Netflix has been knocking it out of the park lately. Between success with the Marvel Universe, smash hit anime series like Devilman Crybaby, and numerous live action series too, Netflix has become a production juggernaut and is making a name for itself as a studio to be reckoned with.
Altered Carbon, based on a novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, seeks to be the next in their rapid fire chain of hits.
Taking inspiration from Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Deus Ex, Altered Carbon takes place in a far off Cyberpunk future where the discovery of alien materials has granted humanity the ability to, ostensibly, live forever.
A person’s mind – their memories, personality, and essentially their soul – can be downloaded onto a piece of hardware called a “stack”, placed in the back of a person’s neck. When that person dies, their stack can be placed in a different body, called a “sleeve”, and never truly die. However, if a person’s stack is destroyed, they face “RD” (Real Death). This is a fascinating setup with oodles of story potential, and Altered Carbon takes full advantage.
The world of Altered Carbon is so rich and full of detail that to delve completely into it would take all day, but suffice to say it’s teeming with life. This feels like a world that has been lived in, and more importantly, lived in TOO long; because, as the story unfolds, we find out that immortality has many unforeseen consequences.
The story follows Takeshi Kovacs, an orphan boy recruited by the military who (without spoiling anything) ends up joining a team of resistance fighters called ‘Envoys’. The ‘Envoys’ plan to take over the oppressive government and the immortals in charge of it, because sleeves are not cheap. The rich and powerful can clone themselves and face virtually no physical ramifications of never dying. This means that the poor (which is 99% of everyone else) are forever ruled by a class of individuals (known as ‘Meths’) who are basically gods – they even live in the clouds.
Takeshi has been ‘on ice’ (meaning not having a sleeve, essentially being in a coma) until he is brought back in a new body (played by Joel Kinnaman) to solve the murder of the richest man in the world, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). This basic (and very film noir) premise quickly spirals into many branching paths that all feed into the main story, but tell us about other parts of the world and the people that Takeshi encounters on his mission. These include a hard nosed detective named Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a former soldier named Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), and an AI construct named Poe (Chris Conner) modeled after the poet of the same name.
Altered Carbon takes no time in addressing the fact that Takeshi (an Asian man) is now trapped in a white man’s body, but it does so in a way that makes sense in the world without feeling pandering. This is a world where people end up in all different kinds of bodies, many times not even close to what they were born in. The show feels very diverse by design, and the cast does as well, sporting strong and likable characters of all different colors, creeds, and genders. Everybody does an incredible job in their roles, including Kinnaman, who, after Suicide Squad, you may not be expecting much from, but he plays the role of the hard edged film noir detective almost perfectly.
Every episode has equal parts world building and bombastic action scenes, with set pieces ranging from a virtual torture chamber and a shootout in a hotel lobby, to an absolutely outstanding final action sequence. And visually, the show looks gorgeous – Netflix clearly went all out on its budget to provide the kind of effects to really sell a futuristic sci fi world, and all the outlandish tech and insanity that accompanies it.
While the show does manage to avoid the typical ‘Netflix Crawl’ that usually kicks in halfway through a season, where you feel as though they’re dragging it out to seemingly fill a specific episode count, there are a few points here that do seem a little sluggish and drawn out for too long.
Altered Carbon is a wonderful cyberpunk/sci fi/film noir adventure that is a treat for the eyes and the mind, delivering amazing visuals, thought provoking ideas, and strong characters. It’s unconfirmed as of yet at time of publishing whether we’ll get a season 2, but with two more books as source material ready for adaptation, there’s plenty left to explore. 4 stars.
Altered Carbon is streaming on Netflix now.