30 Jan Netflix’s Altered Carbon
Netflix’s Altered Carbon (dropping on February 2nd), gets almost everything right. It’s a cyberpunk fantasyland that checks off all the standard items on your sci-fi shopping list: flying cars, cool guns that make heads explode, and no shortage of genetically modified strippers. Rest assured, if you find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of futuristic jargon being thrown at you in the first installment, by Episode 3 words like stacks, meths, and sleeves will become second-nature.
The show takes place in a world where technology has rendered death a thing of the past. When you die, your consciousness can be transferred into a different body, or “resleeved,” making eternal life possible. But even immortality can’t completely change human nature, as demonstrated by the Meths — the wealthy ruling class who use their money to stay young and beautiful forever. These are the kind of people who enjoy watching the less fortunate slaughter each other: Instead of Monday Night Football, there’s zero-g cage fighting.
The story centers on Takeshi Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman — a long-dead soldier brought back to life to aid a Meth named Laurens Bancroft, who has hired Kovacs to help the trillionaire solve his own murder. In stark contrast to Kinnaman’s performance in Suicide Squad, where his character was stoic and bland, Kovacs is a multilayered son of a gun. He’s basically a futuristic James Bond — think Craig, not Connery — complete with emotional baggage and a troubled past.
The re-sleeving dynamic presents interesting ethical conflicts throughout the season. Neo-Catholics hold onto the belief that humans should live only once, so downloading your memories into another body in order to live forever is out of the question. So what do you do if you need to interrogate a murder victim that doesn’t want to be brought back to life? It’s a moral quandary that leads to some impactful debates between characters.
Technology isn’t just used to achieve immortality in Altered Carbon. Artificial intelligence is a part of everyday life in the world of the show, but instead of being cutting edge, these robots are outdated and clingy. Chris Conner gives one of the show’s standout performances as an AI hotel manager named Poe, and he’s the perfect antidote for the series when it’s about to take itself too seriously. He’s the Tyrion Lannister of Altered Carbon.
While there’s a lot to like about Altered Carbon, it’s far from perfect. The intricacies of Kovacs’ investigation often get in the way of the show’s momentum — since Bancroft is such a loathsome creep, it’s hard to get too invested in who killed him.
The police storyline is another area where the show struggles to find its footing. While most of the actors in Altered Carbon are given ample opportunity to showcase their range, some of the police officers suffer from Law & Order-syndrome. Detective Ortega is one example of this — she comes off as more of a caricature and less of a real character — all bluster and no poetry.
These shortcomings aside, Altered Carbon excels in its world-building — we get a brief glimpse at ancient civilizations and interplanetary warfare, and if the series is renewed for a second season, it would benefit from less cyberpunk Sherlock Holmes and more exploration into the wider universe.
At its best, Altered Carbon is a transporting sci-fi thriller that rivals Blade Runner in the depth of its universe. Aside from a murder mystery narrative that loses steam early on, the supporting characters and socio-political issues prove engaging from beginning to end. Anchored by a riveting performance from Joel Kinnaman.