Sex, drugs, non-stop action. There is so much to love about Netflix’s new sci-fi headliner, Altered Carbon. Powered by a no holds barred approach, the show hits every note for every flavor of sci-fi fan out there.
Whether you prefer Black Mirror over Sense8 or Star Trek over Star Wars, Altered Carbon melds the best of both of both worlds. That is, you’ll get a lot of hard sci-fi, space adventure, and speculative fiction. Regardless of which part of the sci-fi spectrum you fall under, you can find it in Altered Carbon. Which isn’t always a good thing, but we’ll get to that later.
Based off Richard K. Morgan’s eponymous novel, Altered Carbon explores the expendability of the body and the immortality of the soul. Set in the distant, distant future, humanity has invented a way to download a human’s consciousness into micro-discs called “stacks.” These discs can be implanted into any human body—or what the future calls “sleeves.” Everyone can have their sleeves replaced for a better, younger, older, or stronger one. With the technology, anyone can live up to 650 years old (called a “Meth,” short for Methuselah). If they have the money, of course.
Freedom fighter Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) wakes up from a 250-year enforced prison slumber in a new Caucasian sleeve. Without much time to acclimate to his new surroundings, he learns that Meth billionaire Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) revived him to solve a murder mystery—Bancroft’s own. Or rather, his former sleeve, which suffered an unusual death. Forced into the investigation, Kovacs must get through Bay City’s ruinous underbelly while unknown and deadly forces pounce on him from all sides.
As you might expect, Altered Carbon makes for a great neo-noir story. Kovacs’ gruffy detective plays into the stereotypical narrative of its subgenre. Even the all-business detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) fits handsomely into the rugged cop archetype. Need a bit of comic relief? Ironically, you’ve got that in Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner)—or rather, an AI that likes pretending to be Edgar Allan Poe. Altered Carbon introduces memorable characters filled with their own personalities and developments.
If it had its own subgenre, Altered Carbon might even be considered Blade-Runner-esque. Bay City’s gritty urbanity even plays like it was taken from Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles. Its criminal underground is dotted with genetically-engineered fight rings, ruthless assassins, and futuristic sex services. On the flip side, the city is punctuated by suit-wearing Meths who do nothing but party in orgiastic displays of violence and sex. The stark dichotomy presents two worlds ideologically terrorized by the technology of stacks and sleeves.
For the most part, Altered Carbon explores this schism in spectacular fashion. As every science fiction piece should, the series exposes the dangers of this technological dystopia while warning the present of its development. Most blatantly, it shows how the revolutionary technology of body expendability widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Often, even literally, as the poor are stuck on the ground while the rich soar in Jack and the Beanstalk-like structures above the clouds.
Further, a lot of other facets are explored thoroughly throughout the season—politics, law enforcement, sexuality, entertainment, health, and religion. It’s almost like Altered Carbon expanded a Black Mirror episode into a full-fledged series. The show adeptly develops philosophical dialogue through engaging narrative.
And it does this without being squeamish. Altered Carbon does not shy away from gory violence and sexual themes. Every episode is rife with blood, guts, and full-frontal nudity. Unlike most R-rated media out there today, however, its delicate imagery isn’t just to titillate the lustful or appease the bloodthirsty. It makes sex and violence so ubiquitous as to emphasize how bodies are just expendable and replaceable in this dystopian world.
Altered Carbon is disturbing in all its imagery. A fighting married couple duel each other to sleeve death every night to feed their kids. A deceased grandmother is resurrected in a new body every Day of the Dead to celebrate with her “surviving” family members. A high-class brothel caters to clientele that likes to kill prostitutes after every act. The series’ multitude of scenarios are harrowing to our safe and sound present.
However, despite all its grandeur, Altered Carbon still has a few speed bumps here and there, particularly at its first season’s conclusion. Without revealing spoilers, its plot diverges abruptly during the second half of episodes. Kovacs is torn away from his investigation to deal with a more personal plot, one which slowly develops throughout the first half through flashbacks and monologues. However, the diversion is too abrupt to enjoy. It certainly takes the viewer’s attention away from the first half’s more philosophical roots. It switches the show’s tone to that of a Star Wars space adventure.
That’s not to say that the season’s second major plotline leaves a bad taste. It’s still entertaining to watch. Also, it goes back to the previous point mentioned above—Altered Carbon plays for both sides of the sci-fi spectrum. Do you like Black Mirror? We’ve got images to shock you for days. Do you prefer an interplanetary adventure? Don’t mind the philosophy; just enjoy the story.
After the abrupt cancellation of Sense8, Altered Carbon makes for an amazing replacement as Netflix’s headliner for the sci-fi audience. It’s a nuanced execution in philosophy and narrative. Plus, it touts an unintentionally humorous Edgar Allan Poe with a machine gun.
Altered Carbon starts streaming tomorrow, February 2 on Netflix. All screencaps courtesy of Netflix.