Altered Carbon REVIEW
Airing on: Netflix, from 2 February
Showrunner: Laeta Kalogridis
Based on the novel by: Richard K Morgan
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Renée Elise Goldsberry, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Dichen Lachman, Leonardo Nam, Chris Conner
Let’s face it. If you polled a bunch of veteran screen sci-fi fans about what would make the ultimate SF movie, the result would be something along the lines of: looks like Blade Runner, with Terminator-style action, RoboCop-style black humour (and blood-splattering), a hint of Enter The Dragon and a central concept that messes with your mind like The Matrix.
That’s pretty much what you get with Altered Carbon, with the added bonus it’s a TV series, so it can take full advantage of tropes of modern binge-watch drama. This is an addictive 10-hour epic: Once Upon A Time In The Future.
Not that it’s a mere case of box-ticking. Based on the acclaimed novel by Richard K Morgan, Altered Carbon takes all these elements, hangs them on a compelling plot full of colourful characters, and refines them into an instant, hard-boiled classic. The series doesn’t rely on its influences; it builds on them and introduces its own zeitgeisty vibe into the mix.
The central conceit is a future in which human consciousness can be downloaded onto a “stack” (a flash drive for the soul, basically) which can then be inserted into different bodies, or “sleeves”. Theoretically, then, you can live forever if your stack isn’t damaged, but, of course, the rich get all the best bodies. In a poignant moment in the opening episode, a seven-year old murder victim who’s legally obliged to be given a new body ends up in the sleeve of an old woman, because that’s all that’s available.
The series continues to explore how this technological “marvel” would impact society throughout, especially in terms of religion and morality. At heart, though, this is a detective story with a very twisty-turny procedural plot. After all, in this world, one person can be murdered multiple times.
Our hero, Takeshi Kovacs, is actually a former interplanetary political “terrorist” (history is written by the victims, remember) who belonged to a group called the Envoys, renowned for their uncanny intuition and multiple body-jumping, using a technique called needlecasting. He was caught and his stack put on ice for 250 years before being awoken in a new sleeve to solve a murder by the multi-centarian, ultra-rich Laurens Bancroft; his own.
Things, of course, get very much more complicated than that, with lots of violence, nudity and torture porn thrown in. Amazingly, little of it feels gratuitous. The show is a dizzying kaleidoscope of images from an ugly-beautiful future; where great beauty fails to mask a rotten core. This is the Roman Empire on the verge of collapsing in its own decadence.
Altered Carbon is a stylish, effortlessly cool, amazing-looking series that’s bursting with ideas and memorable visuals, whether it’s a moody cityscape of a brutal fight scene. It’s also surprisingly funny; you’d think this kind of hard-as-nails sci-fi would be all dour and angsty but the cast of quirky characters provide a lot of fun; especially an AI hotel with an Edgar Allan Poe fixation and Bancroft himself, who’s amusing because he’s doesn’t appear to realise how odious he is. At the heart of all this is Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs, who has an acid line in sardonic wit and casual self-assured arrogance.
The series also keeps throwing new things at you; revelations, locations, characters. While some binge-watch series can sag as samey episodes merge into one, long plotline, each episode of Altered Carbon has its own feel; there’s the party episode, the VR torture episode, the game-changing flashback episode, etc. All the while, you’re kept on your toes as you have to accept the same characters in different bodies, and often it takes you a while to realise who’s who.
Throw in an excellent creepy animated sequence, a gimmicky fight scene in episode eight that rivals that classic bust-up in Daredevil season one and a truly creepy scene involving plague victims and you’ve got a show that refuses to stop surprising you.
It’s not perfect. As the plot becomes more complicated a few exposition scenes become heavy going. There’s a love story element that never quite gels. And the main villain’s motivations are… bizarre (would they really go to that much effort?).
But overall, this is TV sci-fi at its best.