season there are definite brakes. Old villains get a second crack at killing Kovacs and the number of flashbacks increase. I enjoyed how these established a larger universe but they should have come earlier in the season. The plot development reminded me a lot of those Scandinavian crime shows such as ‘The Bridge’. Altered Carbon has a very densely packed story with plenty of subplots that all come together as the final episode approaches. I think the creative staff directed by Laeta Kalogridis did a masterful job adapting the source material.
Nudity and Gore
I hope you don’t mistake what ‘hardboiled’ means. Altered Carbon is worthy of mention in the same breath as Game Of Thrones and Westworld. Not least of which based on the amount of nudity, gore and dead bodies. You see in the future world of 2384 people aren’t shy. We get to see James Purefoy’s resleeved nude body early in episode 2 – a reminder of Rome. After that it becomes a game of Bingo as nearly each of the characters either has a full-frontal nudity scene or dies with limbs flying through the air.
I believe this was in keeping with the spirit of the show. In the world of Altered Carbon nudity is conveys status. The rich have ‘hard-bodies’ while the poor resleeve into decrepit 70-year old’s – or whatever is available. In fact, because of the practical immortality the rich get to watch blood sports that go to the death. It should not be surprising they do not care about amputated limbs and exploding implants. Altered Carbon thus feels very much like an HBO show on steroids.
My hat goes off to showrunner Laeta Kalogridis. People will be talking about Altered Carbon for years to come – and I can’t wait for the second season. The large ensemble cast of Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Conner as Poe, Dichen Lachman and Ato Essandoh performed fantastically. Before writing this review I first read what others were saying. One common criticism was that the special effects and cyberpunk environment dominate the story. I disagree, in fact I felt so irked by the comments I doubt those people actually watched the show. Much hyped shows such as Altered Carbon (deservedly so in this case) often attract trolls. Yet it becoming hard to recognize earlier reviewers from the trolls, especially is they want their review to stand out.
This was my Altered Carbon Review. Below you can see a larger selection of screen caps – as though you need any more persuasion.