To try and concisely summarise the plot of Altered Carbon, Netflix’s latest big budget foray into your living room, would likely take as much space as the house brick of a novel on which it is based. But the gist of it, adapting Richard Morgan’s 2002 sci-fi opus into ten tasty increments, is thus…
In the distant future human beings are equipped with a device at the base of their skull known as a “stack”. Acting as a sort of hard drive for the soul, the stack stores a person’s life, memory, and identity, collectively known as Digital Human Freight (DHF). If a person’s stack remains intact when they die, it is possible to place the stack in a new body, or “sleeve”, and for the person to carry on living with all the same memories, emotions and experiences. The technology, although available to all, is unsurprisingly controlled by the super-rich. This wealthiest one per cent – having cheated ‘real death’ for generations – are known as Meths, after the Bible’s oldest man, Methuselah.
Waking up 200 years after an interplanetary civil war, in which he was on the losing side, Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lin) finds himself in a brand new sleeve (Joel Kinnaman), with a proposition from prominent Meth Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Bancroft asks Kovacs to solve his own murder. Having backed up his stack at the last minute, Bancroft managed to avoid a ‘real death’, but now he has the tricky problem of not knowing who wanted him dead. In exchange for Kovacs’ help, Bancroft promises to use his considerable influence to pardon him, which would allow Kovacs to live a normal life in his new sleeve. And so sets in motion a murky, hard-boiled detective story that might owe a debt to Blade Runner and classic crime noir, but is also loaded to bursting point with its own fascinating ideas, beautiful design and existential turmoil.
To get the similarities out of the way, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the influence of Blade Runner. However, that might really say more about how monumentally influential Ridley Scott’s classic is on the genre as a whole, than anything else. Blade Runner, like Star Wars and Dune, has left such a mark on the genre that it’s almost impossible to avoid its influence (directly or indirectly) in any post-82 dystopian sci-fi. Superficially, Altered Carbon might invite those immediate Blade Runner comparisons, but once it unveils its intricate root system of a plot and leads you down a rabbit hole of conceptually challenging science fiction, the comparisons become unimportant.
The universe Altered Carbon has created is vast and complex and bizarre. Visually, it’s not hard to see how Altered Carbon became one of Netflix’s most expensive shows, because despite the darkness and the shadow, it is dazzling. Neon cityscapes stretch to the horizon and gaudy holographic adverts invade the senses. Fans of grimy, seedy sci-fi will relish exploring all the details the world of Altered Carbon has to offer.
On the acting front, Joel Kinnaman is excellent as Takeshi Kovacs (a character he shares, via flashback and memory, with Will Yun Lee, who is also great). He is a bewildered, tortured presence; one that Kinnaman calibrates perfectly. He’s a Chandler-esque gumshoe, sniffing out double-crosses and trying to get to the bottom of a dense and multi-faceted investigation, while being simultaneously tortured by his past. Kovacs wakes to a future that reviles his old life and belief system; living among his enemies in a time so far removed from his own, his struggle becomes meaningless.
James Purefoy is a perfect rich jerk as Laurens Bancroft. We’re never sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy, but even in his good guy moments, we never really like him. And Martha Higareda turns in an impressive performance as Kristin Ortega, the local police officer charged with investigating Kovacs and his involvement with Bancroft, who soon becomes embroiled in the murder plot as every investigative thread intertwines with each other. Ortega is tough, with a troubled history, and Higareda nails it.
Finally, there is able support from Ato Essandoh as Kovac’s friend Vernon, himself tortured by his own personal vendetta against Bancroft, and Chris Conner as Poe, who is not just the Artificial Intelligence who runs Kovac’s hotel… he is the hotel, building included. The latter is an intriguing and fun idea that initially seems too oddball to work, but once you’ve wrapped your head around it, feels as natural as anything else in the Carbon universe. Throughout the series there are a number of other A.I. characters tripling up as person, business and physical location.
As we learn more about Kovacs and the world he inhabits, Altered Carbon asks us to consider not only our mortality, but existence itself. There has been much great science fiction centred around the nature of life. A recent example, Ex-Machina, asked us to think about the point at which artificial intelligence should be considered alive. Can a machine truly live? While Altered Carbon asks us almost the same thing in reverse – asking, is it our organic body that defines us? It asks us to think about the essence of life, answering humankind’s eternal quest to define the soul by suggesting that not only is it finally tangible, but it can be digitally coded, stored and plonked down just about anywhere. Our bodies are superfluous, but our soul / DHF can be eternal.
We get a religious perspective, too. Altered Carbon’s Neo-Catholic religion, which believes transferring a stack to a new body is a sin, thus preventing the subject from entering heaven, offers a prominent counter argument to the seemingly utopian concept of living forever. A character in the latter half of the series refers to Meths as Gods because they cheat real death and extend life to potentially infinite lengths (even if it is largely because of their accumulated wealth), and by his purely technical definition, he is not wrong.
There’s more than just a philosophical brouhaha going on here. Altered Carbon also gives us a bit of social commentary with the (not unreasonable) assumption that, 300 years into the future, capitalism will not die. The general population lives in the dank, neon illuminated streets of the ground, while the elite Meths are an upper class – literally, living in towers high amongst the clouds. The richest one per cent controls the tech while the rest fight for the scraps. This is illustrated in Altered Carbon’s universe by the fact Meths can grow clones and cultivate perfect, attractive, super-healthy sleeves, while the majority makes do. They get what’s available, regardless of health, age, gender or race, sometimes finding themselves in inappropriate sleeves (dead children ‘spun up’ into middle-aged bodies, for example). Additionally, since ‘sleeve death’ in this universe is equivalent to a prang in an automobile, we get a snarling dig at privatised healthcare when a dying character is told to wait their turn because they have no insurance.
There are a couple of minor problems.There’s a lot of rewinding required if you want to fully absorb everything and understand every reference. The labyrinthine plot needs a lot of levers, pulleys and mechanisms to get the narrative winding, twisting and stretching. Characters will refer to some occurrence or piece of tech once, and then leap into extended conversation, requiring the audience to be alert and on their toes. This is not bad thing as such, and viewers will be able to get by with letting certain bits and pieces of plot-related dialogue slide, but for those who are enamoured with this dystopian future and are keen to soak up every detail, it might be an idea to keep a glossary on hand. Altered Carbon does also suffer from Mumbly Dialogue Syndrome at times, which can be infuriating when nuance and detail is everything.
Beyond that, Altered Carbon delivers just about everything else required from modern sci-fi. It doesn’t dumb things down and dives head first into a wild, crazy universe. It’s exciting and violent when it needs to be, but is thoughtful and contemplative in its quieter moments. With the ingenuity of the world building and complexity of plot, Altered Carbon should appeal to fans of both science fiction and genre crime, and as such, its boundless invention comes highly recommended.