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Altered Carbon (Season 1 Review)

April 26, 2018

Altered Carbon Netflix Title Card

It’s well-publicized at this point that Netflix expects around $8,000,000,000 (that’s 8 billion) of original content to debut in 2018, beefing up its library. Altered Carbon is arguably the current face of this expansion effort. The flashy and expensive-looking cyberpunk noir debuted in February. Altered Carbon offers a glimpse of what the future might hold, not only as sci-fi tends to do, but in terms of what Netlflix, as a full-fledged entertainment producer, has in store.

As a work of world-building centered around a top-shelf sci-fi concept, Altered Carbon delivers in spades. As is often the case with cyberpunk fare, Carbon leans heavily into the Blade Runner aesthetic—flush with neon-drenched and rain-soaked surfaces. Despite the all of the future-tech trappings, the world looks grungy and polluted, with the majority living in squalor while the wealthiest live on lush estates high above the ground.

Speaking of the elites, the world’s wealthiest form a god-like clique resembling the Greek gods atop Mount Olympus. Are they really gods? Well, that boils down to your definition, for what the fat cats lack in divinity, they make up for in functional immortality and the utter lack of accountability for their actions. Immortality has been achieved through human consciousnesses being digitized and imbued within a cortical stack, a piece of tech embedded in the vertebrae. With enough money, a person can pay to back-up their stack, allowing them to revert to their latest back-up in the event of their death. “Real Death,” or “RD” as the characters refer to it, is no longer a concept the super-rich are required to reckon with.

Joel Kinnaman Kovacs Altered Carbon

Immortality has even been liberated of the complications of physical aging, as the practice of re-sleeving has spawned an entire industrial complex. Just to be clear, “sleeve” is simply a PR-friendly term for the human body. Sleeves have become commodities that most individuals no longer have much claim to. Desirable sleeves can be cloned (allowing a person to remain in the same physical state forever); the adventurous can take new sleeves out for a spin; and unlucky souls can find themselves stuck in an unwanted sleeve until getting the rare opportunity to re-sleeve—either that, or RD.

The twin concepts of stacks and sleeves interact in a number of fascinating ways. Great distances, including interplanetary travel, can be spanned in no time by downloading and transmitting a stack. One can (illegally) upload his consciousness into multiple sleeves at once, a practice called double-sleeving. Stacks can be placed in disposable sleeves for extended VR interrogation and even torture. Police can spin-up a stack into a loaner sleeve allowing a murder victim to potentially identify his killer.

This complete divorce between body and soul creates a philosophical rift. Clearly, re-sleeving serves many practical purposes, not the least of which being the forestallment of real death for those who can afford it. Altered Carbon represents the other side of the debate through Bay City’s neo-Catholic population, who generally abhor the concept of re-sleeving and have their stacks coded as such, preventing them from being spun-up for police purposes. It’s presented in a way reminiscent of how some people sign DNRs (“Do Not Resuscitate” orders).

Head In The Clouds Altered Carbon

The show also lends the spotlight to an underground faction looking to sever humanity’s access to immortality. Separate from the religious objectors, these revolutionary types grapple with the ethics of even having immortality as an option. This, in turn, begs the question: can humanity ever be expected to revert to a previous level of technology? Today, there’s no chance we would revert to a time without, say… vaccines. Could we expect the the advanced citizenry of this show to ever revert to a time when their bodies weren’t disposable and their consciousnesses weren’t supported by cloud back-up? Juicy food for thought.

This is the world of Altered Carbon. Our point of entry into this world, is through Takeshi Kovacs, a former Envoy (essentially a super-soldier/ninja/Vulcan combo), who has been “on ice” (a stack imprisoned without a sleeve) for 250 years. Put on ice for past crimes, Kovacs’ skill set makes him the perfect investigator for the murder of the uber-rich Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). Kovacs is spun-up into the sleeve of Elias Ryker (Joel Kinnaman), a former rogue police officer, and offered the job in exchange for a pardon and untold wealth. Bancroft, murdered under mysterious circumstances, had a back-up in place, but the back-up was not timed properly for him to remember who killed him. Bancroft’s death was ostensibly by suicide, but he insists that’s not the case.

Kovacs comes into contact with Bancroft’s colorful family, a family stuck in a cycle of arrested development, you know… the kind that sets in when a patriarch lives centuries past his due date. He also meets Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), Ryker’s former lover and fellow officer; Poe, a sentient A.I. and hotelier (played, charmingly, by Chris Conner); and a host of other people either struggling or reveling in their day-to-day lives.

Martha Higareda Kristin Ortega Altered Carbon

The world-building is wonderful, and makes Altered Carbon the kind of show you can luxuriate in, and continue to ponder even after its run time has elapsed. If it has a core weakness, it’s that the story begins by plunging Kovacs into a noir-ish private investigator role only to leave the detective story on the back burner for a few episodes. Even with a few doughy mid-season installments, Carbon is buoyed by a number of strong episodes at the bookends that manage to continue expanding the world, adding new layers of mystery, and furthering the plot all at once. Contrary to other series that have suffered from “Netflix bloat,” it’s definitely not the case that Carbon lacked material for these middle episodes. With the hindsight that comes with having seen the whole season, it might be more a case of those episodes not focusing heavily enough on the story threads most relevant to the conclusion. That said, ten hour-long episodes feels just right for Carbon’s initial season.

Altered Carbon looks great. The production design is on par with some very expensive movies and shows, and are designed to the hilt. Carbon‘s roster of directors includes a few Game Of Thrones alumni (Miguel Sapochnik and Alex Graves), plus other veteran directors of shows including Doctor Who and Downtown Abbey.

The messiness of the cyberpunk environs was mentioned earlier, and it’s safe to say that the aesthetic seeped into the camera work, which generally eschews the serene cinematography and clean-line approach of most modern science fiction. The effect certainly works in the overcrowded streets of Bay City, but there were moments when a different approach might have allowed viewers to better appreciate some of some of the more gorgeously appointed sets the show has on offer.

The finale wrapped up Kovacs’ first season arc very cleanly. So cleanly actually, that one has to wonder what a second season would look life if we do indeed get one. Though Kovacs completed the job he was commissioned for, he ends the season bound to set off on a personal mission, to find the stack of his former flame and mentor, Quell (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Perhaps a second season would follow him down that path, or perhaps he will be leveraged into the vanity project of yet another magnate. Maybe (and there are rumors), a second season would follow an entirely new cast of characters in a new setting. The possibilities really are endless in a world where identity and appearance are so fluid.

Whatever the case, and even with good-not-great reviews, Altered Carbon feels like a giant success. Netflix is aggressively expanding its content offerings, and this is the kind of malleable sci-fi project with the promise of multiple seasons that seems destined to build a dedicated following. It’s the kind of flagship project that Netflix can hang its hat on, and with this month’s release of Lost In Space, perhaps Carbon makes for an important building block in Netflix’s quest to become a genre (sci-fi, fantasy, horror) powerhouse.

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